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Thursday, Jan 26, 2023

Changing of the Guard: Stephen Cheung Is Ready to Fill Bill Allen’s Shoes

Local economic leader and business advocate Bill Allen is vacating his post as the chief executive and president of the Los Angeles Economic Development Corp., making way for Chief Operating Officer Stephen Cheung.

Cheung’s promotion comes as the nonprofit is seeking additional ways to boost the regional economy’s recovery from the whiplash of the Covid-19 pandemic. As chief operating officer since 2020, Cheung has worked closely with Allen on those efforts.

Allen is retiring as chief executive and president following 17 years of work for the corporation, a span of time that involved Allen contributing to the recovery of the local economy following the Great Recession in 2008-09 and the Covid-19 fallout. He told the Business Journal in an interview last year that unlike the Great Recession losses, which were eventually recouped, Los Angeles has only partly recovered from the pandemic after more than two years.

Taking over

Cheung will now take the reins of the corporation’s continued mission to aid the local economy, equipped with insight from Allen, whom he considers a mentor.

“Hopefully, I can do what Bill has done over the last 17 years, which is build a very strong foundation for the next generation of leaders to thrive,” Cheung said. “I hope to take this foundation he’s built and be able to build an amazing organization with LAEDC with all the resources that he has provided us.”

Allen was raised in Encino and still resides in the neighborhood with his wife, Marie. He was a founder of the Valley Economic Alliance, and during his tenure as chief executive had a leading role in establishing mass transit into the Valley with the development of the L.A. Metro Orange line.

Allen attributed gains in the development to summits held with elected officials and community leaders. Such collaborations that brought together local stakeholders became a hallmark of Allen’s efforts to grow the local economy and have become a blueprint followed closely by Cheung.

“One of the most important lessons I learned from him is probably the importance of collaboration. This is such a big region with 10 million people, there’s no way that any individual organization can do anything on their own, effectively,” Cheung said. “Bill has been such a great leader to bring together regional partners from all different sectors. That’s the lesson that I learned and now carry with me.”

The nonprofit’s mission is to advance growth of the local economy, doing so through business assistance programs, economic research and workforce development initiatives. According to last year’s annual report from LAEDC, the organization derived 48% of its funding from private sources, its largest source of financing.

Although he has been able to prepare for his new position through on-the-job training with the LAEDC, Cheung’s time at the nonprofit is just a fraction of the professional and civic experience that has given him confidence to lead as chief executive and president.

Cheung, 44, was an immigrant who moved from Hong Kong to Los Angeles at the age of 8. He worked in a sweatshop alongside his mother in El Monte, earning little pay for his work, which would greatly inform his career path as he grew up.

Early in his career Cheung was a social worker for the Asian Pacific American Legal Center and the Center for the Pacific Asian Family, the latter of which is a shelter for women and children fleeing domestic violence. 

“As a social worker, I was able to witness firsthand those experiences for immigrant communities and those who are not traditionally connected to services,” Cheung said.  “I saw a lot of individuals who escaped domestic violence situations become homeless, what it means to not have a career opportunity to really lift yourself and your family out of poverty in order to survive in this region.”

Cheung eventually decided to continue his education, pursuing a master’s in social work at UCLA, five years after earning a bachelor’s degree in psychobiology from the same university. While enrolled in the master’s program, Cheung interned for former assemblywoman and current Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass, who was focused on foster care legislation at the time. Cheung credits the experience as his entry into the political realm.

After obtaining the master’s degree, Cheung spent about nine years working in various city and government positions, including time as the director of international trade for the Port of Los Angeles and the secretary general of foreign affairs and trade for the office of former Mayor Eric Garcetti.

Cheung in 2015 joined the World Trade Center Los Angeles, a subsidiary of the LAEDC. He is the president of the trade center and will continue his post in addition to his new role as LAEDC’s chief. 

“Seeing the power of government and seeing the power of the private sector really shaped me. Having all those different perspectives has prepared me to take on this heavy responsibility of leading the LAEDC,” Cheung said. “I see this as a unique opportunity to bring all those experiences together — understanding how government works, understanding how the private sector can thrive and understanding the impact it has on the community. I don’t think there are too many social workers that are heading economic development agencies, and I’m glad to bring that perspective to this role as well.”

Allen lauded Cheung’s diverse repertoire as one that will carry the incoming chief executive and president to success alongside the nonprofit, its partners and the local economy. 

“He’s a gifted executive and a well-respected leader in our public and private sectors,” Allen said. “We are an international organization representing an international region, and as head of our world trade center, he’s developed a network of partners and supporters who believe in Los Angeles as a place to invest.”

The way forward

Cheung is taking a cautiously optimistic approach to empowering L.A.’s economy. He said that Covid’s impact has created an obligation to tackle the region’s economic issues in new ways, emphasizing that the nonprofit will need to be more focused on using research to identify industries that will bring the most return for Los Angeles. 

Research is one component of a five-pillar approach LAEDC will use to foster economic growth, according to Cheung. Another pillar is the establishment of industry councils comprised of public, private, academic, nonprofit and labor organizations to help chart out short- to long-term goals.

The economic development organization’s remaining goals for the new year and beyond are international business prioritization, workforce development and business attraction, retention and growth. The unifying idea of the pillars is bringing as many local stakeholders as possible to the table so that goals, policies and programs match the values of the entities that inhabit L.A.’s economy.

Cheung referred to the growing bioscience industry in Los Angeles as one of many that the nonprofit will work tightly with moving forward. According to Cheung, there are tens of thousands of bioscience jobs in the Los Angeles region. Of those jobs, more than half do not require a four-year degree, he said, adding that the sector has significant employment potential.

“So, this five-pillar approach, imagine we can repeat that process not only for the bioscience industry, but also for the aerospace industry, for digital media entertainment, for the ocean economy,” Cheung said. “That’s how we can make a difference. That’s going to be our strategy moving forward.”

Cheung plans to continue the nonprofit’s focus on organizations led by women and people of color, fueled by his own experiences of being an immigrant and lacking resources. For him, an economic approach conducted from the bottom up is what he believes will allow the economy to grow.

“A lot of folks have said a rising tide lifts all boats. That’s fine and all if you have a boat,” Cheung said. “If you don’t have a boat, you can drown. Our hope is that with LAEDC, we make sure that everybody has a boat, everybody has their life vests and that we’re all equally going to be rising together.”

Hannah Madans Welk
Hannah Madans Welk
Hannah Madans Welk is a managing editor at the Los Angeles Business Journal and the San Fernando Valley Business Journal. She previously covered real estate for the Los Angeles Business Journal. She has done work with publications including The Orange County Register, The Real Deal and doityourself.com.

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