No Stone Unturned: Social Mobility Is Donors' Latest Cause at CSUSM
By Brian Hiro
About a decade ago, Steve Wagner helped establish a professional mentor program through the College of Business Administration at Cal State San Marcos.
It was the latest of many ties that bind the co-founder of one of the most successful companies in craft beer to the university in the city where Stone Brewing was born in 1996, only seven years after CSUSM itself.
Every year, Wagner would mentor a student from the business school, and generally he would derive as much from the experience as the aspiring business person would. He has continued the practice to the present, and he goes out of his way to maintain contact with the mentees. Over the holidays last year, he invited the entire group out for lunch.
“We enjoy keeping in touch because I like following their journey and I think they like using me as a sounding board for advice,” Wagner said. “For many, getting a college education and a college degree has had a profound effect on them, their families and their social and economic impact in the community. It’s amazing and moving.”
The increasing resonance of social mobility with Wagner over time dovetails perfectly with its importance to CSUSM as one of the institutional pillars for President Ellen Neufeldt, a nationally regarded expert in social mobility. CSUSM’s newly launched institutional strategic plan places student success at the center of the campus’ mission, with a vision to be a national leader in student social mobility. That synchronicity has led to a deepening of the relationship between the university and Wagner, one of its most ardent community champions.
Wagner, chair of CSUSM’s Foundation Board, and his wife, Laura, have given the university $1 million to establish the Stone Brewing Fund for Social Mobility, which will provide foundational funding to improve college access and success for students via avenues such as Student Affairs initiatives, college faculty mentorship programs and community outreach.
“We are so impressed with the growth of CSUSM and what it has accomplished over the years, and we wanted to help out in any way that we could,” Wagner said. “The social mobility piece is important to us because one of the best ways to solve the inequity or inequality in our society these days is to help people who may not normally have access to a college education to be able to get there and succeed. And it’s not just success for them – it’s success for their families and, in CSUSM’s case, with 80% of graduates staying in the area, it’s success for our region and companies like ours, families like ours.”
The Wagners structured their gift so that it’s both an endowment that supports long-term priorities and a discretionary fund that can be used by Neufeldt for immediate needs – needs, for example, that were exposed by the pandemic.
“This gift is transformational for us, our students and our community – it’s a tremendous investment in our collective future,” Neufeldt said. “I am grateful to Steve and Laura for their immense generosity and confidence in the mission of CSUSM. We are excited to leverage their investment to support and further enable the success of our students in earning degrees, leading to social mobility and economic prosperity for our entire region.”
Wagner has made a deep impression on Jessica Berger in her first year at CSUSM since being hired as vice president of University Advancement last summer.
“To say that Steve leads by example would be an understatement,” Berger said. “His dedication to the success of our students today, through thoughtful mentorship and generous support, combined with his commitment to future generations of CSUSM students will have a lasting imprint. The magnitude of Steve’s gift underscores the tremendous impact that philanthropy will have in transforming lives.”
Among the ways that the social mobility fund could be deployed in the short term are to enhance the critical financial stability for existing student programs, to expand success programs to serve more students, to develop a comprehensive data management and analysis process to track outcomes and student progress, and to create multiple success programs for underrepresented student populations. It also will support an experiential leadership conference and social mobility symposium.
“We are truly excited about the establishment of the Stone Brewing Fund for Social Mobility,” said Gail Cole-Avent, CSUSM’s associate vice president of Student Life. “Within Student Life, our vision and work has focused on providing inclusive and high-impact programs that expose students to leadership development, mentorship opportunities and community connections. This investment will help us elevate those programs, which will have a positive impact on our students’ future success.”
In many ways, Stone Brewing and CSUSM have grown up together as twin anchors of the North County region. Wagner saw the value of the local university almost from the day that he founded Stone with Greg Koch in a humble San Marcos industrial park, in the process launching a craft beer revolution. In the early years of the business, Wagner recalls, Stone would invite marketing professors to bring their classes to the brewery for a guest lecture by Koch (more the public face of the company) and a tour of the facility.
Stone also undertook projects with CoBA’s Senior Experience program, enlisting business students to research possible expansion into Los Angeles; encouraged some of its employees to receive additional training through Extended Learning; and for more than a decade hosted on campus its annual anniversary beer festival, which raised funds for local nonprofit organizations.
The Wagners have been donating to CSUSM for 17 years, but it wasn’t until Steve was invited to join the Foundation Board about a decade ago that they ramped up their philanthropy. One of their main areas of emphasis in giving is music, as they fund a music scholarship and School of Arts programming that focuses on underrepresented artists. That’s apt for Steve, given that he spent much of the 1980s as a working musician, playing bass for a Los Angeles-based band known as The Balancing Act, before he began the home brewing that led to the creation of Stone.
Since taking over as Foundation Board chair last summer, Wagner has become even more involved in CSUSM’s annual Giving Day. Last Nov. 30, he and board director Nathaniel Keifer-Wheals funded 23 challenge gifts and bonuses, fueling a level of competition that helped the university break its Giving Day records by raising $457,193 in just 24 hours.
“Giving Day has exceeded my wildest expectations with the way it has progressed so quickly,” Wagner said. “The university has done a great job of making it a really fun and competitive day, which drives the participation and the excitement.”
In giving this latest donation, Steve and Laura Wagner are endorsing what they call the “incredible leadership” of Neufeldt, who has trumpeted social mobility as a core value since she arrived at CSUSM in 2019. Steve also is making a statement to would-be donors throughout the region, hoping to inspire them with the power of his example.
“My friends have heard me talk about the university. They know that I’m passionate, and they know why I am,” he said. “I thought for a long time that CSUSM was a well-kept secret in our region, but that has really changed over the last 10 years or so. People are starting to understand the tremendous impact the university has, and I think it’s easier and easier to get people excited about it and hopefully to get people to contribute as well.”
Brian Hiro, Communications Specialist
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