Head of the Class


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(page 1 of 3)

Don Clark doesn’t recognize Irwin Jacobs’ name. “Should I?” he asks.

Well, Jacobs is chairman of the board and chief executive officer of Qualcomm, the $34 billion digital wireless communications company in San Diego. You know, the Q, as in Qualcomm Stadium.

“Oh, okay,” says Clark, the owner of Extreme Motorsports in Kearny Mesa. Clark is an auto mechanic, but that’s like saying Jacobs works for a phone company. Clark customizes Porsches and other exotic cars. Tony Gwynn is one of his high-end customers.

Clark may not know Jacobs, but he’d recognize some of the Porsches in the Qualcomm parking lot. “I do repair cars for people who worked for Qualcomm for a while and did well with their stock,” Clark says.

Qualcomm stock, turbocharged in the tech boom a few years back, paid for a lot of things. If you didn’t have any Qualcomm, you probably know someone who did. And you wish you knew them a lot better.

The story of Don Clark, Irwin Jacobs and the stock that connects them is the story of economics, going all the way back to Adam Smith and The Wealth of Nations. Remember him from history class? Smith was that revolutionary dude (try writing that in your term paper) who described how Clark, Jacobs and the rest of us pursue our individual career interests to make the overall economy work.

But Smith’s book is 227 years old. Somebody needed to write a new one to describe an American economy Smith wouldn’t recognize. Somebody needed to explain why some U.S. cities are moving forward, while others are falling behind.

Somebody needed to compare San Diego and Buffalo.

Last year, a university professor named Richard Florida published an index to rank 49 major U.S. cities and their corresponding regions. Florida uses some catchy t-words—talent, tolerance and technology—to describe the necessary ingredients to score well on the index.

But that’s not the way they’d say it in San Diego’s coastal communities. Hey, bro, it’s about cool stuff, along with cool people. Almost everyone in San Diego, wearing flip-flops or not, knows where to find something cool.

Florida found plenty of cool on his own around here. He ranks San Diego third in his creativity index, behind San Francisco and Austin. Buffalo is 46th, behind Grand Rapids and Louisville.

San Diego is more creative than Buffalo. That’s a shock. But the elites in San Diego are paying a lot of attention to Florida, because they want to stay creative.

“You’re one of the handful of cities positioned for great success in this emerging economy,” Florida tells us. His book, The Rise of the Creative Class, is named for a group of 38 million people he identifies as innovators in the marketplace.

The creative class is more than the obvious artists, writers and musicians. If creativity is a key factor in your profession, welcome aboard. Florida says you’re part of this economic transformation, all because you’re doing something different each day at work.

And when creative people get bored—you know who you are—it’s time to move on. But Florida’s book describes a new kind of job search that puts the city before the career. The creative class is moving to desirable places, then worrying about work. They’re moving to the high-ranking cities in the professor’s index, so it all works together for those areas. Creative people move there, so the area becomes attractive to more creative people.

Those places love Richard Florida. Four months ago, he spoke to 500 people in San Diego. In January, he’s tentatively scheduled to return for a week of lectures at UCSD.

But low-ranking cities need Florida, so they can figure out how to move up. He’s like a rock star with a new CD and a world tour, which includes Canada and England. According to his Web site, www.creativeclass.org, he’s scheduled to be in 18 cities before returning to San Diego.

“You have something in the air, in the atmosphere, in the environment,” says Florida, the Heinz Professor of Economic Development at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh. He’s an intellectual, but sometimes he talks more like a surfer. Looks like one, too, in a picture on his Web site. Wearing a dark casual shirt and blue jeans, he’s reclining in a leather chair with his feet up. He’s wearing sandals with no socks. He looks like he belongs on a beach in San Diego. Or Rosarito.

“You’re doing this binational thing,” Florida says, referring to Mexico. “In the creative age, size matters. You’re a lot bigger when you think of the San Diego–Tijuana region.”

Border politics aside, Florida says the migration to San Diego symbolizes the area’s historic tolerance. “You had an openness to immigrants and gays,” he says. “The kind of a region that became attractive not only in the physical environment, but one that people could find their way to. Outsiders.”

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