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In 2021, the stars aligned for San Diego. The city finally shed its “small town” image to become a bona fide global hotbed of innovation, entrepreneurial energy and business leadership.
San Diego’s world-class transformation has been driven by the vision and accomplishments of the leaders profiled in this year’s edition of the SD500. From civic and lifestyle champions to pioneers in blue tech, biotech, high tech, life sciences, real estate and finance, the San Diego Business Journal’s SD500 are the human capital powering the region’s unparalleled prosperity.
This year’s edition features a host of newcomers as well as business community leaders who’ve been SD500 mainstays for more than a decade. With diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) emerging as a major theme in 2021, women and persons of color, including people of all ages, ethnicities and sexual orientations also are well represented on this year’s list.
To compile the 2021 SD500, the Business Journal tapped its staff and professional networks, grouping members by general categories or vertical markets, beginning with the region’s civic leaders.
CIVIC & ASSOCIATIONS
As the COVID-19 pandemic stretched into year two, forcing many businesses and nonprofit organizations to continuously retool operations, civic leaders across the region doubled their efforts to take care of the region’s most vulnerable populations. From Gib Bosworth at the Gary Sinese Foundation to Tamara Craver at Reality Changers and Nancy Sasaki at the United Way of San Diego, the city’s increasingly crucial social service support network stepped up its game in 2021.
With businesses still impacted by COVID-19, Donna DeBerry, president and CEO of the Central San Diego Black Chamber of Commerce put COVID relief funds into the hands of Black business owners. At Father Joe’s Villages, the area’s largest homeless-services provider, Jim Vargas, also known as the “Deacon of Hope,” inspired his staff of 400 in their service to the area’s least fortunate during a year of record need.
In 2021, San Diego’s schools and institutions of higher education also had to operate amid the unprecedented pandemic. While many students returned to the classroom in the fall, hybrid schedules and alternative, more online-based learning models became the new normal.
At the Mira Costa Community College District, the pandemic did not stop President Sunita “Sunny” Cooke from implementing new degrees and certificates, including a first-ever biomanufacturing bachelor’s degree.
At San Diego State University, Dr. Adela de la Torre, the university’s first woman and first Latina president, expanded the campus through SDSU Mission Valley and launched a new 5-year strategic plan.
And at UCSD, Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla launched his own ambitious 10-year, $2 billion strategic plan aimed at transforming the university.
Members of this year’s SD 500 list include dozens of prominent individuals working, often behind the scenes, in the city’s bustling financial sector.
Allison Long Pettine provides seed capital to early-stage startups. She’s also a founding partner in Ad Astra Ventures, which provides venture capital to female founders.
Kim Folsom, who runs Founders First Capital Partners, is a “social” entrepreneur dedicated to addressing disparities in revenue and job growth among businesses led by underrepresented founders.
HEALTH & SCIENCES
The health and sciences community has become the backbone of San Diego’s booming economy, as startups and established blue chip companies alike continue to expand their presence and operations in the region.
Ayub Khattak, the driving force behind Cue Health, took his company public in 2021. Cue’s COVID-19 Test Kit provides highly accurate, lab-quality results directly to connected mobile smart devices in about 20 minutes.
At La Jolla’s prestigious Scripps Research Institute, Dr. Ardem Patapoutian, a molecular biologist and neuroscientist, just won the Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine for his work in sensory biology and how people sense heat, cold, pain, touch and sound.
San Diego has become a global hub of innovation, in 2021 raising $5.2 billion in venture capital funding, more than any other city in the U.S., including Boston and San Francisco.
Mike Krenn at Connect San Diego, Rory Moore at EvoNexus and Neal Bloom at Rising Tide Partners are helping to lead San Diego’s vibrant startup community, mentoring young tech entrepreneurs while laying the groundwork for the next generation of companies like Qualcomm and Illumina.
In 2021, Neal Manowitz was named president and chief operating officer at Sony Electronics North America, which is headquartered in Rancho Bernardo. Manowitz replaced longtime president Mike Fasulo, who retired in April.
Chip Brewer, CEO at Callaway Golf, has capitalized on golf’s meteoric growth during the pandemic. Callaway, which just reported record earnings, has diversified its business into leisure apparel lines and its recent acquisition of Topgolf, which is rumored to be coming to San Diego’s Harbor Island, has already paid big dividends for the Carlsbad-based company.
Joe Kudla, a newcomer to this year’s list, is the founder of Vuori, which opened its first store in Encinitas in 2016 and now operates nearly a dozen retail stores around the country. A former model for Dolce & Gabbana and CPA at Ernst & Young, Kudla recently received a $400 million investment from SoftBank and plans to open 100 new U.S locations over the next five years.
Martha Gilmer, CEO of the San Diego Symphony, made an impact in the region’s arts and cultural scene. She partnered with the Port of San Diego to develop the symphony’s first permanent outdoor venue, The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park, along with integral improvements and upgrades to Embarcadero Marina Park South, while overseeing the fundraising campaign that secured 99 percent of the project cost from private sources.
The attorneys, certified public accountants, financial planners and others in the professional services category helped their clients navigate the new normal in 2021. Juanita R. Brooks at Fish & Richardson is a nationally recognized trial and appellate attorney who focuses on complex intellectual property and product liability cases. Colleagues call her a “jury whisperer.” Steve Strauss, a passionate advocate for his clients at Cooley, has never lost a jury trial. His incomparable winning record has resulted in trial verdicts and settlements in excess of $10 billion.
In the ever-evolving online universe, Michael Cox, CEO and publisher of Black San Diego magazine, provides a platform for Black-owned startups and medium-sized companies to build their online presence.
In 1977 with just a few thousand dollars, Jim Mumford opened Good Earth Plant & Flower Company, a flower “bucket stand” in downtown San Diego. Today, Mumford is a green building visionary and leader in “biophilic” design elements likes green roofs and living walls.
Martha Mosier, the top executive for Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices California Properties, is passionate about issues like diversity, equity and inclusion and serves as a founding member of The I.M.P.A.C.T. Council as well as the secretary of The Charitable Foundation.
Carrie Bobb launched a positively disruptive retail brokerage firm and a social media company that leverages social media platforms for retail properties. She’s completed transactions worth more than $2 billion.
Marcela Escobar-Eck, who founded Atlantis Group in 2007, oversees the “go-to” land use and planning firm in San Diego. Atlantis has notched major successes on complex projects such as the once-controversial One Paseo in Carmel Valley and the recently approved Trails at Carmel Mountain Ranch project.
In 2021, Cristiano Amon took the helm at Qualcomm, San Diego’s largest public company, and hit the ground running, helping guide the world’s 5G chip leader to a more diversified business strategy that includes expansion into the autonomous vehicle and IoT (Internet of Things) sectors. Meanwhile, the company’s stock hit an all-time high in November.
Chris Anthony and Steve Fambro, co-founders and co-CEOs at Aptera Motors, head an ambitious San Diego startup that plans to start mass producing three-wheeled solar-powered electric vehicles in 2022.
Scot Chisolm’s online fundraising platform Classy enables nonprofits to connect supporters with the causes they care about. To date, Classy’s platform has helped raise over $3.5 billion.
Since launching in 2015, Oren Zaslansky has grown his Encinitas-based firm into one of the area’s fastest-growing privately held companies — and one of San Diego’s newest “unicorns.” Flock Freight’s proprietary software allows shippers to pool less-than-full loads to maximize available space on trucks while also eliminating tons of carbon dioxide emissions from the atmosphere.