Back in January, I predicted that individual career moves would accelerate civic innovation by promoting collaboration across sectors. Of course, many of the largest problems facing the Bay Area – housing, transportation, urban sustainability – require a cross-sector approach to create lasting positive change. As 2016 winds down, this blog series will check in with members of the Bay Area civic ecosystem who have not only changed jobs in the last year, but also changed the sector in which they work. What does a former non-profit employee bring to a corporate role? What happens when a journalist joins the public sector? How do these shifting roles and perspectives affect the largest civic issues facing the Bay Area – and how might they create innovative solutions? Let’s find out:
— Jessica Weare
Nathan Donato-Weinstein spent 10 years covering local news, the last four Silicon Valley’s go-go real estate market. So it was quite a change when he announced he was switching over to join San Jose’s Office of Economic Development as a business development officer. “I loved digging into the big local business and development stories, but the city represented an irresistible chance to see things from a new angle and contribute in a different way,” he said.
What was your very first job?
I worked at a McDonald’s – inside of a Walmart: the turducken of retail. I was 16, and my motivation for taking the job was to earn enough money to buy a PalmPilot (I was that kid in high school) and support my obsolete-computer-collecting hobby. But I stayed for close to a year and to this day credit that experience with teaching me a ton about customer service and work ethic. (I’ve had hamburgers thrown at me for adding pickles; I can survive anything.) Still have a soft spot for the place, too.
What was your previous job?
At the Business Journal I covered real estate deals, trends and planning policy. Real estate is really the best beat in any business section because it touches on everything going on in a community. In the Valley, it also means you have to be conversant in tech, because everything flows out of tech.
What were your personal and professional goals there?
A couple of simple things. First, give readers actionable intelligence that they can’t get elsewhere, and which they can use to support their business. Second, enlighten the public on issues, policies, problems and solutions shaping the way we live and work. Third, provide some fun water-cooler chatter for people all over the region. The latter is that magical feeling of being plugged into what’s going on before it becomes common knowledge.
What were some of the challenges you faced in that role?
The big problem in Silicon Valley business news is that companies’ moves are so secretive. It’s just really hard to find out what’s happening. To get a good pipeline of intelligence, you need to put in a ton of time building relationships and establishing contacts that may or may not result in stories. It’s about building trust and genuine connections that aren’t purely transactional.
Why did you decide to change jobs?
In every city I covered, economic development departments were doing exciting stuff to improve lives for their citizens in really creative ways. Sometimes it’s about helping a business find a location in a city and provide job opportunities for residents. Sometimes it’s recruiting a developer to transform a blighted parking lot into a community-serving amenity. Or maybe it’s helping a company train workers for higher-level (and better-paying) jobs. That’s really powerful, and the chance to be a part of those efforts was totally compelling to me. I also wanted to see how cities (and various city departments) work from the inside.
Did you intentionally change sectors? What were your thoughts and feeling about changing sectors?
Working with a lot of public-sector sources helped me visualize myself working for a city, but it was definitely a big change and it took a while for me to get comfortable with the idea. What got me jazzed was that people inside City Hall are working on impacting big issues — not just our economic vitality, but also things like housing, homelessness and transportation. It’s stimulating just to be in that environment. I’ve already been inspired in a couple of weeks I’ve been here.
What is your current role, and what are your personal and professional goals now?
The Business Development team develops and maintains relationships with businesses — both existing companies and potential new arrivals. San Jose has a goal of beefing up its corporate roster, so we need to make sure we’re retaining our current crop, nurturing up and comers, and getting on the shopping list for those companies in the market. Of course, I would love to help recruit the next Google to San Jose, but at the moment my goal is to becoming fluent in the city’s development and permitting process and providing awesome customer service to brokers, developers and companies.
What are some of the challenges you face in this role?
For me personally, I didn’t come up inside government, so there’s a big learning curve in terms of understanding how the organization functions. Thankfully everyone’s been incredibly welcoming and willing to provide direction. In terms of corporate attraction, San Jose hasn’t always been top of mind. So part of the challenge is to position the city as a place companies should want to be and where you can attract amazing talent. The good news is that there’s a lot going for San Jose as it develops some really cool neighborhoods that can compete with anything on the Peninsula. And we’re one of the few places that’s quite welcoming of growth.
How does your previous work inform your current job?
As a business reporter, you’re constantly calling up companies and trying to get inside their thinking. And as a real estate writer more specifically, you’re working through why companies are making certain site selections, where developers are going and why, and how the competitive landscape is changing. It’s fundamentally about talking to people and connecting dots, and I think that’s the exact same thing that economic development is doing, too.
How has cross-sector collaboration influenced your field of work?
Economic Development is all about working across city departments and bringing in other cities and private industry to get stuff done. For instance, we have a manufacturing roundtable that meets regularly to discuss issues and involves Fremont and Morgan Hill, as well as private partners in the real estate sector and manufacturers themselves. And San Jose (like many cities) is leveraging its real estate to bring in developers that want to build great projects in top-notch spots while also producing a major community benefit, as with our Museum Place project. And our workforce development arm, Work2Future, does amazing work connecting private employers to training programs and can actually reimburse companies for on-the-job training.
In your previous role what did you identify as the biggest problem facing the Bay Area, and has your thinking changed in your new role?
The cost of housing is clearly a huge threat to our region’s competitiveness and also just a massive burden on our communities and stressor for families. And it’s not just a Bay Area problem. The market seems to be taking a breather from the crazy price hikes of the last four years, but another round of spikes is just not sustainable. The good news is that there seems to be a real will now to tackle the issue from multiple directions, including supply and finding funding for affordable housing.
What would be an alternate career choice?
I’ve always wanted to own a cafe — something like Cafe Stritch in San Jose’s SoFA district — that’s in a walkable neighborhood, is welcoming to all crowds, and a neighborhood institution. And because I’m a bit of a 90s fan, we’d do stuff like play Seinfeld reruns every Wednesday nights.
Nathan Donato-Weinstein is a business development officer for San Jose’s Office of Economic Development. The department leads the city’s economic strategy, provides assistance for business success, connects employers with trained workers, manages city real estate and supports the arts. San Jose’s business development team is tasked with engaging with companies, developers and brokers to facilitate opportunities for growth in San Jose. More info at sjeconomy.com.