By Burt Dragin
José Corona’s funky workspace suits him fine. The cavernous building on Fourth Street in Oakland’s industrial downtown once functioned as mayoral campaign headquarters for Jerry Brown. It features a bar, a loft, some mismatched furniture, and the requisite conference room. Corona, CEO of Inner City Advisors (ICA), is a long way from his roots in the strawberry farms of Watsonville.
“Weekend, school vacations, it meant working on the farm,” Corona recalls.
But the CEO was blessed with a father of uncompromising entrepreneurial spirit. “We moved from Mexico to Southern California in the 1970s,” Corona recalled. “My father was part of the brocero program.” Translation: backbreaking work picking strawberries and other crops in the fields.
But the elder Corona moved the family north and managed to buy an acre of strawberries in Watsonville, and by dint of discipline and hard work, built it into a major strawberry farming operation.
José Corona, is unsparing in his gratitude. “My father gave me the entrepreneurial values. He had a plan, a vision of what he wanted to do.” Part of the plan included education. “I have three brothers and he put us all through college.” His father gave him a choice. “I could be a doctor or a lawyer.”
After acquiring a bachelor of science degree from University of California, Davis, Corona tried a brief stint at University of California, San Francisco dental school before deciding “it was not for me.” The next road led south to Westwood, where he earned an Entrepreneur Management Development Certification from the UCLA Anderson School of Management. Then a blank wall. “I thought I was hot stuff,” he recalls. “I had a graduate degree.” But no idea what came next. “I was quickly humbled.”
A friend suggested he attend a job fair, a new concept for Corona, who showed up in jeans, tee shirt and flip-flops. “Everyone was in suits and ties,” José muses. But a woman from Macy’s caught his eye. “She touted their management program for recent graduates.” Corona interviewed and got his start as a trainee—in the young men’s department. “It was invaluable training,” José says with inspiration. “I got my fundamentals.” Along with folding shirts, the new recruit learned retail work—how people shop, their behavior. These were potent images for a sharp-eyed entrepreneur-in-training. Promotions came quickly: first human resources, then regional analyst for Macy’s 13 Bay Area stores. Then came a “corporate world” realization in stark relief, he said. “See that woman over there,” a colleague told him. “When she retires, or moves up, then you have a shot at promotion.” The CEO-in-waiting wanted no part of it.
Prior to the ICA job, Corona landed at Mission Economic Development Agency in San Francisco, his first foray into the non-profit world. Part of the job was fundraising. “I’ve never done it but I’ll try it,” he recalls saying. “And that’s been the story of my life.”
Corona thrived at the Mission Economic Development job, but soon learned the limitations. “When I tried to get involved in growing these small businesses (in the Mission District) I was told, ‘that’s not my job. We just help the businesses get started.’” His passion was not just starting businesses but learning how they survive in an ever-changing environment. “The dot.com movement would likely price them out of the neighborhood. They had to prepare.” Tired of “fighting the system,” he gave his notice. He was 30.
Across the Bay, Corona got an interview with ICA. He was impressed. “I want to be around these people,” he said of the ICA board. “They think like I do. And they remind me of my Dad.” Here was a chance to use all the skills he picked up from Macy’s, economic development and—not the least, the humility and discipline from his father.
“The biggest challenge we face,” Corona observes after a decade on the job, “is remaining relevant to the needs of our clients. That’s especially true in turbulent times like today when things are constantly changing. As a result, the focus of our work also needs to adapt to these changes.”
Founded in 1996, ICA focused on “developing competitive and sustainable companies in inner city communities that lead to long-term positive impact on our local communities.”
The results have been staggering. Corona’s efforts as CEO have created thousands of new jobs and nurtured startups such as Revolution Foods, Blue Bottle Coffee, Back to the Roots, Prather Ranch Meat Co. and Premier Organics, among other social responsible entrepreneurs.
“We strive to always be aware about what our companies are telling us in regards to their challenges,” he explains. “We listen carefully to them and respond accordingly. However, listening is a quality and a learned skill and we don’t always do it well. That is something upon which we continue to improve as we move forward with out work.”
Although politicians spout platitudes about “job creation,” ICA takes action. “We believe that good jobs are those that provide above a living wage, health benefits, and life ladders to disenfranchised local workers who need jobs most,” Corona explained.
With that in mind, ICA in 2013 created Fund Good Jobs, “an innovative impact investment fund set up to quickly attract and deploy capital to these businesses.” Corona serves as direct on the Fund Good Jobs board. Through a partnership with Mills College Business School, ICA and Fund Good Jobs have been able to support a broad range of entrepreneurs. Corona is perhaps most proud of securing $12 million of pro bono investments in the ICA mission, one result of which is former Stanford Professor Michael Bush teaching Business Growth Strategies at the Mills College program.
In José Corona’s world, “scale is critical.” He explains: “While there are many successful programs that help people become entrepreneurs, the challenge is to achieve greater scale—helping existing small businesses grow so that they can generate more jobs for the people who need them most.”
Corona’s passion for creating jobs for those who need them most is evident. After all, he need only recall his days in the strawberry fields of Watsonville to remember the dignity—and necessity— of work.