Steve Falk is the president and CEO of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, where he works to make this famous city more business-friendly. He is also the former publisher of the 10th-largest newspaper in the country, the San Francisco Chronicle. Before any of this success, though, he was just another student at Elizabethtown College.
Falk received his BA in psychology from Etown in 1976. When he started college, he intended to major in pre-med but decided against it when he discovered organic chemistry was a required class. Former psychology professor Del Ellsworth, who was Falk’s favorite professor, “got [him] interested and kept [him] interested” in the discipline.
While he was going to school, Falk worked part-time in the circulation department, mail room and as a copy boy for a Lancaster newspaper from 1970 until 1976. He would go to classes during the week and work for the newspaper Friday afternoons as well as on the weekends. He also delivered newspapers when he was a child.
During the week, Falk explored his interest in music. He was a member of the jazz band, concert band and orchestra during his time at the College. He spent the majority of his college days with the music department, especially Dr. Otis Kitchen, who was another favorite professor of Falk’s.
“In general, as I look back at the Etown days, it was always a very close-knit community of both students and professors. It was easy to make friends, easy to get along, the campus always had a good feel,” Falk said. “It was large enough to provide lots of resources but small enough that you felt like you were a part of a group. Professors were always very involved with students and always had time to interact if you needed that.”
Many aspects of Etown have changed since Falk graduated but not what he considers to be the most important: a personal education.
“There’s certainly new facilities and more modern facilities but at its very core, the College is still very focused on a great education and not just an education but teaching young adults how to be independent and successful,” he said. “I think the definition of a great college or a great education is not what you learn, but how you learn to think and how you learn to solve problems and how to react to issues. It’s easy to learn facts and figures; the tough thing to learn and to teach is how to solve problems, and that’s the best part of an Etown education.”
When Falk graduated from Etown, he went to work for the Ithaca Journal in Ithaca, N.Y. as the country circulation manager. In August 1987, Falk joined the San Francisco Chronicle staff as its circulation director. He worked his way up until he became president and CEO of the San Francisco Agency in November 1996 and the publisher and president of the San Francisco Chronicle in March 2003.
As the newspaper industry began to decline, Falk decided it was time for a career change, something that never scared him. “The one constant about life is change, so the best advice is: don’t be afraid to change. Embrace it and learn from it,” he advised. “I find people all the time who are afraid of change, and it’s all in your head.”
In December 2005, he started his current position in the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce. “I’m responsible for the strategic direction of the organization,” Falk said. “I work on policies in the city of San Francisco to help make this a business-friendly place for business.”
Despite all of his success, Falk’s greatest accomplishment is watching those who he has worked with also become successful. “It always gives you a lot of pride to see people who you’ve worked with go on to bigger and better things and to become successful themselves,” he said. “It’s always great to be successful, but it’s even better to help others be successful.”
Even though Falk is across the country from Etown, he stays close with his alma mater as a member of the Board of Trustees. Whenever he is able to visit, he takes a walk around the campus.
“Whether you’re a one-year graduate of the College or a 30-year graduate of the College, you always tend to rewalk your steps that you remember between your dorm and classrooms,” Falk said. “You just tend to retrace the same path you used to take.” He also always makes sure to stop in the psychology department.
Falk has three sons, two of whom are married, and four grandchildren, who all live in the Bay area, giving him plenty of opportunities to spend time with his family. They go to his house on Lake Tahoe most weekends to relax. Falk also enjoys playing tennis or golf in his free time.
“When you’re in the middle of your college education, it feels like it will take forever to get done and to graduate, but after it’s all said and done, you realize that the time actually goes by pretty fast,” Falk said. “So my advice is: enjoy the four years while you’re there and make lots of friends. There’s a lot of work ahead after you graduate, so don’t be afraid to enjoy the time when you’re at Etown because it will actually go by faster than it feels like when you’re in the middle of it.”