Growing up, Judy Mahan aspired to be a diplomat. Though her wide-ranging career took a different turn, Mahan’s path includes many facets of a life in diplomacy: travelling the world, collaborating on problems, and even working for a foreign leader.

Now the Cal Poly Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship Economic Development Director— where she leads the startup incubator at the SLO HotHouse and the Small Business Development Center— Mahan first made her mark in Silicon Valley as a corporate attorney. She and her family then moved to Paris to follow an opportunity with the car manufacturer Renault but soon found themselves needing a change from the constant hustle of a city.

judy mahan

Avid surfers, Mahan and her husband loved the idea of the Central Coast and said, “Let’s just try it.” After four years of practicing law in Morro Bay, Mahan followed another opportunity abroad, this time working as a special assistant to the president of Micronesia, writing speeches and helping with his reelection. After an exhilarating few years, it was time to come home.

When she came back to the States in 2011, CIE was just beginning its launch. Intrigued, Mahan volunteered for about a year, before the director took her on board as an assistant. Six months later the director left, and Mahan stepped into her shoes. That’s right: volunteer to director in just a couple years.

We sat down with Mahan to learn more about her knack for following unique opportunities and rising to the top in unexpected ways.

Do you have a favorite word?

If you talked to anyone on my team, they would say my favorite word is “funding.” I am obsessed with getting our companies funded. On a lighter note, I love the word “serendipity.” Being really open to opportunities is important to me. I have set goals, but I love when they get deflected towards unexpected destinations!

Favorite business-related quote?

“Winners never quit. Quitters never win.” This is a quote by Vince Lombardi, which is funny because I know nothing about football, but I do know he was a phenomenal coach!  Resilience is the key differentiating factor between entrepreneurs. It makes the difference between success and failure.

Who would play you in the movie of your life?

The actress who plays Kate in “Workin’ Moms.”  Mostly because I completely identify to the character she plays in that show, my teenage girls and I love that show!

If you could give one piece of advice to small local businesses, what would it be?

Be humble—seek out support and resources. It makes a huge difference. At CIE, that’s what we do. We help companies launch, grow and succeed.

What makes San Luis Obispo a great place for start-ups?

The cost of doing business is less here than in the Bay Area. But even more important than that, there’s less noise than there is in Silicon Valley. We are more focused; we are more pragmatic. There’s less of that crazy snowball effect of everyone competing for the same things. We focus on supporting and coaching businesses that have a strong potential for high-growth and capacity to scale locally in our region.

How in the world did you end working for the Micronesian president?

I found a job posting in Micronesia for the position of Assistant Attorney General. It was the perfect fit for my husband, so I actually sent his resume in without telling him and he ended up landing the job.  When we arrived in Micronesia, I assumed I would just volunteer for a non-profit, but after a month of being there the President’s Chief of Staff heard about me, interviewed me and offered me the position!

Venture capitalism is a notoriously male-dominated space. What has your experience been like as a woman in this business?

It’s true that the numbers indicate the male-dominance in this field: women only get 18 percent of the venture capital that’s out there. But I do feel that it’s changing. In 2017, 27 percent of the companies CIE worked with were women-led. A year later, that percentage practically doubled to 47 percent. It’s been great to see that evolution, and to be a part of that movement. The opportunities are there. I also think the un-intended consequence of the recent social movement “me-too” is that women seem to feel more empowered. They are feeling confident about stepping up to the plate.  It’s inspiring.