(Editor’s note: Following are the opening remarks delivered to the Feb. 6 Sonoma State University Economic Outlook conference by William Silver, the dean of the SSU School of Business and Economics.)

This community inspires me.

I came here eight months ago because I saw great potential in the North Bay business community. The current economic climate does not dampen this assessment. Rather, it reaffirms it.

Why am I inspired?

I am inspired by the caliber and the quality of the business leaders that work and live here.

These are difficult times. There is no mistaking the seriousness of the economic challenges that we face. But instead of wallowing in despair and defeat, I see a community rallying to find solutions. I see people rising to the occasion. Look through the eyes of someone recently arrived to the North Bay, and allow me to share with you what I have seen.

A couple of months ago I attended the fall planning meeting for the board of directors of the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce. As the board discussed the goals and objectives for the coming year, it would have been easy to blame the economy for an expected revenue shortfall and focus the conversation on which services to cut. Instead, under the leadership of Mari Featherstone and Sue Nelson, the board reaffirmed its mission to be the leading organization dedicated to the success of business.

The conversation focused on the fact that this was the time when the business community is most in need of the services and programs of the chamber. And so the board voted to invest in programs such as the Entrepreneurial Pathways (helping startup and growth businesses succeed and create jobs), the Algebra Academy (building a skilled work force by helping English language learners) and the Young Professionals Network (focused on engaging the emerging business leaders of this community).

Whereas other communities have adopted a “death-spiral” plan where cuts in services lead to revenue loss which leads to further cuts in services which lead to further losses, we have an investment plan.

Three weeks ago North Bay Leadership Council CEO Cynthia Murray, PG&E’s Randy DiCaminada and Ben Stone of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board hosted a diverse group of community leaders to discuss the recommendations from the Innovation Council. The council’s economic strategic plan takes aim at advancing all facets of the regional economy through public-private collaboration in the areas of work force education, energy efficiency and economic development.

Thus we have a road map for the innovation needed for the region to be globally competitive in the years ahead. What is remarkable about this effort is that it was not launched in response to the current set of economic challenges, but in anticipation of them. Whereas other communities are scrambling to figure out what to do, we have a plan that is being put into action.

Last Thursday, I went to hear a talk at the Sonoma Mountain Business Cluster on sustainability as a driver for innovation. Led by cluster leader Michael Newell and Codding Enterprises’ Brad Baker, the SMBC is another regional effort designed to stimulate economic development. As a nonprofit business incubator, the SMBC provides infrastructure, training, management assistance, financial resources and support networks that enable new and emerging companies to succeed, creating value-added jobs for the local region through the commercialization of technology.

Whereas other communities have stopped the flow of funds to startups, we are reinvigorating the region’s technology industry making it a recognized center for sustainable resources and socially relevant technologies.

Every day I come to work for the School of Business and Economics at SSU and am inspired by the faculty, staff and students. Long before I arrived, faculty such as Rob Eyler, Armand Gilinsky, Robert Girling have been in the community working with local businesses. You may have heard that higher education in California is yet another victim of the state’s budget shortfall. But you will not hear us playing the victim role.

Our mission is to be a catalyst for the growth and development of business in the North Bay region. We are the educator of its business leaders and professionals, offering solutions for challenges and tools for opportunities. To do so, we must be able to put into practice for ourselves the very recommendations we give to our students. Gone is the ivory tower where we could hide from reality and merely think deep thoughts.

What advice do we offer to businesses today? What are we doing ourselves to succeed in this economic climate?

Like any business, we have been trimming expenses that have grown during the years of expansion. But the key discipline in cost control is to cut expenses strategically rather than to engage in across-the-board percentage cuts. The question to ask is not how much should each activity get, but rather what activities can be fully funded, and what activities can’t be funded at all? Effective businesses will sequence their activities, focus on the critical few initiatives that must get done and execute to make them happen.

A second key strategy for this climate is to invest in innovation, training and R&D so that you are ready for the new business climate that will emerge when the economic pendulum swings back. At the School of Business and Economics, we are investing in our future and the future of the North Bay region. We are launching new programs and innovating in our teaching.

For example, we are building the curriculum for a new Executive MBA program focused on North Bay businesses and industries. We are running a Tasting Room Management Certificate and two Wine Entrepreneurship Seminars through our Wine Business Program. We are exploring new teaching methods in accounting to better connect us to the regional firms and the clients they serve. And perhaps most significant for this climate, we are placing more resources into our new Center for Advising and Placement so that we can expand our career services for students and for businesses.

The School of Business and Economics at SSU, the Sonoma Mountain Business Cluster, the Innovation Council, the local chambers of commerce and most importantly, the leaders and people who drive each of these organizations’ activities – this is just a short list of the many great enterprises that support the business community in the North Bay. I am not daunted by the challenges this economy brings. I am inspired. Bring it on. The North Bay business community is ready.


William S. Silver, Ph.D., is the dean of the School of Business and Economics at Sonoma State University. He can be reached at 707-664-2220 or william.silver@sonoma.edu.