Lenny Mendonca may now serve as Governor Gavin Newsom’s top advisor when it comes to creating and sustaining economic development throughout the state, but much of what he knows about hard work and discipline comes from his upbringing right here in Turlock. While much has changed throughout the local region since then, the Central Valley native has embraced an approach at the capitol that doesn’t leave our city and its surrounding towns behind.
Born in Turlock in 1961, Mendonca was raised on a dairy farm just east of town. Early mornings before school and late afternoons following baseball practice were spent working on the farm for the Turlock High School alum, milking cows and completing chores.
His journey since then has led to a variety of roles, including founding and co-owning a brewery, co-chairing the leadership council of a governance reform organization and an extensive list of other top economic and business positions, all leading to where he’s at today: serving as Chief Economic and Business Advisor to Newsom and Director of the State’s Office of Business and Economic Development.
Mendonca was appointed to his new position in January, and there, he brings a Central Valley perspective seldom found in Sacramento.
“I loved growing up in Turlock and I loved working on the farm. It’s a great way to be connected to the reality of the world,” Mendonca said. “Part of what inspired me to want to do this job was the ability to be able to give back in public service to the state, and the thing I’m most excited about is the opportunity to keep talking about the importance of the Central Valley…to me, the opportunity to have this ability to be a public servant with a particular focus on trying to help ensure that all of the regions of the state rise together and are connected is exciting.”
Mendonca left Turlock in the late 1970s to continue his education at Harvard (there, he received an AB in economics and later earned his MBA and certificate in public management from Stanford) but returns home frequently to visit family, he said. His brothers still help run the family farm; one recently retired from Turlock Irrigation District, while the other coaches baseball and teaches history at THS. His sister is a special education instructor at Dennis Earl Elementary School.
Since he moved away, much of Turlock has stayed the same — like its agriculturally-based roots — though plenty has changed. The city is now connected to other parts of the state, such as the Bay Area, more so than before, as residents in increasing numbers are commuting to other cities for work. The university in Turlock, Stanislaus State, has also seen its connection to the community grow in the years since Mendonca moved away, he said, and issues like healthcare in the area are much more pronounced than they were before.
These changes over time have made it all the more important to make sure the Valley has a say in state politics, Mendonca said.
“When you’re outside of California, they all assume you live on the beach or have movie stars as your next-door neighbor. I think too often people think about the place where I grew up as the equivalent of flyover states, and the center part of the state as something you just drive through on your way to Yosemite,” he said. “That’s not the reality of what I remember, and the hugely important part of the state that is the Central Valley.”
As the governor’s senior business advisor, Mendonca’s job is to revamp the State’s approach to job creation and economic development. While California is well-positioned in terms of its technology, innovation and educational institutions, the biggest hurdle the state faces in achieving economic security, he said, is its cost of living.
“In general, the economy is going to be advantaged by all of what we’re seeing in the next era of innovation and globalization, but it also is one that has got a real challenge in making sure that everyone has the opportunity to participate in that — not just those who happen to live in Silicon Valley,” Mendonca said.
It costs too much to live in California, he added, which is partly driven by the state’s lack of housing.
“We cannot continue to have the type of job creation we have and not produce housing. We’ll have to build a lot more houses and build those houses closer to where the jobs are, and we have to have jobs closer to where people live,” Mendonca said.
People are choosing to live in the Valley, yet commuting to work hours away. They are often graduating from local universities, like Stanislaus State and University of California, Merced, but choose to work elsewhere. Mendonca has a three-pronged approach to enticing graduates to stay and support the local economy, which includes highlighting opportunities for innovation within the Valley’s different markets, like food, water and agriculture, as well as promoting the region’s fresh workforce to prospective companies looking to open new locations.
“If you’re going to open another location and you need really talented people, why aren’t you locating it and looking in Modesto, or Stockton, or Fresno?” Mendonca asked. “If you’re in Silicon Valley…why don’t you put the jobs where the people are, instead of making them come to you?
“Turlock and the Central Valley have an advantage of a young, increasingly highly-educated and very hard-working workforce, which, when you ask companies what they’re looking for — that’s what they’re looking for.”
Mendonca’s third strategy when it comes to keeping graduates here and ensuring them high-paying jobs comes down to investors, he said. While early-stage investing firms often finance projects in the Valley, there isn’t the level of next-stage venture investing there should be in the center of the state.
These three points were topics of discussion at a recent meeting between Mendonca and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, Bay Area Council, members from the Central Valley Community Foundation and about 100 different executives and investors.
“An important part of this is awareness building,” Mendonca said. “If you’re a CEO and spending all your time driving around Mountain View, or San Jose or San Francisco, your first thought isn’t to necessarily look toward the center of the state. All they need to do — and I talk to them about this — is ask their employees where they’re coming from. You get a different perspective when you know that.”
Politics is all about perspective, and when talking about job creation and economic stimulation in a state that sees such differing viewpoints depending on which county you’re standing in, partisan norms shouldn’t be in the picture, Mendonca said. Whether he’s in the center of the state, where a majority of voters lean right, or on the more liberal shores of San Francisco, everyone can agree on a plan that focuses on high-quality, inclusive economic development.
“Most people are not against jobs, and so trying to ensure that there are jobs and career paths is not a partisan issue,” Mendonca said. “Part of what we’re trying to do is make sure that we are, and I am, spending a lot of time in the center part of the state and just listening, as opposed to coming in and saying we’re from Sacramento, or we’re from Silicon Valley, and we know the answers…it’s really important to have these conversations in a way which isn’t starting with a party lens.”