For Grocers Association president, career comes full circle

Ron Fong ’83 (Psychology) grew up, literally, in his family’s community grocery store. It’s where he and he sisters went every night after school to eat dinner, do their homework and, once they were old enough, work. So when a friend reached out to him in 2008 with a job opportunity at the California Grocers Association, it was a natural fit.

“I didn’t know much about the grocers association,” Fong says. “I went into that hiring process more out of curiosity than anything else, but sitting in a board room with grocery store owners was like coming home. I knew exactly the struggles they were going through. I knew the issues already, from my years of owning a grocery store.”

As the president and CEO of the association, Fong is the statewide voice for approximately 500 retail members and more than 250 suppliers, advocating on their behalf in Sacramento and overseeing the organization’s strategic direction and staff. He also serves as president of the association’s Educational Foundation, which funds scholarships to member employees and their family.

Much of the work Fong does at the Grocers Association involves lobbying for or against legislation that affects those in the grocery industry, from small, community store owners like his parents to corporate giants like Safeway and Albertson’s. The organization just finished 10 years fighting for a statewide ban on plastic bags, a battle that ended when a plastic bag industry effort to overturn a 2014 voter-approved ban failed last November.

Bringing together multiple and often competing voices to develop a unified position on legislation can be difficult, Fong says, but it’s an area in which he can draw substantially on the education he received at Sacramento State. When he began at the campus, he decided to study organizational psychology, believing it would be a good complement to the business skills he had picked up during his years at the family store.

“The skills I learned (at Sac State) are things that I still use in my job as president and CEO today,” he says. “I learned how to deal with problem solving through understanding the culture of people. That’s what organizational psychology does. It helps you understand people.”

Sacramento State also opened his mind to a world beyond what he called the limited environs of his high school and the family store. In one class, he says, he began a friendship with an LGBT woman who was 20 years his senior.

“Without Sac State, I would have never been exposed to a friend like her,” he says. “We ended up keeping in touch for many years after graduation, she was a terrific person. The exposure to different people, different lifestyles, and different cultures was just beautiful at Sac State.”

Of course, like many Sacramento State students, the campus was attractive for practical reasons as well: attending the University allowed him to earn his degree while continuing to work with his family. After he graduated, he began working full time at the store, eventually becoming the corporate president before deciding to get his law degree.

Shortly after he finished law school, his parents decided to sell the business that had been started in 1941 by his grandfather, who had immigrated to the United States from China in the late 1930s. Fong worked for two years as a prosecutor in the Sacramento County District Attorney’s office, then spent 13 years with the California Credit Union League, where he eventually became the chief lobbyist, before moving to his current position back in the grocery industry.

“Your career path sometimes takes unusual turns, and you just have to be open to it,” Fong says. It’s a lesson he hopes current Sac State students take to heart.

“Stay fluid and be open to career moves and choices. “What you plan with your degree at Sac State will not necessarily be what you end up doing as a career. Be open to that.”

Advertisements

Kraig Clark’s dream of starting his own business began at Sac State

Sacramento State alumnus Kraig Clark accepts his Distinguished Service Award, during the annual Distinguished Alumni Awards event held in April. (Sacramento State/Andrea Price)

While at Sacramento State, Kraig Clark ’91 (Accountancy) and his roommate Steve Schroeder ’93 (Business Administration) already were dreaming about the company they one day would start.

“Half of the time we were supposed to be studying, we were talking about different businesses and what might work from a scaling perspective.  A lot of our discussions were related to building a company that could scale.” Clark says. “I don’t think we knew exactly what we were going to start, we just knew we were going to start.”

In 1997 they founded CoreLogic, a data analytics firm for the mortgage banking industry, which they grew into a multimillion-dollar business that eventually resulted in a profitable merger. Today, Clark is the co-founder of JLM Energy, an energy technology firm, and eScreenLogic, an environmental consulting firm.

Clark sees his work as an entrepreneur as being similar to that of a contractor who takes an empty lot of land and turns it into a building, shopping center, office, or something else that becomes used and enjoyed by others.

“You start with nothing, you have a concept and an idea,” he says. “I like building things, “things” meaning companies. You bring a collection of people together, you have a strategy and a concept, and you see if you can turn that into something that’s scalable or livable.”

His current companies merge his lifelong passion for entrepreneurship with another of his interests, sustainability, something he was able to foster while a student at what now is one of the nation’s “greenest” campuses.

“At Sac State, I remember Earth Day, and I had a solar cooker that I experimented with,” Clark says. “In the back of my mind, it was always something that I wanted to explore and the opportunity presented itself and I jumped in with JLM Energy and eScreenLogic.”

Clark, who grew up in Lodi, transferred to Sacramento State in 1989 from Delta College in Stockton and decided to major in accountancy, believing it would give him a solid financial foundation he could use to start his first business. The fact that his courses actually were taught by faculty members, and not teaching student assistants, he says, was a huge benefit to attending, as was a curriculum designed to prepare him for the working world.

His first job after graduation was working in the finance department of a Suisun City-based aerospace company. He eventually became the assistant controller, but left after 4½ years to pursue his longtime dream of starting his own business, which became CoreLogic.

In 2011, he and business partner Farid Dibachi founded JLM because they saw an opportunity to make their mark in the burgeoning renewable energy industry. One year later, they branched into energy storage, meaning they were ahead of the game when Tesla CEO Elon Musk made his own, much-publicized foray into the technology in 2015.

“We were like, ‘Great!’ ” Clark says. “It really helped cut down the time that it took to educate the client. He educated the public, and we were already selling our systems.”

Starting and running his own businesses, however, never has been easy – “There are challenges all the time,” he says – but one thing Clark says that Sacramento State does well is teach students how to be resourceful. He also is pleased that students now can major in entrepreneurship and encourages anyone who wants to follow his career path to be patient, break the rules, and not be afraid to fail.

“If you’re not failing, you’re not trying,” he says. “You have to go through a lot of intelligent trial and error. You’re not going to get there if you don’t try and work hard and put your whole focus into what you’re trying to achieve.”

Clark was one of seven Sacramento State alumni to be honored at the Distinguished Alumni Awards, held last month. He received a Distinguished Service Award, given to University graduates who have achieved prominence in their chosen field and brought distinction to Sac State and/or the community through their accomplishments.

Sac State alum’s Mount Everest wedding makes headlines worldwide

The first few post-wedding weeks have been a whirlwind for Sacramento State alumna Ashley Schmieder ’13 (Government/International Relations). Getting used to married life, going back to her day job as an executive assistant, and, of course, being interviewed by the Today show, the BBC, and People magazine.

You know, typical newlywed stuff. Assuming you got married on Mount Everest. Which Schmieder and her husband, James Sissom, did on March 16, the first couple to do so in full wedding attire.

mt-everest-2
Photo courtesy of Charleton Churchill

“It was completely surreal,” says Schmieder, who has been obsessed with the world’s highest peak since reading Into Thin Air while a freshman at American River College. “I would have never imagined this was what my wedding day would turn out to be. It was just kind of weird to fulfill not only a long-term goal”­ – visiting Everest – “but also get married there. It was incredibly special.”

Schmieder and Sissom exchanged vows at Everest Base Camp, 17,598 feet above sea level. And there to capture stunning photos of the moment – images that have subsequently been seen worldwide – was former Sac State student and self-described “adventure wedding photographer” Charleton Churchill, who wrote about the experience and published the images on his blog.

Since then, the story has exploded. The wedding and the photos have been the subject of news stories worldwide, including in USA Today, People, Cosmopolitan, and their hometown Sacramento Bee.

Schmieder grew up in the Bay Area before moving to Sacramento, and she transferred to Sac State because she enjoyed living in the region and wanted a college that had a small-campus feel where students could receive personalized attention.

“I loved my experience (at Sac State), she says. “My professors were amazing. I couldn’t have asked for a better experience.”

When she met Sissom, they shared a mutual love for the outdoors, hiking, and climbing. But they didn’t plan on getting married on Mount Everest. They only knew they wanted to go on a big trip and have an “adventure wedding.” Schmieder had learned about Churchill and reached out via Instagram to discuss possibilities. Churchill, who had attempted to photograph a wedding on Everest in 2015 before the Nepalese earthquake forced a cancellation, suggested the location.

mt-everest-3
Photo courtesy of Charleton Churchill

“It just happened that we had a background in hiking and trekking,” she says. “It was a perfect fit.”

It took nine days to get to their final destination, and as expected when traveling to one of the world’s most remote and unforgiving environments, the trip was not without its challenges. Churchill got food poisoning. Sissom, who has asthma, had difficulty breathing while trying to sleep the night before they reached Base Camp and needed an oxygen tank (he felt much better the following day, allowing the group to continue on). A storm system delayed the helicopter that was supposed to take them down the mountain. And then, of course, there was the challenge of wearing a sleeveless dress in a location where temperatures can reach below zero.

“Luckily we weren’t out there taking pictures, exposed, in our attire very long,” Schmieder says. “After 5 to 10 minutes, I would put my down jacket back on, and once I started to feel comfortable and warmed back up, we could continue.”

Churchill posted updates online and streamed parts of the ceremony – they exchanged vows, but no minister was present – so that the couple’s families could follow along. Though it’s described on his blog as an elopement, Schmieder says their relatives were aware of their unusual wedding plans.

“They were shocked at first because they didn’t expect me to go that route,” she says. “What was really cool was they got on board, and they were really excited.”

To read Churchill’s account of the wedding and view more photos, visit charletonchurchill.com/mount-everest-base-camp-adventure-wedding-elopement.