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The women behind Innovate78

In recognition of Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day, we’re highlighting the women behind the brand making a difference in North County. Meet three of the economic development leaders of Innovate78—who below share a bit about themselves and their work in public service.

MICHELLE GELLER, ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT MANAGER,
CITY OF OCEANSIDE
AMBER TARRAC, DEPUTY DIRECTOR OF ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT,
CITY OF ESCONDIDO
TESS SANGSTER, ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR,
CITY OF SAN MARCOS

Tell us who you are and what you do. Why a career in civil service?

Michelle: “Our teams focuses on business retention, expansion and attraction to keep our local economy strong. It may sound like a cliché, but I truly did choose a career in public service because I wanted to help people improve their lives. Being able to do it through economic development work is that much more fulfilling because you’re working with brave entrepreneurs every day who are passionate about their work… it’s very inspiring.”

Amber: “I am responsible for Economic Development, Tourism Marketing and Business License for the City of Escondido. I chose a career in public service almost two decades ago because I am committed to changing the way people feel about government. We, as civil servants, have a duty and responsibility to implement process improvements in order to give the community top-notch service in the most efficient way possible. While I have served at the county, state and now city levels, the City of Escondido is where my twin nephews are growing up; my personal commitment is for them to live in a community that has a great quality of life and is diverse and thriving.”

Tess: “I have worked for the City of San Marcos since 2015 as Economic Development Director. I love working for a city that is still being shaped into what it will eventually become. I really enjoy working in civic service because I get to be involved with helping cities achieve their goals. Our new downtown is being built right now, North City, and our city continues to work on attracting exciting developments to our community, as well as preserving open space and parks and improving infrastructure for better traffic flow. I grew up in North County and went to San Marcos High School, so I am very passionate about bettering our community and providing exemplary service to our residents and businesses.”

What does Innovate78 mean to you?

Michelle: “I was fortunate to be one of the team members on board at the very beginning of Innovate78, before it even had a name, when it was just an informal collaboration between the cities. We were collectively over the traditional economic development mindset that you’re always competing with your neighboring cities. It felt so much more authentic and productive to work together to raise the profile of the entire 78 Corridor. To me, Innovate78 means collaboration so everyone wins: the cities, the businesses and the residents.”

Amber: “Innovate78 is led by a talented group of Economic Developers who seek to leverage this partnership for the betterment of North County. Nowhere else can you find such a wonderful, collaborative partnership that seeks to lift up all 78 Corridor business owners to succeed.”

Tess: “Innovate78 is an incredible partnership between the five diverse cities along the 78 Corridor. I personally love finding the hidden gems in each of these communities, as all of them have so much to offer. We are definitely stronger together when trying to attract businesses, visitors and new residents!

What role do you see women playing in North County in the next five years?

Michelle: “We have a lot of women leaders along the 78 Corridor that are paving the way now. Three of the five cities have female mayors, and specifically here in Oceanside Mayor Esther Sanchez is the first woman and first Latina to hold the highest city office. Our City Manager Deanna Lorson was appointed in 2019 and her predecessor Michelle Scaggs Lawrence held the highest staff position at the city for four years prior to that. We also have a tradition of notable women leaders in our higher ed along the Corridor, such as former CSUSM president Dr. Karen Haynes and current president Dr. Ellen Neufeldt. I think the role of women leaders in North County will continue to grow and diversify.”

Amber: “Women are an integral part of the business community in North County. We will continue to see women of all races and ethnicities break glass ceilings, continue to start their own businesses and achieve great success in often traditionally male-dominated industries. The perception of women and women of color in high level public sector positions, as CEOs, and in political office will be the norm and sets the stage to inspire the next generation of women leaders to claim their seat at the table.”

Tess: “We are so lucky to have incredible women already in key leadership roles across the 78 Corridor, from CSUSM President Ellen Neufeldt to MiraCosta President Sunny Cooke, as well as Mayor Rebecca Jones of San Marcos, Mayor Judy Ritter of Vista and Mayor Esther Sanchez of Oceanside. These women are helping to pave the way for other women to rise into leadership roles in the coming years.”

What advice do you have for women interested in pursuing careers in civil service?

Michelle: “I encourage women interested in pursuing careers in public service, and specifically in economic development, to go for it! While it may not be the most glamorous career path, and no one’s going to get rich at it, the rewards come in knowing that through your work, you can help people achieve success.”

Amber: “Find other strong women leaders and learn from them – both their successes and failures. Find mentors you can trust and ask for candid feedback to continuously improve. The reality is: public service is hard, it’s not glamorous and it can wear you out. If your motivation to serve, the team you work with, and the role you are in are aligned, you will feel energized and excited to work each day. As budgets become leaner, you will be expected to do more with less – and those who succeed will be flexible and adaptable. Be your authentic self and be a leader at every level regardless of the title.”

Tess: “My first job was working for the Main Streets in Encinitas and eventually becoming the Executive Director of Cardiff 101 Main Street. This helped give me perspective on what businesses need as well as understanding how to promote and create a downtown. I think it really helps to get involved in the organizations that are helping to better your community and get to know the community players as you pursue a career in civic service.”

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