Sunstone Management logoA new approach to creative economic development will be on display Thursday, April 27, when participants in the Sunstone Economic Development Challenge @ USC Price will present their plans.

Students in the University of Southern California Sol Price School of Public Policy, primarily master’s candidates, have partnered with economic development leaders in four cities – Long Beach, Irvine, El Segundo and Garden Grove – to explore strategies to support and grow early-stage technology startups and create jobs in various sectors. The five student teams will present their pitch decks Thursday to a panel of expert judges, competing for a $5,000 prize provided by Sunstone Management through the Sunstone Community Fund.

This is the first year of a five-year agreement between the school and Sunstone. Sunstone also is providing mentorship, guidance and facilitation for the challenge. The agreement’s value totals $162,500. The USC City/County Management Fellowship (CMF) also is participating in the partnership.

The April 27 event is free and open to the public. It runs from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the USC Hotel Grand Ballroom (2nd floor). To register, go to

There will be plenty of information to consider. Graduate public administration students have had the chance to take classroom theories to professionals working in the field to strategize and seek new solutions in a formal setting.

“I am thrilled to see the launch of the first-ever Sunstone Economic Development Challenge @ USC Price. Our city is a thriving startup hub, home to high-tech jobs and a culture that fosters innovation,” said Irvine Mayor Farrah N. Khan. “Supporting early-stage technology startups is critical to driving economic growth and creating job opportunities while developing strategies that are forward-looking, feasible and inclusive. I look forward to seeing the innovative strategies and solutions that will be generated through this program to benefit not only the City of Irvine but communities nationwide.”

USC students were excited at the prospect as well. Ryan Phong, an economic development fellow at Sunstone Management and a USC Master of Public Administration student himself, was charged with facilitating the program.

“When we announced the program in January, we had more than 50 students sign up,” Phong said. “We could only take 25 because we had capacity for five teams. And 80 percent were graduate students.”

Phong coordinated two speaker sessions for the teams with experts including Michelle Stephens from CALED (California Association for Economic Development), Scott Rogalski of the Northern California Small Business Development Center, Long Beach Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Lucius Martin, and USC Price Professor Bill Leach, offering insights in areas including resources at the Small Business Development Center, examples of how other local governments have worked toward economic development, how public-private partnerships work and more. Students met with city officials almost every week beginning in late February to make sure potential initiatives were both feasible and worthwhile. 

The criteria judges will use to rank the teams point to the goal of real positive change in the cities. There are five categories:

  • Business Attraction – Successful strategies would result in significant business growth and job creation.
  • Capital Access -Plans should include ways to attract significant private sector capital investment in the future.
  • Technical Assistance – Creative and effective public-private partnerships should result in significant technical assistance and support for businesses and job seekers.
  • University Partnerships – Show how partnering with universities and colleges will result in significant business retention and job creation, such as workforce development programs.
  • Social Impact – Positive changes in the areas of DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion) and ESG (environmental, social, governance) are community and governmental goals and should be enhanced by the strategies.

This government-education-private business partnership has been a key for Sunstone Management since the beginning. Sunstone CEO John Keisler, a USC MPA graduate himself, has helped foster partnerships with the California State University and University of California systems. He said the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy was the perfect partner to bring municipal governments into the mix.

“The USC Price School is one of the oldest and strongest public sector training programs in the nation dedicated to shaping the future of local government leadership,” Keisler said. “Sunstone Management is proud to partner with universities like USC to identify innovative economic development strategies for cities through programs like the Sunstone Economic Development Challenge @ USC Price.”

“The leaders of these cities participating in the challenge are truly focused on creating new businesses and jobs for the betterment of their citizens,” Keisler added. “We thank them for joining us in this project and can’t wait to see the innovative plans they are developing with the USC students.”

While the 2023 Challenge will end with the pitch competition on April 27, the program and the partnerships created will continue going forward. For information about how to participate next year, reach out to Ryan Phong at or Sunstone’s Director of Economic Development, Eric Romero, at

The event registration link is Sign up soon.

About Sunstone Management

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Sunstone Management is a diversified private capital sponsor firm located in Southern California that invests in diverse early-stage technology entrepreneurs who seek to build great companies. We believe in the aspirational power of the American economy to attract and inspire investors and entrepreneurs from throughout the world. We deliver new and exciting opportunities for economic growth through the creation of innovative public-private partnerships, and our unique experience across government, education, and private sectors. Identified by Financial Times as one of America’s Fastest Growing Companies three years in a row.

About Sunstone Community Fund

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The Sunstone Community Fund is a Donor Advised Fund managed by the National Philanthropic Trust. It is an important component of Sunstone Management’s vision to advance public-benefit programs that support the development of inclusive and vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystems. The SCF supports a network of universities, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies that develop and implement university-based entrepreneurship programs, early-stage tech accelerators and advance local economic development through inclusive entrepreneurship and innovation.