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  • Writer's pictureClair Whitmer

Chasing Opportunity

Updated: Sep 17, 2021

First, I want to state for the record that I am not breaking up with my husband. I have not abandoned my dog. 

But yet I have moved by myself to Fresno, a city I have no memory of visiting before last month. This decision seems to have confused people. 

So I’m writing this to explain how it’s all part of my master plan. 

And by “master plan”, I mean: “series of ad hoc decisions reached while hoping to find a purpose that corresponds to my articulated principles, if I’m lucky.” 

Getting to live in Fresno this year means I’m very lucky indeed…

I’m in Fresno to explore the possibility of moving from the private sector, working in content marketing/product management/business management, to the public sector, working in local government. I’m pursuing this idea by way of a year-long economic development project for the City of Fresno in partnership with the Fresno Economic Development Corporation. 

My role is to attract investment from Qualified Opportunity Zone Funds. The federal government created Opportunity Zones (OZs) as a tax incentive substantial enough to inspire people with capital gains to invest in property and businesses operating in distressed communities (instead of paying their tax bills straight up or using other tax shelters). 

There are notable success stories — Birmingham, AL and Erie, PA are most frequently cited — but opinion is mixed on where the OZ incentive will ultimately fall on the bonanza to boondoggle spectrum.

What’s compelling to me about this topic at this time is that the still coalescing OZ community is characterized by the kind of optimism and big ideas you would hope for when launching a nationwide anti-poverty experiment. And nobody knows exactly what it all means yet so there is room for newcomers like me. 

By the end of my year-long project, I hope I have formulated a thought or two worth sharing about Opportunity Zones or economic development in American cities. I’m not there yet. 

I’m posting this now to mark this moment in my professional journey.

Lest what follows sounds like virtue-signaling on my part, let me start out by acknowledging that I got volunteered by Life for this path-finding exercise. 

First, I lost a job that I loved in April when my last company got to the end of its financing rope. The end came as a shock, if not a surprise. Then, my second and last child left for college in September, making my husband and myself official Empty Nesters.

In between these two events, I’d been doing contract work and job-hunting as a content strategist…but really spending six months measuring the disconnect between myself and the job market in the San Francisco tech sector where I have spent the better part of my working life. 

I had contract work, but I wasn’t loving it, and I wasn’t getting traction on any of the higher management jobs for which I applied, maybe because I’d hit Submit for a bunch of them without even trying to manufacture enthusiasm.

Fresno is my antidote to that conundrum.

I got here by stumbling into a program that allows me to explore life in the public sector for a year. 

I arrived in Fresno on September 30 as a FUSE Corps Executive Fellow. FUSE Corps is a non-profit that serves as a kind of recruitment and professional development agency; it negotiates year-long projects with local governments and agencies across the country and matches these projects with mid-career professionals who have skills that can be leveraged to the task at hand.

FUSE places two “cohorts” of Fellows every year and supports them with periodic trainings, access to the alumni network and 10 sessions with an executive coach. FUSE Executive Fellows come from backgrounds diverse in experience but with uniformly high levels of accomplishment; I’m honored to be named among them. 

The Fuse Corps Fall 2019 cohort.
The Fuse Corps Fall 2019 cohort at our week-long orientation in Washington D.C.

My cohort members' projects are as varied as working on IT support for the juvenile probation system in LA to facilitating the building permit process in Oakland. Four of the fourteen members of my cohort are working on Opportunity Zone projects: Wichita, KS; Riverside, CA; San Bernardino, CA. And Fresno, CA. 

It’s up to us to figure out what exactly we need to know and how to learn it and then what to do with it. 

Honestly, it’s exciting and terrifying in equal measure. 

But my new gig is not as much of a departure as it might seem. 

I’ve had two phases to my career, the first as a journalist and the second as a content strategist/product manager. But throughout, what I have always really loved is feeling like I'm solving problems and answering questions for people. I only ever really cared about the stock price or the bottom line except as a measure of how well my company was solving real-world problems. I guess I shouldn’t admit that…but it probably explains how I spent my life in tech without ever making any real money.

It also explains the biggest reason why I want to move to the public sector: because it’s got all the “good” problems. 

I reached this realization by way of a bathroom stall in a WeWork space in the new Salesforce building in downtown San Francisco. That may sound more like the start of a 12-Step story than an epiphany, but I got stuck in this stall trying to figure out why there were three (three!) iPads ensconced in the wall. Playing games? Answering email? Taking pictures? While in the bathroom stall? I had a moment of complete clarity on only one thing: I needed a new game plan. 

(At this point, we all know that someone at WeWork should have come to that same realization, but that set of headlines was still a few weeks in the future.)

In the bathroom.

Three of them!

I walked away that day imagining a team of people sitting in a room with whiteboards and post-its working on a persona exercise about why the “Entrepreneur/WeWork Space Renter" needs iPads in the bathroom stalls. Somehow the question symbolized every time I'd worked on a problem that didn’t really need solving but that seemed “on brand” in the moment. 

I’ve spent the past 15 years getting good at a skillset most recently labeled Human-Centered Design (HCD) — a problem-solving process that purports to focus on the human perspective at every step from observation of the problem through brainstorming, conceptualizing, developing, and implementing the solution. I love the process: it's fun. But, standing there in the stall, I wondered how many times I was really just putting iPads in bathrooms…solving problems that didn’t deserve the attention.

So I went home determined to change my job-hunting strategy from matching my skills to a job description to a hunt for those "good” problems. 

And this thought, after much reading and listening, led me to City Hall.

In a social environment increasingly polarized on policy at the federal and state level, local government is called upon to act on the Most Important Human Problems. 

City Hall is where you go to complain about a pothole or ask for a building permit. What that means is that City Hall determines the quality and the aesthetic of the built environment we experience every day. 

City Hall hires the police department — and so determining the life and death policies of social justice. 

City Hall hires the fire department and so, especially in fire-ravaged California, they are the first and last stop between us and All Hell Breaking Loose.  

City Hall oversees the construction of new housing units, which in California is the primary difference between a thriving and a distressed community. 

City Halls are asked to offer, or withhold, sanctuary to the undocumented. 

City Hall is where the poor and the rich intersect and where a community defines the limits of its compassion for its most unfortunate. 

Once I started thinking about it this way, all I had to do was put my good friend Serendipity in charge of my job search and it led me to Fuse Corps and, subsequently, to Fresno.

I believe strongly in the idea that all things are connected and that smart decision-making is largely about waiting for the moment when these connections become visible.

It turns out that Fresno is home to a small but interesting startup community for software and agricultural technology that recently even Google has started noticing. The deciding moment on my journey to Fresno was when I found this Maker City article, "Fresno, The Underdog City of Innovation". It felt like a sign. 

So what does it all mean?

Ask me again in 11 months. I’ll be job-hunting once more and forced to explain it, ready or not. 

For now, I know that my purpose is to keep putting humans and their problems in the middle and my articulated principle is to maintain a learning mindset. And, on the way, to find the best tacos in Fresno.

That’s my opportunity and I am grateful for it. 

Want to see more examples of the kinds of problems that local governments, big and small, work to solve? Check out the FUSE Corps Twitter Feed.

(Shout-out to Parker Thomas, a FUSE Corps alumni who fed me lunch and started this life-changing journey after a LinkedIn cold call from me.)

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Nov 07, 2019

Sounds super exciting Clair! Wishing you all the best in this new endeavor and looking forward to reading about it here!! Xoxo


Nov 06, 2019

Congrats Clair! Look forward to hearing about your journey on this exciting and worthwhile pursuit!

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