USC Students help San Bernadino Plans, Win $5,000 In Sunstone Economic Development Challenge

LOS ANGELES — A multi-pronged approach to reinvigorating San Bernardino and its business community won four USC graduate students $5,000 on Thursday, April 11, at the Sunstone Economic Development Challenge @ USC Price. 

Five teams of graduate students in the University of Southern California Sol Price School of Public Policy presented proposals to help municipalities they have worked with over the last four months for new economic development plans focused on innovation and entrepreneurship. A panel of judges questioned each team, then deliberated before crowning Giselle Melendez-Cruz, Melissa Morfin-Acevedo, Adriana Morales and Manny Munoz with the first place prize. 

“We’re thrilled to highlight San Bernardino as the Inland Empire’s hidden gem,” Adriana Morales said, speaking for the team. “Our vision for the San Bernardino community was to offer a pathway to social mobility and growth through entrepreneurship. It was truly a pleasure working with City staff and key stakeholders to plant a seed of entrepreneurship for a thriving economic ecosystem.”  

Sunstone Management CEO John Keisler used the occasion to announce formation of Sunstone Cities, LLC. The affiliate company will be available for consulting with cities to develop economic development approaches and more. Sunstone Cities is already working with Anaheim and Lakewood on economic development plans, and Keisler said the company is capable of working with more municipalities. 

This is the second year for the Sunstone Economic Development Challenge @ USC Price, supported by Sunstone Management through a grant from the Sunstone Community Fund. The USC City/County Management Fellowship (CMF) oversees and cosponsors the program. In addition to San Bernardino, the cities of Pasadena, Lomita, Torrance, and Culver City participated this year. 

Keisler, who is the former Economic Development Director for the City of Long Beach and a USC graduate as well as the CMF treasurer, opened the day at the USC Hotel exhorting the 100-plus people attending to “be a Sunstone.” He explained how sunstones once were used as guides for Norse sailors and symbolized the positive energy of the sun. Then he urged the students to continue working across sectors to improve communities. 

“Public-private-educational partnerships are key to moving ahead, particularly in economic development,” he said. “Making those connections will help you succeed.” 

Before the pitches began, the crowd heard from Dan O’Brien, Culver City’s vice mayor, and Steve Madison, Pasadena’s vice mayor. Dan O’Brien stressed that city staff – where most graduate students typically start careers – is what makes things happen. Having innovative, creative ideas is important, but it also is important that you can present your ideas well – just like the pitches the teams have prepared. 

Steve Madison offered the elected officials’ side of working with staff members. Communication and collaboration with the community are keys to good municipal governance, he added. 

Judges for the pitch competition were Armine Chaparyan, City of South Pasadena city manager, Jennifer Quan, regional public affairs manager of the League of California Cities,and Deepak Bahl, program director of the USC Center for Economic Development. Their questions ranged from how the teams conducted their research to why particular recommendations made sense for specific municipalities. 

Team San Bernardino offered a comprehensive presentation with a five-pronged set of recommendations. They are: 

  • Create a workforce development program. 
  • Establish a business academy to prepare startups. 
  • Revamp city marketing and outreach. 
  • Enhance the Sister City program. 
  • Launch an incubator space. 

Darrell George, board chair of CMF and El Segundo city manager, presented the awards, which included the Tang Award to Justin Englund, a member of the Lomita team. 

“This event is a model of public private educational partnerships,” he said. “Many cities are interested in participating. The goal of the fellowship is to help any way we can, to assist and create future leaders in local government, advance and connect academics to the real world and promote partnerships. 

“We look forward to next year’s challenge.” 

After the event, officials from some of the partner cities made some observations. 

“It was a pleasure and privilege to participate in the Sunstone Economic Development Challenge @ USC,” said Teresa Garcia, Senior Project Manager for Pasadena. “Our dedicated student team pitched great recommendations for reinvigorating collaboration with our tech and startup community to ensure Pasadena businesses grow and thrive within our city. Opportunities like this that build partnerships across higher education, government and the private sector are so valuable to our work.”  

Other city officials were enthusiastic about the process as well. 

“My team was amazing and I hope they enjoyed the project (they seemed to!),” emailed Brianna Rindge, Director of Community & Economic Development for the City of Lomita. “I also intend to implement some of the recommendations, which will be determined once the proposal is presented to City Council in the next month.” 

Torrance’s Economic Development Manager Fran Fulton said the challenge gave her city team a different way to look at the city. 

“The Sunstone Challenge was a unique experience,” she said in an email. “The students are very bright and innovative. They gave us a different perspective in ways to address the concerns of an aging population.  

“With competing priorities for the Torrance community, it might be a while for us to look at ways we could implement the suggestions from our student team, however we do welcome them to come and intern with the City of Torrance if there is an opportunity.” 

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More About Sunstone Management 
Sunstone Management is a diversified private capital sponsor firm headquartered in Southern California. Identified by Financial Times as one of America’s Fastest Growing Companies three years in a row. In the latest Pitchbook rankings, Sunstone Management was #15 in the third quarter of 2023 nationally, and #18 in the fourth quarter.1 

  1. Rankings from Pitchbook Venture Monitor, Q3 and Q4. 


Jennifer Huang
Sunstone Management
(562) 732-0617

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