​​​​In 2012, I received a call from a prominent business leader in San Diego who had heard through a colleague about our program in Florida to train business leaders for public leadership and thought San Diego's leaders might like to hear the story. 

I flew to San Diego and met with about 20 leaders and simply recounted why Florida business leaders established the program, the success of our programs with graduates who had become outstanding public leaders in Central Florida, Jacksonville and Tampa Bay and the lessons we had learned. 


(Read about the success of program graduates from other markets who have made a difference.

Visit our home page and scroll down. )

This was not a sales call.  I did not make a pitch for a San Diego program and, even now, when I'm invited to speak with leaders in other cities, I take the same approach.   If we don't share the vision first of why it's important for business leaders to make a difference in public leadership, a program won't be successful and there's no point in continuing.   

A few weeks later, a leader in that San Diego meeting called and asked if I would make another visit to discuss whether a program made sense for them.  (It was San Diego, of course I would visit.)


We discussed options for housing a program, what the curriculum might look like and how

 much a program would cost.  At the time, a local organization was being formed called the

Business Leadership Alliance to bring business associations together as a single voice on

public issues that were important to the business community.  San Diego's politics were

changing and unions were becoming more unified and influential.  At the same time,  

business leaders told me they believed the business community needed to be better organized

and reach across party lines for pro-business candidates. 


The BLA's co-founders, Bill Geppert, a former local president of Cox, and Ben Haddad, a

partner in the public affairs firm California Strategies, along with other leaders, believed our

program matched the vision for BLA.   It was decided that the program would be launched as

the San Diego Public Leadership Institute and affiliate with BLA but operate

independently through our nonprofit 501(c)(3) educational entity.   An advisory board of local

business leaders was named, a committee to select the first class was chosen, an 

open-application period was promoted, a class of 28 was selected (the goal was 20) and

the first session - a two-day affair with an evening reception for sponsors and local leaders - was conducted, kicking off an eight-month program. 

At the end of each class year, the program was evaluated and a determination made about whether to continue.   Over the four years of the program's existence, 103 business leaders (Republicans, Democrats and those with no party preference)  have been trained for public leadership, exceeding expectations for the program.   Most graduates have a long-term horizon for entering public leadership but several have run or landed critical appointments.  (Local leaders determine whether to focus on applicants with a short or long-term horizon for running or seeking an appointment.)


Graduates who have entered public leadership have made a tremendous difference.  Chris Cate, a member of the 2013 class, won election to San Diego City Council in 2014 and has been a rising leader in the city and advocate for pro-business policies.  Also that year, a Coronado small business owner, Bill Sandke, won a seat on his City Council and has emerged as a voice for the city on regional governmental organizations. In 2016, another program graduate, Whitney Benzian, was elected to the Coronado City Council. See their testimonials on our home page.  

Other graduates have landed important appointments to boards, including the Port of San Diego, Convention Center and Mission Bay Parks, as well as entities that cover transportation, taxpayer accountability, education and economic development, to name a few.  



Eventually, the Business Leadership Alliance was wrapped into the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce under the Chamber's new leadership of former Mayor Jerry Sanders.    With the Chamber assuming a more active political role in elections and on public affairs issues, it made sense to move the Public Leadership Institute from an independent program to under the Chamber's umbrella, beginning in 2017.  

“PLI makes the perfect nexus with the Chamber as we share the same goals. Our mission of making our region the most business friendly begins by electing and appointing pro-business candidates," said Ernesto M. Arredondo, Jr., San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce Board Chair and Wells Fargo San Diego Region President. 

​(Eleven graduates from a multi-year program in Jacksonville, Florida have gone on to serve as mayors, city council members,

local municipal trustee, sheriffs and state legislator.   Read about Jacksonville City Council President Lori Boyer, 

a 2010 program member who uses her finance skills in public office. Visit our home page and scroll down.) 

​As a San Diego Chamber program, PLI will now be more intentional and strategic about moving graduates from the bench into public leadership, especially for appointments to influential boards and commissions.  

The enthusiasm, encouragement and support from the business community, which has actively recruited outstanding applicants, has made the program successful.   PLI began with a shared vision that business leaders had much to offer in public leadership.  That vision has come true and the future of San Diego's program will only grow as it moves into a new chapter.

Interested in discussing how to prepare business leaders for public leadership in your area?   Contact me: 

markmills@reclaimpublicleadership.org or call 888-430-0009.

San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce President & CEO Jerry Sanders and Business Leadership Alliance founding co-chairs Bill Geppert and Ben Haddad address a San Diego Public Leadership Institute event. 

 © 2017 Political Leadership Innovation Institute, inc.,a nonpartisan, nonprofit public leadership educational program. All Rights Reserved.

In 2012, the San Diego Public Leadership Institute was launched with the support of local business leaders as a nonpartisan independent program through our 501(c)(3) entity and affiliated with an organization of business associations. In four years, 103 business leaders have been trained for public leadership. 

"The addition of PLI will expand the Chamber’s efforts to promote our region as the most business-friendly in California ... as the Chamber has become more involved in endorsing and supporting pro-business candidates for elected office, it has become apparent that our region needs programs like PLI to identify and encourage future public leaders who understand business issues because they’ve lived business issues," said San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce leaders. 

"It has become one of the most unique and successful programs of its kind in the nation."  

​​​by Mark R. Mills
January 5, 2017

As of 2017, PLI is under the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, expanding the program's reach and influence and allowing it to be more proactive in working with graduates to  move them into positions of prominence, especially government boards and commissions. 

Political Leadership Innovation Institute, Inc.

Preparing outstanding business leaders to become outstanding public leaders

How San Diego's business leaders

saw our model as a way to expand

their voice in public affairs