Alums’ new company blends art and tech under one roof

Step into Obra, a new company located in a warehouse just north of midtown Sacramento, and it’s quickly apparent you’re seeing something different. Workbenches and giant wood cutting tables sit next to a room full of computers and soldering irons. Beyond that, there’s a dance floor – built in-house – complete with mirrors and a barre.

Obra, founded by Sacramento State alumni Isela Perez ’12 (Journalism) and Brandon Ortiz ’15 (Computer Engineering), opened its doors in January and probably is best described through its name: The word means “work of art” in Spanish, and the warehouse is part maker’s space, part dance studio. The company is founded on the belief that through combining their talents – Perez is a dancer who studied journalism, Ortiz studied computer engineering and has a background in product design and development – they can create, and help others create, something stronger and more meaningful.

“We realized how much art has an impact on creativity,” Ortiz says. “Even if it’s programming, where you can get into this mindset of just grinding and doing strictly technical work, if you step back and think about the artistic or creative aspect of what you’re doing, you tend to find better solutions to the problem.”

Perez and Ortiz met three years ago at a sports bar in Sacramento, and even from their initial conversations knew they had a lot in common, including a desire to create something new and unique. They just didn’t know specifically what that was yet.

Both transferred to Sacramento State from community college – Perez transferred from Sacramento City College, Ortiz attended Sierra College in Rocklin before working to design control systems for an elevator company – and says both the perspective of being older than the traditional student as well as the accessibility of their professors helped them get the most out of their time on campus.

“We valued education a lot and I think that’s what motivated us to get close with our professors, to be able to talk with them,” Perez says. “You realize, ‘I could have been doing this with high school, I could have been really connecting with professors, with my peers, and taking advantage of more. Sac State was definitely welcoming for someone who wanted to go as far as they could.”

In 2015, a six-month trip to Nicaragua where, Ortiz says, “we just had each other,” taught them both how to respond to new challenges and live a minimalist life. “We found happiness from creating. We wanted to build a place where we can create and use our skills and the experience we picked up to help other people create.”

Obra’s revenue comes through dance classes Perez offers at the studio – she also works part time as a dancer for the Sacramento Kings – as well as various other projects and partnerships, such as creating stencils for a group that wanted to use street art to promote this year’s Sacramento Concerts in the Park lineup. The company also is set up to sell the products that are made in its work space. Its current partners include the maker of a large LED chandelier that can be used as an art display or centerpiece at special events, as well as Sacramento State’s own Hornet Hyperloop team, for which they are helping to develop control systems.

The art and the tech go hand-in-hand: Ortiz began dancing about a year ago, giving him a creative outlet when he needs a break from product development. Perez says the same about learning to program. They encourage their partners to utilize the dance space – even a couple of the Hyperloop team members have started to wander over to the studio side of the warehouse.

“It’s a group of engineering students, probably not the most likely to jump out on the dance floor, but we’ve got some of them moving,” Ortiz says.

The couple spend 12-14 hours a day in the studio, seven days a week. But they say the ability to spend each day creating something new continues to motivate them, as well as the belief that they have built something that isn’t just unique, but necessary.

“I think (something like Obra) was missing,” Perez says. “A place that you can create without a boundary. I don’t think there’s ever an idea that we’ll say, ‘No, we’re not going to do that,’ or, ‘No, we don’t know about that.’ Bring us your idea, and we’ll try our best to make it happen.”

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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.”

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.