Edgy Interview: Julie Meier Wright
Julie Meier Wright has been a tireless champion of San Diego since she moved to the city in 1996. During her 13-year tenure as President and CEO of the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation, Julie sold San Diego across the country and around the world. Perhaps just as important, she’s been an advocate for women taking strong roles in business and politics and serves as a mentor to many women. Julie is currently a Strategic Advisor at Collaborative Economics, a Senior Fellow with the US Council on Competitiveness and a Senior Fellow with the California Council on Science & Technology. As you can see from the following interview, she’s extremely thoughtful. As Jim Rome would say, “Julie has a take and it doesn’t suck.”
What advice do you have for young people starting out?
Do the risky things early when you have a chance to fail and recover; otherwise you may get too comfortable and tied down. Get a law degree – not because I think we need more lawyers but because I think the training can help navigate a complex world, especially in policy. Give back, even when you can only give a little. If you even think you want to run for office someday, get involved now with campaigns, issues and elected officials. Above all, always behave with integrity, even if it costs you in the short-term.
If you could go back in time, which former President would you like to chat with and what’s the topic?
I was privileged to meet a few, and got to know President Reagan a bit. He was a very smart man until Alzheimer’s disease robbed him of a well-deserved retirement. I would love to talk to him about today’s populism and partisan divisions and how he’d overcome them. What he’d think of Brexit given his close ties to Margaret Thatcher (who could be part of the conversation, as long as we’re wishing!). Like other San Diegans, I miss my good friend Herb Klein, Richard Nixon’s communications director in the early years of his presidency, often musing “What would Herb think?”
What’s the most important issue facing California, why, and what should be done about it?
You won’t be surprised, given the name of your company, but I believe the most important issue is competitiveness – something I’ve focused on since I took a special course at Harvard from the guru of competitiveness, Dr. Michael Porter, many years ago. Competitiveness is not a partisan issue, but it is California’s most serious issue because we compete for investment and jobs. Are our taxes and regulations competitive? Are our schools – K-12 and higher education – first rate? Is our housing affordable? How about energy costs? Do we attract enough research money? Do we incentivize innovation with policies and investment? Do we support startup companies? Objective benchmarking against competitor states and, increasingly, competitor nations, can inform responsible bipartisan policymaking, as it did in the ‘90s. PS – I think that withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and imposing tariffs will disproportionately hurt California.
There are lots of proposals for education reform. What would you change and why?
Education is absolutely key to removing the hopelessness so many in our country and elsewhere feel and it’s critical to building the workforce we need to remain globally competitive. I would get the undue influence of unions out of education, recognize and pay top teachers competitively to other professions without regard to seniority and allow experts in science and engineering to team teach or quickly get credentialed, emphasize early-childhood education (proven by many studies to have a huge lifetime ROI), ensure high-quality STEM education starting in elementary school, and revise our education policies away from “butts in seats” to enable digital education for a generation of digital natives. In higher education, California must reverse its declining investment in the UC and CSU systems; universities must be able to move more quickly to respond to the job needs of our regions’ innovation economies; and the federal government must stop the decline in funding of basic research, historically a driver of the nation’s global economic leadership. Finally, at the national level, I would create a mandatory two-year program of national service (including military and international humanitarian service) so our young people walk a mile in another’s shoes.
What was the last book you read? Give me a one sentence review.
I have probably read 200 books on my iPhone 6, so I always have books with me. The most recent – Out of My Lane. Leveling the Playing Field for Iraqi Women – was written by a dear friend of many years, Eileen Padberg, who spent nearly two years in Iraq building a program for Iraqi women to compete for US small-business contracts. My one-sentence review: Enjoy the fascinating adventure of an Orange County Republican political consultant, wearing 40 pounds of flak jacket and helmet, braving war, sandstorms, poor food, and bureaucratic barriers, to make a difference for Iraqi women – and in the process summing up what the US did well and poorly in our country’s longest war. (OK, it’s a long sentence!)
Who is your favorite artist — any medium – and why?
I love Asian art and, when I was California Secretary of Trade & Commerce, I was presented a stunning large sword painting of Mt. Fuji. Unlike most Japanese paintings, which are delicate, this painting was done with the bold strokes of a Samurai sword. I loved the painting, but state ethics laws prohibited me from accepting it. Over time, I lost the name of the artist. From time to time I search the internet for “sword painting” but all that I find are elaborately painted grips of Samurai swords themselves! So, if anyone out there knows who the artist might be, let me know!
Tell us about your own artistic talents.
Aspirational at best. As I kid, I loved to draw. I made paper dolls with a variety of fashionable outfits. I drew floor plans of interestingly shaped homes. I toyed with oil painting, took a few lessons. I made some beautiful clothing. Things fell by the wayside as I got busier and traveled more. My creative outlet is writing, which I love but haven’t been disciplined enough to do regularly.
Favorite sport and why?
I love gymnastics because of the stupendous accomplishments of a beautifully honed human body. And maybe because I was never that flexible even when I was a toddler! For me personally these days it’s a combination of cardio, balance, and weight training.
If you were a competitive eater, which food would be your specialty?
Sushi for sure! Given a choice, I always choose sushi and Japanese beer. San Diego has many fabulous sushi restaurants, such as Taka in the Gaslamp and Shimbashi in Del Mar. Lately, at home I have been experimenting with sous vide cooking, which is amazing!
Favorite alcoholic beverage in winter and summer?
Wine! Wine! Wine! And an occasional vodka and tonic if it’s real hot out.
What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received and who gave it to you?
Act with integrity in all you do. As a young adult, I saw my Dad, a consultant to a government contractor, take an important ethical stand; the person he called out ended up in prison for bribery. My Dad had been in the Senior Executive Service and was unwilling to risk damage to his own sterling reputation. Later, I worked for the most ethical politician I have ever known: Pete Wilson. You could disagree with his policy positions, but you would never question his integrity – or his incredible manners. Next advice: Find a mentor like Pete Wilson and hitch your star to that person, who is likely to become a treasured friend. And, finally, to the women out there: mentor a young woman on the way up, an invaluable gift in today’s fraught environment.
Most people say they got a lucky break at some point. Tell us about yours.
My lucky break was volunteering in Pete Wilson’s 1990 campaign, which quickly led to becoming the statewide head of his women’s coalition, ProWilson ‘90. Although I never planned to go to Sacramento, he asked me to be his Director of Commerce, and, after his Council on California Competitiveness made its report in early 1992 recommending a Cabinet-level Agency, he appointed me California’s first Secretary of Trade & Commerce, responsible for all the state’s domestic and international business, tourism and film programs. It was a fabulous job! And then, of course, I got the chance to come to beautiful San Diego to head the Economic Development Corporation until my retirement in 2011.
Who shaped your thinking most on politics?
Pete Wilson, because he was always the smartest person in the room and respected a wide array of input. But, also, my own life experience as a policy wonk. While I am a conservative, I am a very independent thinker and demand character, integrity, fact-based policy positions and leadership from those I choose to support. That’s non-negotiable.
If you could return to a place you’ve traveled, where would you go?
I am always up for a trip to Asia and, in fact, I’m shortly headed to Okinawa, where I’ve served as an advisor to the Okinawa Institute of Science & Technology. I love Hong Kong – an exciting city that I haven’t visited for over 15 years, when I traveled there as a guest of the Hong Kong government. And, on the other side of the world, Italy is on my bucket list and I’m headed there in October. [ed. If you’re into hiking, biking, or just looking at, beautiful mountains and valleys, you appreciate history and you find it cool to mix with a unique culture (the Ladin), then you must visit Italy’s Dolomite region]
Name a living person you admire. Why do you admire them?
I am going to take a little license and name three, whom I’m privileged to know: former Secretary of State George Shultz, Rancho La Puerta founder Deborah Szekely, and civic icon Malin Burnham. What do they all have in common? In their 90s, they’re as engaged as they have ever been, launching new endeavors and trying to solve sometimes intransigent problems with a lifetime of wisdom, often shaming us with their energy and commitment. They are role models for us all.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I might be a bigger risk-taker. I’m working with a friend on a big-data startup and it makes me wish I had acted on one of many ideas I have had over the years but never had the nerve to give up a full-time job to pursue.