A Non-Linear Path

How a former SCU basketball player and studio arts major became a force in Sacramento’s tech-forward future.

A Non-Linear Path
Photos by Joe Proudman

Sacramento’s first Chief Innovation Officer, Louis Stewart ’99, has three computer monitors running on his stand-up desk at his City Hall office: one for email, one for his web browser, and one just for apps.

“I would actually like five,” says the genial former Santa Clara University basketball player who just started his third year as CINO.

The future of technology taking shape in the Capital City under Stewart’s progressive leadership could easily fill dozens of laptops.

Louis Stewart Monitor

But for now, a quick glance at his door-sized whiteboard covered with sticky notes reveals the scope of projects he’s been tackling for Sacramento’s half-million residents.

Start with self-driving and remote-operated cars zooming through the city’s streets during test runs, while digital license plates are being tried out on half of the city’s fleet of electric cars. An electric car-sharing program–similar to a bike-sharing program–has been in place since January, and an experiment with robotic battery chargers is on the way. (Think of driving into a gas station for a refill, but instead of a gas pump, the ground beneath opens to autonomous robotics that replace an electric car’s batteries.)

“What we are offering,” Stewart explains, “is an opportunity for companies to come to Sacramento to demonstrate their viability as a product or service. Then, as a city, we co-develop with them to build solutions that fit what a city like ours needs,” he says. “This gives them a product they can go sell, and we get new tech that benefits our citizens in the long term.”

An Unexpected Journey

Overseeing cutting-edge tech policy for the state’s sixth largest city is a natural fit for Stewart, who already had a track record for solving problems.

As a former state Deputy Director for Innovation and Entrepreneurship under two California governors, Stewart oversaw and helped codify the state’s 15 Innovation Hubs. Stretching from San Diego to Redding, these “iHubs” comprise the largest innovation network in the country. During his tenure, he also helped lead the state effort that in 2012 persuaded Samsung to a locate its only R&D facility in the world in San Jose, a $300 million investment that created at least 2,500 new jobs.

It’s nothing he ever imagined after his trial-and-error days at Santa Clara University.

Back in 1994, Stewart wasn’t a success story. In fact, he was forced to give up the final year of his SCU basketball scholarship, dashing his chance to play professionally in the U.S. or abroad. For a graduating senior with no diploma, the future looked grim.

“I tell people that basketball opened a lot of doors for me,” says a bemused Stewart. “But not in the traditional way.”

Twenty-five years later, he is a respected state and local government insider who is now helping Sacramento become a tech-testing oasis for the Internet of Things. A key advantage? The Capital City is home to an array of state and federal regulatory agencies, and 120 California legislators, either overseeing or creating new tech laws.

“A lot of the folks who have new technologies and are disrupting industry have to come to Sacramento,’’ Stewart says. “I am talking to these companies, saying, ‘We will introduce you to the state regulators. We will figure out how to accommodate whatever you are trying to do here. And oh, by the way, we have Sacramento State, we have UC Davis, we have University of the Pacific, and we have a great community college system that can help train your future workforce.’”

It doesn’t hurt to have those government regulators, elected officials and assorted lobbyists watching—even trying out—those innovations, with an eye toward ensuring that economic growth includes opportunities for everyone.

Streets of Sacramento

For example, as part of a $44 million investment from Electrify America, a Volkswagon subsidiary, the city in January began trying out 260 electric Chevrolet Bolt cars from Gig Car Share. Like bike-share programs, users locate the nearest car with an app and can drive the vehicles within a 13 square mile radius. Payment is charged by rental time or miles traveled, whichever is cheaper—a boon to low-income residents. Afterall, says Stewart, “if you can’t get around, you’re going to have trouble getting a job.”

Sacramento last summer also entered into a first-in-the-nation partnership between a city and an autonomous remote-operated vehicle firm to test and map the city’s wireless network and coverage at the street level. Mountain View-based Phantom Auto has been conducting driverless car demonstrations on routes throughout the city, though always with remote drivers stationed at the company’s headquarters, where they can take control of the car in an emergency.

Louis Stewart Room
Stewart leads a recent Mayor’s Technology Council roundtable in Sacramento.

Around the same time last year, Sacramento also became the first city in the U.S. to test digital license plates on dozens of the city’s fleet of electric cars. The devices from San Francisco-based Reviver emit a wireless signal and have been primarily used to track the mileage and location of the city’s EVs. But the plates also have the capability to offer safety and Amber Alerts, pay parking, tolls and DMV fees, or warn other drivers if an EV is not being driven by a human.

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who named Stewart to lead the city’s new Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship in mid-2017, calls him “a rare talent.”

“He is the guy we hired to look beyond the horizon and ask, ‘What is next?’ And that is exactly what he is doing.”

At the Mayor’s Technology Council roundtables—where Stewart hosts about two dozen leaders from local government, industry, and academia to solicit innovations in everything from biotech to agribusiness, artificial intelligence to cyber security—he’s making his mark.

“Louis is an innovation coordinator who empowers things,” says his friend Jay Sales, a well-known Sacramento technologist who attends the meetings.

“It’s important to have somebody that can be at the forefront and bring people to the table,” Sales says. “He puts the players in the room who are part of the solution.”

Learning to Build Alliances

Stewart’s knack for negotiation and outreach began as a kid living in Europe, where his father was an early pioneer in the international basketball scene in France and Italy. The years overseas forced Stewart to adopt new languages and cultures in order to get by.

“We had to learn how to fit in with our peers,” recalls the 48-year-old.

When he was 10, the family returned to the U.S., settling in Sacramento near his father’s relatives. Over time, Stewart developed his own passion for playing basketball. By his senior year at John F. Kennedy High School, college offers were pouring in for the 6-foot-8 inch forward-center.

But his heart was always set on Santa Clara. Louis’ father Michael Stewart, ’73, a standout SCU Hall of Fame basketball player, and his late mother, Carolyn Gray Stewart, ’74, had met and married on the Mission campus.

“My life literally began at Santa Clara; it was just kind of built into my DNA,” says Stewart, whose SCU basketball scholarship was signed off by Carroll Williams—the same coach who had recruited his father to the Broncos years before.

Red-shirted as a freshman, Stewart’s career started slow, however, and didn’t really take off. He wasn’t playing very much, partly due to some injuries, but also because his head wasn’t in the game. When he wasn’t at practice, he was exploring different majors, or working at the school’s radio station.

One day at the end of his junior year, his new coach Dick Davey told him he’d lost his scholarship for poor performance.

“I came into SCU not really understanding what was necessary, commitment-wise, for basketball,” Stewart acknowledges.

Devastated, the liberal arts major considered his options: find a job, or figure out a way to graduate. He went to work, selling clothes at Macy’s, scooping ice cream at Lydon’s, then into business recruiting. He even returned to basketball, playing in competitive city leagues around the Bay Area, on a semi-pro team, and professionally in Peru and Belgium–until his knees gave out.

A Critical Juncture

The setback proved to be life-changing: Stewart moved back to the South Bay, and by chance made his way to a job at Fry’s Electronics, where he embraced the world of technology. Next was a small South Bay tech startup, learning about inside sales and developing relationships with other tech companies.

Here again, his early knack for translation came into play.

“I would sit down with the engineers and translate their needs to the CEO,” he recalls, “and I would talk to the CEO and translate what he wanted to the engineers.” He did the same with other members of the C-suite, becoming a jack of all trades.

“It was all about ‘How do we get everyone speaking the same language so that it actually propels them to the next level?’” recalls Stewart, who also started networking computers and learning about telecommunications.

Yet always in the back of his mind loomed his missing college diploma. Stewart contacted Santa Clara to reassess his options. With the help of Art Professor Kelly Detweiler and SCU’s registrar’s office, they determined he was six classes short of getting a bachelor’s degree in studio arts. The university also agreed to cover his costs—making good on his scholarship from five years before—and he completed the remaining course work and got his diploma.

Louis Stewart Candy
Stewart enjoys a rare moment of relaxation after hosting a roundtable.

Luck on Craig’s List

By then, Stewart was married with children, and not long after, he would relocate to Sacramento. In 2006, his tech career resumed after a Craig’s List job posting landed him the position of IT director for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s re-election campaign.

“I literally walked in off the street from a Craig’s List ad and into the world of politics,’’ says Stewart. The IT job steered him to other state positions: as an executive appointee at the California Department of Motor Vehicles; as Deputy Census Director; and finally as a deputy director in the state’s Business and Economic Development Office for Schwarzenegger and then Gov. Jerry Brown.

“My life,” jokes the slender city leader, dapper in his three-piece suits, “is the definition of a non-linear career path.”

Along the way, Stewart also talked up his Jesuit alma mater, particularly when the government was handing out grants.

In one case, he says he helped direct about $35,000 of a $2 million federal grant to professors at SCU’s Leavey School of Business working on challenges within the cybersecurity supply chain.

After seven years in the governor’s GO-Biz office, he sought out the job of Chief Innovation Officer for Sacramento, this time focused on technology and economic development for the River City.

A master at alliance and relationship building, Stewart was part of a regional delegation that recently returned from a trip to China with Mayor Steinberg, seeking to bolster business ties with Sacramento. The city, he says, is about to announce new deals worth upwards of $60 million.

His wide-ranging expertise serves him on non-tech projects as well, including partnering with Visit Sacramento to help the city win its first and only Michelin-star, for The Kitchen restaurant, this summer. (You can read more about Stewart’s adventures on his Twitter handle @MeetMrStewart).

The Road Not Taken Led to Success

As he ponders the arc of his career, Stewart is certain he wouldn’t be who or what he is today without his time at Santa Clara, with all its ups and its downs.
“Looking back, I truly value that experience, even though I wasn’t ready to hear that at 21,” he says.

His missteps set him on a path he might never have followed, leading to a series of jobs that over the years helped him acquire the knowledge and networking to build a rewarding career.

It’s an important lesson for anyone, says Stewart, who always reminds his mentees: “If you have a path you want to explore, doors will open. Never turn your nose up; at least look inside, and see what you can get out of the experience.”

TRACY SEIPEL is an award-winning journalist, Bay Area native, and associate director of storytelling at SCU.

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