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Close-up: Holly Smithson

Clean tech advocate, woman of action

When Holly Smithson decided to move to San Diego in 2007 and was looking for a job, she called up Congressman Ken Calvert, who represents the Inland Empire and southern Orange County, and asked for leads.

Spending a decade of her career in public policy in Washington, D.C., and becoming a political appointee gave her that kind of contact — as well as an ennui with the stagnant nature of bureaucracy.

Along with her contacts, her thirst for action and results led her to CleanTECH San Diego, the industry association that was just being put together back then by Mayor Jerry Sanders and Jim Waring, its founder chairman.

She was hired in early 2008 to cultivate a membership base and help develop the clean technology industry cluster. This July, she became president of the nonprofit, taking over after founding president Lisa Bickers stepped down.

Originally from New England, Smithson spent her early years up and down the Eastern Seaboard and Western Europe, as the family moved to different military bases with a naval aviator father.

Being the new kid in class and moving often influenced her in many ways.

"A sense of discovery and freedom and the comfort to explore is predicated on being a Navy brat," Smithson said. "Going out and starting over in a different culture or neighborhood is an inherent trait that comes from being a Navy family, and San Diego being a Navy town, there's a lot of people like that here."

They eventually settled in North Carolina, where she went to college for a degree in broadcast journalism and began her career as an anchor and news director. She switched careers and worked on several political campaigns for senatorial and gubernatorial races in the Southeast, and became a lobbyist for the Solid Waste Association of North America.

After 10 years in public policy, she was made a presidential appointee to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2003, where she led its communications division until she left, moving to London for a year before deciding to head west to San Diego.

Asked why she left the EPA, she laughed out loud, explaining that things are really stagnant in a bloated bureaucracy and she was not happy with the impact she was making.

"It's a place where you understand how things work, and you take that experience and bring it to the private sector. Some do it for two to three years, I did it for 10 years,” she said. “All that acrimony and lack of coherence left a bitter taste. Government moves at a glacial pace that doesn't fit my personality.”

By all counts, she is a woman of action. It was her high energy and tenacity that impressed Jim Waring, who along with Bickers, recruited her for CleanTECH San Diego (CTSD).

"Even though she didn't have ties in the community, we knew she'd very quickly become known and liked and would project the organization well and attract new members," Waring said.

In the five years Smithson has been with the organization, Waring said her No. 1 achievement was membership development, followed by relentlessly representing CTSD in the community and developing international relationships.

Asked to respond to Waring's comment about her being very tenacious and how she came by it, Smithson said it harks back to her time in the public sector.

"You develop it along the way, just a by-product of government by virtue of its size, which manifested into suffocation for me,” she said. “I loathe inaction. It's an evolution of my previous life and was a catalyst for my wanting to do things and get results. So CleanTECH San Diego was a perfect fit to achieve results."

What is one takeaway from her tenure in the public sector?

"I learned how to not treat people, and that's really powerful because at the end of the day, every business is based on our ability to show respect and communicate, and without those two components, you're guaranteed failure," she said.

When she first arrived in San Diego, Calvert suggested she speak with Waring, Duane Roth (CEO of Connect, the innovation catalyst) and Ben Haddad of California Strategies, a public affairs consulting firm, and it so happened they were all working together on forming CTSD.

Waring was the first to spot the potential for developing the cluster when he saw a lot of cleantech companies set up shop in town. He told Sanders about how it could be his legacy and an economic driver, according to Smithson.

The capital markets were beginning to freeze as the Great Recession began, and CTSD worked on creating a critical mass of companies and making the local market as robust as possible.

“San Diego is well-known as a progressive region, and at CleanTECH San Diego, we had to be the glue that binds the challenge of our future," Smithson said, referring to her mandate in the early days.

“There's a reason why big companies are coming here and we try to stimulate market demand for their products, and that's the overarching premise for the organization,” she said.

Since inception, CleanTECH San Diego has grown to 115 members, but Smithson points out that the bigger growth metric is the perception that it's the go-to place for those who need advocacy and assistance.

Big companies like Soitec, the concentrated photovoltaic company with French roots and a Boston base, have set up operations in the area while looking for new growth. CTSD works with them, helping them find the work force and physical space they need.

But the industry is changing and consolidating, especially in solar, as China drives prices down and manufacturing shifts offshore.

Smithson said the real opportunity in solar is in installation, something that cannot be outsourced abroad.

There's been a lot of reference to our region's innovation economy, and she pointed to biofuels and smart grid as two areas in which San Diego leads.

Biofuel majors like Sapphire and Synthetic Genomics have attracted large investments from the government and the private sector, while the smart grid industry continues to grow.

Smithson said as more people migrate to cities, the infrastructure and resources will be tested and cities will need to better manage their power supply, which is where smart grid comes in.

"We think we can help prepare for the influx of people coming into the region," she said.

Economic impact for the sector, both direct and indirect, is $3 billion, with 10,000 jobs and $750 million in payroll for 2011, according to a report put together by CTSD with Bank of America (NYSE: BAC).

She was reluctant to single out any one company as a success story, instead pointing to how CTSD has attracted international interest, with people wanting to know how to set up their own cleantech clusters.

What is the favorite part of her job?

"If you're really connected with your members, you know what their pain points are and what the hiccups are. Some are out of your control, and some are just about connectivity,” she said. “My initial role was bringing them to the table, now it's helping them get over the mountain. My being able to resolve things just by connecting them is pretty gratifying."

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Nagappan is a San Diego-based freelance writer.

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