The Morning Report
San Diego news and info
you need to take on the day.
This post has been updated.
The field of candidates for San Diego City Council District 1 widened substantially last month to include the husband of the sitting Council president, one of her staffers and another newcomer.
But two candidates have been on the campaign trail the longest, and the same two have worked the hardest to prove they’ve got the business acumen to represent the affluent coastal district that’s home to an innovation-minded university.
District 1 Council candidates Ray Ellis and Barbara Bry are both touting their business chops to attract votes from the district’s 162,000 residents living in La Jolla, Torrey Pines, Carmel Valley, Pacific Highlands Ranch, Del Mar Mesa and University City, near UC San Diego.
“I have an entrepreneurial spirit,” Ellis told VOSD in October. He said he sees a great opportunity in San Diego “to connect the dots between philanthropy, the public sector, or government, and the business sector, and to collaborate more effectively … I’ve got the most experience in working in all three of those sectors very heavily.”
Meanwhile, Bry, who’s taught entrepreneurship at UC San Diego in years past, is zeroing in on the technology industry.
“The high-tech and biotech industries are the economic engine of our region. Having been in this industry for 30 years, I understand what it takes. … I want to make sure our region stays supportive of these industries, and I’ve lived it,” she said in an interview last week.
For a district with a six-figure median household income, it makes sense that the candidates want to impress their peers with more than a go get ‘em spirit and commitment to public service.
Both say they’ll bring to the table their own real-world experiences building and fostering private businesses and nonprofits, and both have a decent track-record to stand on.
For Ellis, who is a registered Republican but bills himself as an independent problem-solver, his business roots trace to 1978. That summer, at the age of 20, he scraped together his lawn-mowing money to buy four Jet Skis to rent out at a lake in North Carolina. He used the proceeds to buy a house in Virginia.
He then became an envelope salesman and relocated to California. In 1982, Ellis earned a graduate business degree from Pepperdine University.
He later went all in and started another, more sophisticated business in 1987 in his Linda Vista garage. MC Direct, a direct marketing company, would go on to serve clients like Intuit, Microsoft and Cisco. When the company was acquired in 2001 by Protocol Marketing Services for an undisclosed sum, Ellis stayed aboard with the new executive leadership team for a couple years.
That was a while ago.
“I’ve basically been a professional volunteer for 10 years,” Ellis said. “Look at the number of organizations I’ve been involved in. They’re a real cross section, but they’re all about helping people.”
Among others, Ellis has served on the board of the city’s pension fund, and nonprofits like the Neighborhood House Association, the Balboa Park Conservancy, Second Chance, Voices for Children, the Equinox Center and Parker Foundation.
He likes to draw a distinction between himself – a self-made man with humble beginnings – and Bry’s investor pedigree.
He’s only worked for four companies since he’s graduated, and two of them “I created myself,” Ellis told VOSD, proudly.
“I’m not an investor type. I mean, I swept the floors early on. I have hands-on experience,” he said.
But Ellis is the investor type. He’s headed up his own investment firm, Ellis & Associates, since 2001. The company has over $1 million in stock and real estate assets, according to Ellis’ economic interest disclosure forms.
He said his management responsibilities “aren’t very time consuming.”
The firm was suspended in January 2015 by the California Secretary of State for failing to submit basic company information forms every other year since 2003 as legally required. Ellis said he was unaware of the paperwork lapse – the result of an outdated mailing address – and would remedy it.
Bry rejects Ellis’ characterization of her.
“I have bootstraps,” she said.
A fellow East Coast transplant, Bry got a graduate business degree from Harvard in 1976 before finding her business success in San Diego, first with a tech startup called Atcom. Bry made a few million from the sale of the internet kiosk company in 1999.
More success came with another startup called ProFlowers, which Bry joined before the company even had a website.
“There were five of us in April ‘98 in a small office in La Jolla. I was the VP of marketing. I think I have started companies from the ground up,” Bry said of the online flower delivery service that made her several million dollars after it went public in 2003 and sold in 2006.
Bry spent a couple years at a different tech firm before leaving to help launch Voice of San Diego in 2005. Her tenure with Voice ended after less than a year.
After Voice, Bry – who began her career as a journalist at the Sacramento Bee and Los Angeles Times – began working full-time with her husband, Neil Senturia.
The pair co-lead the venture capital company Blackbird Ventures, seeking out talent and new products to back financially.
They’ve ushered startup companies like LonoCloud and Oberon Fuels to successful acquisitions. They’ve also had some clunkers.
Quanlight, for instance, failed to get its red LED lighting technology to function despite the couple million invested by Blackbird. The online San Diego News Network website also never found solid footing and closed in 2010 a year after launching, following $707,000 from a dozen investors recruited by Bry’s venture fund.
“The high-tech game is a game with risk, and that’s part of what I love about San Diego. You get to try over and over again, and we’ve been blessed to have more successes than failures and it’s a great community to be an entrepreneur in,” Bry said.
Bry also has done her fair share of nonprofit work, serving on the boards for the San Diego Children’s Museum, the local Planned Parenthood chapter and the San Diego Jewish Women’s Foundation. She founded women’s groups Run Women Run, aimed at recruiting women for public office who support abortion rights, and Athena San Diego, which advocates for the professional growth of women science and technology executives.
She also spent almost 10 years working with UC San Diego’s tech incubator Connect, now its own independent nonprofit.
Bry, a Democrat, proudly says she’d be the first high-tech entrepreneur on the City Council. She says her experience would boost the district’s science and tech communities, home to UC San Diego, the Birch Aquarium, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the Salk Institute and more.
She said she’d also try to recruit a large tech company to open an outpost in San Diego, like Google or Facebook, and would like to see a coding academy free for residents.
Correction: An earlier version of this post said Bry’s company Blackbird Ventures was investing in Bugcrowd. Bugcrowd has backing from an Australian company also named Blackbird Ventures that is not affiliated with Bry.