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Q&A with EMUP Professor and Alum, Beth Zollars

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Beth Zollars is the Principal of urban strategy consulting company Zollars & Co., as well as a Price adjunct faculty member. Beth returned as an instructor after graduating from the Executive Master of Urban Planning online program in 2021. In her Q&A she discusses the most impactful skills she learned and why she believes, both as an alumna and professor, that the program is so unique.

Q: What factors motivated you to further your education? Did something change in your career, work environment, or in your field?

A: I’ve had a very diverse background. I started in the business world, worked in a technology startup, and also launched a retail brand. But, that whole time, in every discipline, I had my toe in the community. And lately, I’d had my toe more and more in the community – more of like a leg or my whole body for that matter! I was really seeing the new urban crisis between affordable housing and homelessness. And so, I got to be a part of an organization called the Urban Land Institute, which opened my eyes to some of the big problems including development and equity issues.

I really tried to get a seat at the table in a number of different ways. One of them was I joined an organization that was really trying to create policy for affordable housing, inclusionary zoning. And that was like a light went off and I realized at that moment that I didn’t have the skill set that I actually needed – I was lacking in some key areas. And that’s what really drove me to the EMUP program, because I felt like it was such a great cross section of those pieces: planning, development, and policy.

Q: How did you first hear about the EMUP program, and what drove you to pick USC’s Executive Master of Urban Planning online over other graduate programs?

A: Well, as a working professional, it would be very difficult to just have a hard stop and go back to school, and so I was definitely looking at an online program. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go the traditional urban planning route, because to me that wasn’t really where the next step of my career would be. I was a very senior executive, and so I wanted to take on a different leadership role. So, there really weren’t any other offerings that I felt best suited my skill set. It really was what I was looking for – this collaborative kind of cross section of those three areas, not just a traditional urban planning program.

Q: What were your outcome goals and desires going into the program?

A: It was really expanding my knowledge base so that I would feel more comfortable having a seat at the table. For example, [expanding] my knowledge around municipalities, or going in front of a council and looking at certain problems that the city was facing that I felt I needed to have a say in. So, I really felt like I needed to round out that skill base of 30 years that I had prior, including business experience and some development experience.

Beth Zollars

Q: How did you balance the demands of study with your life, both personal and professional?

A: Interestingly enough, we were the first Covid class. I was accepted into the program prior, but we started that January. And then if you remember, the lockdowns happened in March. So, it’s hard for me to say how that balance would’ve happened in real life, even though I still had work issues going on and municipality issues. Much of my work was from home, so I wasn’t commuting. But, I do believe that even in that space, you could get sucked into going 12 hours in front of your computer – between work and school. I had to really set timers for myself. I had to make sure I was going outside walking around because between class, asynchronous coursework, and my work demands, you really could have been chained to your computer. It was a conscious effort to incorporate some of those breaks amidst those demands.

Q: How was your interaction/experience with your professors? What about your fellow students? Do you keep in touch with any of them today?

A: The professors I thought were excellent and I really appreciated the combination of professors with an academic background as well as practitioners. I think it is a really nice balance that allows you to see real life experience while also putting it in theoretical ways. I actually keep in touch with many of the professors since I’m also now teaching with some of them. As far as my cohort, absolutely. I’m not sure if I would’ve bonded as closely if it wasn’t during a pandemic experience, but we all really came together – we coalesced. I mean, I looked forward to those evenings together. It was really a lifeline, quite honestly. And I still keep in touch with many of them and I’ve even used many of them as guest lecturers in my current class.

Q: The EMUP program is an executive program, designed for seasoned professionals who are either experienced in urban planning or in a related field. Was that diversity of experience and knowledge valuable?

A: Yes, absolutely. Much of the work is really group oriented, so from that aspect we would try to put groups together that wouldn’t all have the same skill set. For example, I was very strong in strategy and the development side. Whereas I didn’t have, perhaps, the financial skill set, so I would really look to somebody that might have had that to add that person to my team. It was really helpful to have that different skill set because I felt we made a better whole then, and we could certainly look at our work together as something that was stronger than just if it was my own.

Q: Talk to us about a project you did during your program. How did it prepare you for the future?

A: In the community engagement class, we created a project around a large project in a particular city. It had to have a big component of community engagement. Meaning, how are we going to include all the stakeholders in that project? So in that regard, the community engagement project was really intriguing to me. They chose, actually at that time, Kansas City, which is where I am located. The project was on whether a stadium should relocate to the downtown area. So, it was a really interesting project because it was really embedded in reality, specifically how it would impact those community members, and if there would be negative externalities that we needed to mitigate because of that. So, that was probably one of my favorite projects.

Q: How soon were you able to directly apply the skills you learned into your professional role? And what knowledge or skills that you learned in the EMUP program were the most impactful to you?

A: I really feel like every class had some nugget. For example, my career does not take me into big data that much, but I do oftentimes have to utilize that information. I think it’s really good to be able to do it yourself sometimes. So in big data, while it might not be my professional choice and what I am spending most of my career on, the skillset is, I think for me, one of the most important things that I learned in the EMUP program. The others are, as I mentioned previously, community engagement because that was something that I had not experienced before. So, that was a great class to really broaden my skill set. Also, the class around development and the economy. I hadn’t taken an economics class since undergrad, so it was really great to refresh my skill set around how the economy of urban planning can really impact things like transportation, and how we can look at transit-oriented development. Understanding theoretically how that can impact urban planning can have a big emphasis on how we even choose to do projects.

Q: Now that you’ve graduated, how has the EMUP program helped further your career?

A: Well, in a big way because now I am actually a faculty member in EMUP, as well as in undergrad urban planning. But, it’s also allowed me to really expand my client base. We were pretty narrow in scope in terms of projects that we accepted. Now I feel like at least we can broaden our client base as well as even look at some of the projects from a deeper perspective. I do feel like the EMUP program helped me not only broaden that perspective but see the important key crossroads.

And, if you’re sitting across the table from a developer and you’re a planner, you have to understand how you can coexist. If you’re looking at policy and trying to look at affordable housing policy, how is that going to impact a developer? If you’re a developer, how does a developer want to interact with somebody that is looking at affordable housing policy? I don’t think there is a realistic place, at least in this country, where those don’t have strong connections together. And I think the more you can understand how those connections intersect, the better that you can work out really innovative solutions together.

Q: Would you recommend the EMUP degree to a prospective student? What advice would you give them?

A: I absolutely would recommend the EMUP degree to prospective students. I think one of the key things is you definitely have to be self-motivated and I think that’s any online program. There isn’t a lot of hand holding, and so if you’re not a self-starter, I would suggest perhaps a different modality of learning because it does take a lot of concentration and scheduling and balancing your life. I do think that, no matter what discipline within those areas that we spoke about previously, that the EMUP program could be a really great fit for many different types of professionals.

Q: What made you want to come back to the EMUP program as a faculty member?

A: This program is very special. I feel like there aren’t very many programs that look at how growth through development and equity can really coexist. There are real estate development programs, even at USC. There are planning programs, but oftentimes they don’t speak to each other. They don’t really look at it as a collaborative governance model. Sometimes developers are thinking that the people that are on the other side of the aisle in affordable housing might be the enemy, and likewise. And so, what the EMUP program did and why I wanted to come back to that program is because I feel like it’s really important now that we’re looking at this new urban crisis around affordable housing and looking at innovative economic development and revitalization of the urban cores.

It’s even more important that we can come together and find a solution, and I don’t feel like the way we’ve been doing it is perhaps the best methodology. There’s too many negative externalities. For example, when we go in to develop communities, we hear about gentrification. And gentrification can be a situation where people that have been in that neighborhood for 30, 40 years are displaced, and oftentimes it’s not very helpful to the community in doing so. So, there has to be a way of including development and equity in the same sentence, and get professionals around the same table to do that. And I think the EMUP is one of the best tools to do that and teach future leaders.

Q: What do you enjoy most about being a faculty member in the EMUP program?

A: Both in EMUP and undergrad, I’m teaching capstones. So I feel like I get the frosting on the cake. Students have been through this amazing program and through a lot of magnificent professors and work, and now I get to see the fruition of that. I get to put it all together. It’s like, we’ve been making this great soup with all these great ingredients and now I get to be the person that gets to taste the soup.

I also feel like I try to direct students because professionally I have had a lot of strategic framework and process work. And so, I help them put all those different pieces into an actual framework, so that they not only can use it for their capstone project but they can also use it in their professions as well. Sometimes it just helps to have that framework to organize all these different pieces that they’ve learned.

Q: How has the EMUP program evolved since you were a student? What improvements are you most excited about?

A: I just had the luxury of attending one of the first off-sites that EMUP has had since COVID. And I think one of the neat things about it is the people who created the EMUP program knew they would need to look at where this program is going – does the curriculum fit together? Are we meeting the needs of the students? Now, we have a little bit of time under our belt and we’re going to be able to really look at it with fresh eyes and see where those needs are going. And not only where the needs of the students are going, but what are the needs of the communities? What are the needs of our urban cores?

We also see issues going on in suburbia and kind of the decentralization of suburbia and destabilization of suburbia. So, how does that all play into what EMUP is offering? And so I think that’s really interesting, that they can have a look at it and say, “Yes, this is an amazing program but it’s not stagnant. It’s not something that is going to be this way forever.” And so, I appreciate that and I think that’s where the program is going.

Q: What was your favorite course as a student? What about as a professor?

A: It’s so hard to choose because I like them for different reasons at different times. I mentioned before, I think big data was really intriguing and interesting, and perhaps it was something that I knew nothing about and had to really delve in and try to understand. I also think about the ‘why’ part of it; I think we all go into this program thinking that we know the why. Don Spivak’s class early on was really about, what is happening to cities and why are they in trouble? And what does that even mean? How do we even have the theory of change, what can we possibly change around these issues? So theoretically, kind of at the high level, I would say that was probably one of my favorite classes.

And then at the end, I think of Professor Frank Zerunyan’s class, which was really eye-opening. It covered the need for a collaborative governance model, and not just within municipalities. Municipalities can’t do it alone. In the school of Michael Porter, sometimes you need a business model, sometimes you need the private sector to really solve social problems. How can we have public-private partnerships and how can we collaborate with the private sector, amongst municipalities, to get really some of these big, wicked problems done?

Q: Having experience as a student and as a faculty member, what would you say is the most unique thing about the EMUP program, students, or faculty?

A: First of all, geographically, I think it was really interesting to be in the same room with a city councilperson from Miami, a planner from New York, and also have the Midwest and of course LA represented. With an in-person class, you might not get that level of experience and geographic diversity in the same classroom. I think that was a little bit unique.

I think secondly, looking at the actual curriculum, it isn’t just a traditional urban planning program. It isn’t just traditional development with a little bit of policy sprinkled on top. It’s such a unique hybrid, and I’m almost surprised that more schools aren’t doing it. In some ways I’m glad more schools aren’t doing it, but I do feel like it offers you such a real-world perspective. Many of the other programs are more academic-based. And while some of that theory is definitely important in the foundation of it, at the end of the day if you really want to thrive in your career, especially after an executive program, you need to have these real-world examples. So, that’s where I would say it’s a little bit different. I do believe it is something that really sets the EMUP program apart.

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