Sunstone Management logoAn event Friday, Feb. 23, brought together for the first time graduate student teams in the 2nd  Annual Sunstone Economic Development Challenge @ USC Price and officials from the five cities they will work with through this spring to develop innovative economic development plans for their cities.

The gathering at Sunstone Management, Inc.’s Irvine headquarters attracted about 35 people – graduate students from the University of Southern California Sol Price School of Public Policy and economic development officials from Culver City, Lomita, Pasadena, San Bernardino and Torrance. The competition is overseen by the USC City/County Management Fellowship (CMF) and Sunstone, which also provides a $5,000 prize to the student team with the best presentation at the end of the Challenge.

This is the second year of the Sunstone Economic Development Challenge @ USC Price. Teams of students work with officials of their designated city to put together an economic development approach, ideally one supporting innovation and entrepreneurship.

“We’re here to build and grow strong leaders,” Darrell George, board chair of CMF and El Segundo city manager, said Friday. “Hopefully, you’ll get into local government!”

El Segundo was one of the four cities that participated in the first Challenge.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for students to face real world challenges,” George added. “And it is a chance for cities who participate in the program to hear from people looking with fresh eyes. That’s a real benefit.”

Sunstone CEO and Managing Partner John Keisler created the Challenge to connect public, private and education sector partners to identify innovative economic development solutions. He is a USC Price School graduate and was the Economic Development Director for Long Beach before joining the private capital investment management firm Sunstone.

“Cities survive and thrive on property tax, sales tax and more,” he told the group Friday. “That’s all because of economic development – that’s what makes the tax base grow. Police, firefighters, streets – that all is paid for through economic development.”

Ryan Phong, Sunstone’s Research & Management Analyst, is the Challenge’s program advisor. He introduced officials from the 2024 cities for a few words about why they wanted to be a part of the Challenge.

Elizabeth Garcia of Culver City said that her municipality is in a unique location between Santa Monica and Los Angeles and has embarked on a new planning process.

“We’re in a stage where we need to think about innovation,” Garcia said. “That’s what really interested me in the Challenge.”

Officials from other cities said they also were looking to take the next step in economic development planning, with each taking a different approach. For example, San Bernardino opened a downtown entrepreneurial resource center last November, and wants to find ways to take advantage of it.

“We’ve done a lot of work with USC students,” Fran Fulton of Torrance said. “We’ve seen a lot of evolution with the programs.

“We’re looking now at how to bring foreign investment into our city,” she added. “We want to know how to connect with those businesses in a public-private partnership.”

Student teams now will meet with their assigned cities directly and begin working on a specific economic development plan. Presentations and judging will take place at the USC CMF Summit & Sunstone Challenge Final Pitch Event from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursday, April 11, at the USC Hotel in Los Angeles. Email Ryan Phong if you would like to attend or support this culminating event. To attend the event, go to

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About Sunstone Management  

Sunstone Management is a diversified private capital management firm with headquarters in Southern California that provides a range of early-stage venture capital, real estate, and fixed income funds to qualified and accredited investors. The firm delivers new and exciting options for economic growth through innovative public-private partnerships, making use of its 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. In the second quarter of 2023, PitchBook ranked Sunstone the seventh most active early-stage venture capital firm in the country, and 18th overall. 

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