Ashley Swearengin is the former mayor of Fresno, CA and a member of the Shift Commission. Until this month, she had been Mayor since 2008 and has dedicated nearly her entire professional career to improving Fresno and the San Joaquin Valley. She focuses on building coalitions of experienced and capable experts to solve problems in honest and thoughtful ways. The interview was recorded before she left office.
In the interview that follows she talks about how technology is shaping communities and changing society, and how quickly it is all happening. She feels this is a national conversation that is taking place not only among think tanks and academics, but local leaders as well.
Jack: Okay, awesome. Why don’t you tell me who you are, and why you’re here?
Ashley: I’m Ashley Swearengin. I’m just finishing my 8th year as mayor. Prior to serving as mayor, I did about 12 years in community and economic development, so dealing with issues of workforce development, and business creation, and job creation, and filling jobs that are available has really been my main professional focus.
From a main street perspective, I think Uber is the thing that most Americans can relate to. I remember just a couple of years ago we finally started receiving Uber X services in Fresno, and so now we’re seeing this amazing platform which was only available for a time in these large cities that maybe not everybody would travel to and really understand the impacts of? It’s the Uber effect, which is really just a shorthand way of saying the advances in technology, the availability of technology, seeing the way that is so dramatically and so rapidly shaping society and culture and work, is what I think brings us to this conversation today.
Jack: How do you see technology shaping some of the industries in and around Fresno? What effects has it had, and what effects are your constituents telling you that they’re concerned about?
Ashley: There’s good and bad, of course. On the one hand, in the last few years, we’ve seen the start up of at least 5 or 6 dozen tech companies that are finding each other in Fresno and really shaping a new tech scene. All of this is private sector driven and wouldn’t have been possible even just a decade ago. On the other side, we have a lot of companies that have failed to really embrace technology and that are getting left behind. Really, with the expansion of IT and with just the way in which technology is changing society, things are becoming dramatic very quickly. Either they’re dramatically good for you and your business, or if you’re not keeping up, then the consequences are quite dramatic and negative.
Jack: Do you think these shifts are going to continue? Are you seeing any policy decisions that can be made at the federal, state, or local level to help deal with some of it?
Ashley: I think where we are today and when I consider even maybe this conversation, what it would have been like 3 years ago or 5 years ago, I think the volume is so much louder. I think that this is now a national conversation that really is in the minds of not just think tank leaders and academics, but it’s really getting down to the level of local leaders. People at the city level now are ready to engage in a federal policy discussion, a statewide policy discussion on how we prepare our civic institutions to support the proliferation of technology and opportunity, but to do so in a manner that doesn’t mean more disparity that actually tries to close the gaps that we see growing today.
Jack: Are there any specific policies that you’ve pushed for in Fresno, or any schemes that you’ve piloted, or are trying out there, that you’ve found to be effective?
Ashley: I would say in Fresno we are still very much focused on some things that are basic. Really at the city level it’s the perspective that you can really think about things at an individual level. There are 550,000 people in my city. It’s not 300,000,000 Americans. I can actually think about neighborhood level solutions, and neighborhood level interventions. I think about things like the Fresno Bridge Academy, which is this really innovative non-profit that takes in federal resources that are currently available and, with food stamps and other benefit programs, uses them in a more productive way to help people get skill upgrades, work with entire families not just individual recipients, and really deal with holistic issues in a person’s life that has led to them being unemployed and in need of assistance right now.
We’re seeing a lot of those sort of innovations within the governmental and the civic arena. I would say another major focus for Fresno for the last 20 years has been really driven from the civic sector and the educational sector. We have forced a conversation about entrepreneurship and really raised a generation to see that they’re going to be entrepreneurs, whether that means they ever go out and start their own business is not really the point. Doing entrepreneurship education at the 5th grade level, the 6th grade level, high school, college, graduate level has really put us in a position as a community to raise up a generation of self-starters, people who know how to take risks, calculated risk, who can integrate things well in order to create value. Whether they’re doing that for their own business, they’re doing that for a governmental employer, or for a major corporate employer really doesn’t matter. We want to train up a generation of people who are prepared to be successful in a dynamic community.
Jack: If we were to get in a time machine and go back, not just for 8 years you’ve been mayor but for 12 years before that where you were working in local organizations, and brought you here today, what would you have been surprised by and what trends would you find really sort of shocking perhaps?
Ashley: Just from our communities perspective, 20 years ago was when we started this focus on entrepreneurship. It was still very new. We started with a non-profit business incubator. We started with a couple of entrepreneurship classes being taught at the university level. Our belief at the time was that no matter what, entrepreneurship is going to only increase in its importance. A few of us got together and really started pushing these sorts of programs. Fast forward to where we are today and we see 2 or 3 for-profit private incubators, a couple of non-profit incubators, we see my 5th grade son come home from school last year with an entrepreneurship packet in his backpack that was teaching him how to write a business plan, we go to luncheons where I’m seeing college students who are launching their own businesses before they graduate from college, and we see major trade shows held in our city and our region, where the successful New Product and Innovation Award winners are college students who are launching businesses. I think myself 20 years ago would be very happy to know that these sorts of things would be happening in Fresno today.
Jack: Would there have been anything that you would have thought would have begun happening in Fresno that maybe hasn’t yet, or begun happening in America that hasn’t yet?
Ashley: I think a big struggle for cities like Fresno, maybe that mid-tier kinds of city, is we still struggle with access to capital and risk capital that can really support the acceleration of these sorts of new ventures. It is amazing to me how much risk capital still is concentrated in a very few places in the world. It really baffles my mind that one of those places is the San Francisco Bay Area and the Silicon Valley, which is quite literally less than a three hour drive away from my city. You would think that I’m on the other side of the planet, because that capital is so focused on literally what it can throw a stone at just within a neighborhood sort of radius. The fact that we still see so much inefficiency in the private risk capital world is baffling to me.