15 Coolest Jobs in San Diego and How to Get Them
We asked 15 San Diego professionals with the coolest jobs in town how they landed their gigs—and how we could steal them
The Green Queen
Senior Quality, Sustainability, and Innovation Manager at Dr. Bronner’s
Vista’s 70-year-old soap company is known for its commitment to organic, fair-trade materials. With an ethos like that, it’s no surprise they’re just as adamant about eco-friendly production. Enter: Darcy Shiber-Knowles.
“I look at the company’s environmental footprint,” says Shiber-Knowles, who’s worked at Dr. Bronner’s since 2013. “It’s my job to work across departments to help reduce our footprint and increase our positive environmental legacy.” That means implementing xeriscaping to curb water use, installing solar panels, reusing cardboard boxes, and holding an annual audit to gauge how well the company separates waste. Most recently, they launched an in-house café that serves free plant-based meals to employees. Any food waste from that café will be used in a compost program that launches soon.
Shiber-Knowles’s passion for sustainability stretches back to her teenage years when, yes, she used Dr. Bronner’s soap. After studying environmental science at Barnard College and earning an MBA in social justice at Yale, she spotted Dr. Bronner’s chief operating officer, Michael Milam, at the annual Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim. They kept in touch, and four months later, they co-created her job. “It’s exciting to do what I wanted to do—help an organization that has an organic supply chain better achieve its mission.”
If you’re interested in the subject, she says, don’t limit yourself to a self-proclaimed green company. “There are environmental footprint battles to be fought in every company. We all need to think about our impact—within finance, human resources, facilities. Whatever your discipline, there’s an opportunity for leadership. You don’t need to have ‘compost’ in your title.”
The Civil Rights Advocate
Senior Policy Strategist at ACLU San Diego
What if you could wake up every morning knowing you’re about to make a concrete difference in the world? Christie Hill gets to do just that. Her job is to identify solutions to problems in the community and help enact policy changes.
Hill has always had the urge to give back. “After college I worked as a case manager at a program for homeless women,” she says. “I realized I was frustrated by the larger systemic problems affecting the lives of these women. It confirmed that I wanted to go to law school, to work within the legal system.”
She graduated from Columbia Law School and worked in DC and New York before returning to her native San Diego. “I really enjoy the policy side, working with people closest to the issue,” she says. At the ACLU, she lobbies government officials, state legislators, and local city council members on issues ranging from immigrant rights and education equity to police reform and criminal justice. “We have been working with a coalition of change groups locally to advocate for a nationwide search for the next police chief,” she says. “We secured the victory of getting the search, and we continue to fight to make sure it’s transparent and community centered. That’s something that isn’t over yet, but good to be a part of.”
For Hill, identifying her core passion has been crucial to her career path. “I’m a black woman, so it’s important I’m advancing causes that are going to impact people of color, especially black people, in a meaningful way. That is the lens I bring to everything I do.”
The Sports Fan
Reporter and Producer at KUSI News
KUSI sports reporter and producer Brandon Stone has been on the field for it all, whether interviewing legendary running back LaDainian Tomlinson, reporting on championship games, or covering hometown great Tony Gwynn’s funeral.
Stone, who celebrates a decade at the San Diego news station this year, was still attending San Diego State University when he became a rookie sports reporter at KUSI as an intern. Now a familiar face across San Diego County, he says the most enjoyable part of his job continues to be reporting on student athletes who are determined to change the world in which they live.
Stone says that as a boy, he knew three truths: 1) He loved sports; 2) He wasn’t great at playing sports; 3) But he could write. Suited up with that self-knowledge, he went on to study the craft of sports journalism through and through. “Read, research, and understand the world you’re covering,” he advises.
The field is changing, though, and Stone says the rise of social media means he’s had to open up about his personal life more and learn how to be active on Twitter and Facebook to keep the public engaged. He’s also had to learn how to do everything when it comes to reporting—it isn’t rare for him to report, produce, and edit his own videos.
The pinnacle of Stone’s career thus far, he admits, was scoring a one-on-one interview with Chargers owner Dean Spanos almost immediately after last year’s bombshell that the team was leaving for Los Angeles. “If you look at the pivotal moments in San Diego history, the Chargers moving to Los Angeles is one of those moments,” Stone says. “They were an integral part in the economics of the city, so to be able to look at and talk to the guy who caused a lot of havoc in the city was pretty cool.”
The Life Science Leader
Head of Johnson & Johnson Innovation, JLABS in San Diego
When Johnson & Johnson launched a no-strings-attached facility for emerging life sciences companies in 2012, they set up shop not in the Bay Area or Boston, but in San Diego. Now there are locations in Toronto, San Francisco, and coming this year, New York. San Diego’s is located in Janssen Research & Development, a 300,000-square-foot research and development facility that counts UC San Diego and various Scripps Health institutions as neighbors. And Kara Bortone is at the helm, managing the operations.
JLABS provides equipment, operation teams, security, and shipping and receiving processes to life sciences ventures—taking care of the nitty-gritty so businesses can focus on the bigger picture. Beyond interviewing applicants, Bortone connects companies to investors and digs through the global pool of J&J employees to get resources for the startups, most of which are in the pharmaceutical sector. Every two months she also cohosts Fuel Friday, when all the companies come together for lunch. Once a quarter, they hold a CEO roundtable.
“Every week I meet companies on the edge of innovation and health care—new consumer products, pharmaceutical or biotech developments, as well as medical devices. I really do feel like I have the coolest job in San Diego.”
Before JLABS, Bortone worked at Galapagos, a Belgian biotech firm that partnered with Janssen. Moral of the story? “Networking, networking, and more networking. I got this job because of someone else, and in San Diego, because it’s such a close-knit community, you never know who you can help and who can help you in the future.”
The Party Planner
Activities and Events Coordinator for International Programs at UC San Diego Extension
Students from all over the world come to UCSD to improve their English conversation and writing skills while working toward a degree. Shaily Jariwala is the one who greets them at the get-go. By each student’s first day of orientation, she’s organized their schedule and managed the logistics for a smooth introduction to the university’s International Programs. Once they’ve settled in, students think of her as their personal party planner, regularly coordinating their extracurricular activities.
Jariwala schedules tours and plans student field trips to local businesses and attractions, including Rady Children’s Hospital and Petco Park, as part of related course curricula. She also plans athletic and social activities like soccer or volleyball tournaments, yoga classes, and talent shows, plus staff events for the nearly 200 employees at Extension. For one staff conference, she held a Family Feud–style game show to quiz staff on the school’s current happenings—and even dressed as Steve Harvey. She also styled a graduation ceremony as a full-on red carpet awards show and served as emcee.
Networking and maintaining relationships with vendors and venues is her key to success.
“I bring cookies to every new person I meet so they remember me and are quicker to help me with anything I need,” says Jariwala, who also moonlights as a fitness instructor at local gyms. “I love working in a university environment. The students keep me young, and I’m surrounded by brilliance and energy.”
The Brand Wizard
President and CEO at FreshForm
Scott Robinson believes every company is on its way to becoming a technology company, and the separation between traditional and digital branding is a thing of the past. Now everything revolves around user experience, dictated by perception and reputation. At Robinson’s design and innovation agency, he helps clients like Reef, Ballast Point, and Eagle Creek cultivate their identities in ways that are valuable or meaningful to their business or community.
FreshForm primarily supports businesses in technology, education, finance, and health care, handling marketing and social media, brand strategy, website design and development, and customer experience. Robinson’s first major client was American Honda. Word of mouth helped him land the account, and he revamped auto dealership training programs for all Honda and Acura brands in the country.
“The business foundation was one of the most important pieces to my education,” says Robinson, a native San Diegan who studied graphic design and business at SDSU. “It’s important that young designers take a stronger interest in business early in their career.”
As a new graduate, he started out working for a large tech company, later landing a job at an internet startup that was eventually acquired. On January 1, 2001 (“the ultimate nerdy binary date”), he started his own business out of a garage—which he quickly outgrew. Today, FreshForm has 15 employees and an office in the historic Mission Brewery Plaza building near the airport.
Outside of consulting for clients and mentoring the FreshForm team, Robinson leads a local nonprofit called the Design Forward Alliance. For up-and-comers, he recommends investing in the best hardware and software tools available, and preparing for unexpected economic challenges.
“Hiring top talent but holding them back with mediocre tools is like getting into a Ferrari and not letting it out of second gear,” Robinson says.
The Beer Believer
Sales Manager at Pizza Port, Board Member and President Emeritus of the San Diego Brewers Guild
“Beer has transcended time and place and culture and civilization,” says Jill Davidson. “It’s always been at the center of community, and I think that’s something worth perpetuating, celebrating, and remembering.”
Davidson has made it her mission to celebrate beer on a daily basis. She started at Pizza Port as a bartender in 2010 and then worked her way up to sales manager.
She manages a team of five reps across three states, “all in the spirit of spreading good cheer” about her company. She also remains an active board member for the San Diego Brewers Guild, which was founded in 1997 as a way to promote local breweries and create a strong local beer community.
Among their many efforts, they’re responsible for November’s annual San Diego Beer Week festivities. “When I got approached with the opportunity to join the board, I was completely humbled and honored,” she says. In 2016, when the previous president stepped down, she was elected interim president—a position she held until last month. She will stay on the board as president emeritus for another year to “keep the momentum moving forward in a positive direction.”
Though Davidson is truly passionate about her job, she doesn’t take it too seriously. “At the end of the day, remember—it’s just beer.”
The Drama Builder
Director of New Play Development at La Jolla Playhouse
Gabriel Greene is a lousy mechanic—“I can’t change my oil, and I don’t know where to start taking apart a clock”—but not when it comes to putting together a play.
As director of new play development at La Jolla Playhouse, Greene is pitched roughly 500 scripts per year and helps handpick just six to feed into the production pipeline.
That’s the worst part of his job— “saying no to 90 percent of what comes across my desk.” The best part, to quote Hamilton, is being in the room where it happens. He says he sometimes has to rub his eyes in disbelief. “It’s an honor being entrusted to bring writers’ stories and voices to life.”
Shepherding projects from script to curtain call is what the field of dramaturgy is about. During his 10-year run at the playhouse, he’s brought more than two dozen original plays to fruition, including the multiyear making of Up Here, by the songwriters of Frozen. He also has assisted in producing four consecutive seasons of all-new work. Eleven plays he’s touched have gone to New York.
But breaking out of San Diego isn’t how the Playhouse measures success, he notes. It’s whether a play speaks meaningfully to the local community.
Greene came to San Diego from Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company after realizing the playhouse was “one of the most eclectic theaters I’ve ever come across.”
His advice for others looking to work in play development? “See as much theater as you can to find out what type galvanizes you. Then, bug artistic directors relentlessly.”
The Athlete Manager
Executive Vice President of Action Sports and Olympics at Wasserman Media
She’s been called one of the most influential women in action sports—for good reason. Circe Wallace started her career as a pro snowboarder in the ’90s, and from there, she found her path in the industry. “I worked with various brands, including Vans and Ride Snowboards, to develop some of the first women-specific products in the space,” she says. “After a couple of knee surgeries, I parlayed that into managing talent, specializing in action sports, and an expansion of the things I loved.”
Today, Wallace works with big names like Olympic medalist snowboarders Torah Bright, Scotty Lago, and Iouri Podladtchikov. She’s responsible for developing, securing, and managing brand relationships for the athletes she represents. “Part of my expertise is in content, developing film and TV,” she says, referring to a slate of successes in developing various properties with her clients in traditional and new media.
Wallace’s typical workday starts with trying to get her daughters to school on time. Then it’s “either a desk day or a travel day meeting with clients, negotiating deals, conflict resolution, maybe a little counseling, and a lot of fun.”
It may sound like a dream job, but she points out it’s not an easy career. “Be tough, work hard, and remember that anything is possible if you keep a focus, set and achieve goals, and work your butt off.”
The Professional Instagrammer
Interactive Editor for San Diego Tourism Authority
Brent Bernasconi might have the world’s easiest job: convincing people to vacation in San Diego. As Visit San Diego’s social media guru, he’s in charge of picking the prettiest sunset photos for Instagram and coming up with the cleverest weather-related memes for Twitter.
But it’s not all rainbows and beaches, says the lifelong San Diegan. “We try to get people to see that we also have a thriving arts culture and booming restaurant scene.”
And though his day-to-day isn’t as glamorous as his posts that receive double taps—Bernasconi says he’s deskbound about 80 percent of the time—the job does have its share of pinch-me moments, like when he got to take his wife to a swanky chef’s dinner in La Jolla. “Here we were at The Lodge at Torrey Pines, enjoying wine, the sun was shining, and I’m thinking, ‘Holy crap, this is what I get paid to do.’”
His first position after graduating from the University of San Diego with a master’s degree in history was at the Air & Space Museum, where he started Balboa Park’s first Twitter account.
For social media managers in the making, he recommends: “Know what Snapchat is. Prove that you can understand the social media scene and explain the ROI, why someone should be investing in social media.”
The Game Changer
Director of the Qualcomm Institute’s Power of NeuroGaming Center
Can video games make the world a better place for people on the autism spectrum? That’s what neuroscientist Leanne Chukoskie hopes to find out.
A self-proclaimed video-game lover and mother of two teen boys, Chukoskie studies the potential for gaming to help people with autism train their brains through eye-movement therapy. At UC San Diego, she and her team create “gaze-contingent” video games—games you control with your eyes—to help individuals with autism improve focus and manage ADHD.
At the soon-to-be-launched Power of NeuroGaming Center (appropriately nicknamed PoNG), they’ll make their game design and development skills available to other researchers in the UCSD community, while an internship program provides real-world work experience for young adults with autism.
“There’s a lot of focus on early intervention and identification, but autism is a lifelong disorder,” she says, adding that the transition to adulthood is especially tough for people on the spectrum, since most autism-support programs end after high school. Many lack the “soft skills” crucial for acing a job interview or reading social cues to learn how to behave in an office setting.
“They’re wickedly smart, and yet they’re not engaging in the workforce.” With the internship program, she hopes to create a work environment more sensitive to the unique needs of people on the spectrum, while giving them the tools to design games of their own.
Chukoskie was able to create her dream job after double majoring in anthropology and neural science at the University of Pennsylvania, followed by a PhD in neuroscience, specializing in eye movements. “I want to use my research position to create more games for good,” she says.
The Tech Whisperer
Tech Evangelist at Intuit
“Even Intuit people want to know what the heck my title is,” Aliza Carpio says. “It’s the best conversation starter.” As tech evangelist, Carpio focuses on building the brand of Intuit—the business and finance software company behind products like TurboTax and QuickBooks—and creating an engaging, supportive culture for their engineers.
Carpio has coded, managed programs, and consulted for companies like Hewlett-Packard and Kimberly-Clark. Using her tech base, she organizes events, spearheads partnerships, and hosts meet-up groups—all to build Intuit’s “street cred.” Internally, she arranges annual hackathons, hosts tech talks for staff, and is committed to diversity in the industry. She’s the sole female board member at local startup incubator EvoNexus, is on the leadership team of Girl Develop It, a nonprofit for women who want to get into software development, and she helps organize Intuit’s mentoring programs.
“Creating diverse teams is a journey for all of tech,” she says. “It requires men and women from every background. It doesn’t start in college. We need to start thinking of community partnerships to influence young women. And it’s not just Intuit that’s doing this.”
Carpio’s other mission is to fix San Diego’s “brain drain”—when local talent flees the city for seemingly greener pastures (i.e., Silicon Valley). Carpio herself interviewed in the Bay Area but ultimately chose San Diego. “San Diego’s tech community is alive and well. You don’t have to leave. You can code and surf and eat tacos and make an impact.”
The Love Doctor
Director of Reproductive Sciences at San Diego Zoo Global’s Institute for Conservation Research
Barbara Durrant has most working professionals’ morning routines beat. Many days before 10 a.m., she’s rubbing the bellies of rhinos. Though it may be a warm and fuzzy image, it addresses a serious concern: extinction.
From her lab at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, Durrant leads a team of 18 researchers and oversees experimentation and processes that encourage species reproduction, including hormone monitoring and stem cell biology. Her job takes her from animal enclosures in Escondido to partner research centers in China, Japan, and India, to name a few.
For 20 years, Durrant had a hand in the zoo’s giant panda breeding program, which has succeeded in producing six cubs, the first by artificial insemination, the rest naturally.
“There’s so many things we don’t know about the reproductive processes of these animals,” she explains. “It takes years to figure out what’s going on. We are learning things no one has ever learned before.”
Durrant has been with the San Diego Zoo for 38 years, beginning as a postdoctorate researcher after earning her PhD in reproductive physiology. An undergraduate reproductive sciences class sparked her interest in the field. “Take every science class you can; they’re all valuable to you,” she advises.
Her passion has paid off, particularly for the Frozen Zoo, which today houses over 10,000 living cell cultures, sperm, and other genetic material from almost 1,000 species and subspecies. It’s fueling hope for the zoo’s effort to revive the endangered northern white rhino. Only three remain alive today, but the Frozen Zoo holds embryos and sperm from the subspecies. Durrant’s never-been-done-before idea? Use southern white rhinos as surrogates.
“If every step goes according to plan, we could have a calf in the next 10 years.” And another belly to rub.
The Climate Crusader
Director of the Center for Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation at UCSD’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography
After spending 20 years monitoring Hawaiian sea-level rise, Mark Merrifield is riding a new wave of discovery from his alma mater as the inaugural director of the Center for Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation. Launched in 2015, the center hosts a hotbed of marine and atmospheric scientists with research rooted in climate change and connections to policymakers with the clout to combat it.
“The impacts will be very severe unless we find ways to limit greenhouse gas emissions,” Merrifield says. Born in Hawai‘i and raised in Orange County, he joined the center in September following a directorship at the University of Hawai‘i Sea Level Center. “I had gotten to a point in my research that proved sea-level rise problems are very apparent. Now as director, I’m seeing to it that my and others’ research is being translated into actionable activities.”
This includes expanding on some of his existing fieldwork and coordinating with government agencies—the Department of Defense, to observe sea-level rise near local military bases, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to build a national seasonal forecast system with insight into how sea levels affect coastal flooding.
Merrifield will teach at UCSD in the 2018–19 academic year in addition to building relationships around the county to fuel public outreach about how climate change affects San Diego.
“The best part of my job is definitely meeting students and faculty who are excited about getting involved in the center. That constantly motivates me.”
The PGA Pro
Gema Tarango Deleon
Senior Manager of Marketing and Public Relations for the Farmers Insurance Open at Century Club of San Diego
Gema Tarango Deleon wears a lot of hats. Oddly enough, none of them are golf caps.
Working under the nonprofit planning organization Century Club of San Diego, Deleon has a hand in all aspects of marketing the three-day leg of the PGA Tour that swings into Torrey Pines once a year.
From placing advertisements—some of which are her own design—to planning events “outside of the ropes,” to riding around in a golf cart to document the tournament live on social media, she says she rarely finds time to play golf herself. Then again, she never has.
“That’s the funniest part,” she says. “But it also really speaks to our organization and that we don’t want to put on just a golf tournament. It’s about putting on a community event.”
Still, Deleon’s interest in sports began at young age. She played softball growing up, and became interested in marketing as a freshman at SDSU.
Recognizing herself as a minority in the sports industry, she got ahead in the early years of her career by founding the San Diego chapter of Women in Sports and Events, a nonprofit networking group.
“Being a woman is actually a check mark in the positive column in this industry, because you provide a perspective that folks aren’t used to,” she says, and notes of San Diego’s sports industry: “If you want to work here, know that someone already has the job you want. It’s a small market. Get involved early with volunteering and internships.”