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Regional Profiles – The West Coast – Is it the Best Coast?

Andy Morse (OC), Contributing Writer

Sure, “best” rhymes with “west,” but is that all there is to this connection? You be the judge.

As many students have likely discovered by now, the U.S. has another coast located about 3,000 miles from here. Found on the left side of a standard map of North America, the West Coast is bordered by the Pacific Ocean. And if you haven’t heard about the Pacific Ocean, you probably will soon: according to the internet, it’s home to the world’s fastest sea star, the Pacific Sun Star, which can travel at speeds of up to 0.027 miles per hour, or about 75 centimeters per minute. (Unsure about centimeters? Just ask one of your international classmates – they LOVE the metric system!)

For many Americans, it was the East Coast-West Coast Rap Rivalry of the 1990s that put the West Coast on the map. Whether you sided with Biggie and Puff Daddy or 2Pac and Snoop is no longer important. Once discovered, the West Coast was not to be ignored. To this day it is often suggested that the HBS administration opted against the creation of a Section W because of faculty concerns that students would be constantly “throwing dubs in the air” (forming the four non-thumb fingers into a “W”) instead of raising their hands. So let’s find out more.

Prominent Southern California industries include aerospace, biotech, international trade and (until recently) homebuilding. Since World War II, major research, design and manufacturing facilities for aerospace heavyweights have been located in the San Diego and Los Angeles areas, and the region continues to serve as the headquarters for Northrop Grumman. Between defense contractors and a massive military presence, San Diego has an economy that is closely tied to the federal budget. In recent years, however, San Diego has also developed into a biotech powerhouse. Educational commentators often suggest that HBS students are subjected to a ridiculous number of biotech/pharma cases because casewriters just want to visit beautiful San Diego.

The most populous city on the West Coast, Los Angeles is considered the global capital of the entertainment industry. From Hollywood to video games to the music recording industry, “showbiz” is not only lucrative for artists, but for those who build movie-sets, cater star-studded parties and work as agents, promoters and producers. The star most important to Los Angeles, however, would have to be the Sun. With many miles of sandy beaches and agreeable weather year-round, Los Angeles is a city that beckons you to stay outside. Totaling about 15 inches of rain per year, L.A. is found in a desert with a climate that’s nicely moderated by the ocean. But don’t be surprised to find gloomy summer weather in the City of Angels: cool ocean waters often generate overcast skies in the late spring and early summer.

The combined port of Los Angeles and Long Beach is the fifth largest port in the world and the most significant in the Western hemisphere. And while longshoremen at the port probably make more money than many Harvard MBAs, breaking into this union is no easy task. If your uncle wasn’t a longshoreman, my understanding is that you don’t have much of a chance. You think there’s value in the HBS network? It’s nothing compared to what these guys have got.

Homebuilding was once a huge industry in Southern California, with Fortune 500 companies such as KB Homes and Countrywide Financial both headquartered in the area. But if you haven’t heard by now, let me be the first to tell you: that whole thing didn’t really work out.

The San Francisco Bay Area is known for high-tech innovation, left-leaning politics and a pleasant but expensive quality of life. With San Francisco at its center, the Bay Area includes Marin County to the north across the Golden Gate Bridge, Oakland and Berkeley to the east and San Jose south down the San Francisco Peninsula. With plenty of open space among the urban and suburban centers of the Bay Area, locals make time for mountain biking, wine tasting, hiking, surfing, fishing and many other activities. And within about a three-hour drive, you can find your way to the gorgeous year-round playground that is Lake Tahoe. On the border between California and Nevada, the Jewel of the Sierra Nevada offers skiing, watersports, nightlife and gambling.

The Bay Area also seems to have a large number of garages, because many of the technological advances of the last few decades were invented in someone’s garage there. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that Google (a Bay Area native) is going around buying garages these days, hoping that someone is just sitting inside inventing something.

Since the Gold Rush, San Francisco has been known as the financial capital of the West Coast, but in case you haven’t heard, finance isn’t really working out right now either.

Heading about 10 hours north, we next find ourselves in Portland, Oregon. What’s the first thing that you need to know about Oregon? Find someone from Oregon, and ask them how to say Oregon.because you’re probably saying it wrong.

Portland prides itself on a terrific pace of life and plenty of public art, gardens and micro-breweries. The Pacific Northwest (as the upper left-hand corner of your U.S. map is known) has relatively inexpensive electricity due to the large hydroelectric dams on the region’s rivers. This has helped to attract manufacturing and raw materials industries to Oregon and Washington, such as the steel and aluminum processors found here. Portland’s major employers include Nike, which is headquartered nearby, and Intel, which has a huge manufacturing presence in Portland.

Driving another three hours north, we reach the largest city in the Pacific Northwest: Seattle. If nothing makes you happier than enjoying a cup of coffee on a rainy day, you’ve come to the right place. Seattle has lots of coffee and rainy days. The birthplace of Starbucks, Tully’s and – you guessed it – Seattle’s Best Coffee Company, the Seattle area is also home to Microsoft, Amazon.com, Costco and forest-products giant Weyerhaeuser. Solidifying the West Coast’s aerospace industry supremacy, the Seattle area is also home to much of Boeing’s aircraft manufacturing, even though the company moved its headquarters to Chicago in 2001.

With almost 50 million people, the West Coast of the U.S. is about so much more than a rap music rivalry. From entertainment to aerospace, biotech to homebuilding (nevermind), high-tech to finance (oh, scratch that too), the West Coast is a land of great opportunity. The centers of exploration, innovation, trade and creativity are certain to provide growth and opportunity well into the future. Is the West Coast the Best Coast? I’ll leave that up to you to decide.

February 9, 2009
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