Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Laura Fox O’Sullivan and the art of problem solving

Laura Fox O’Sullivan and the art of problem solving

Laura Fox O’Sullivan, director of the Finger Lakes regional office of Empire State Development, poses for a portrait in their offices in Rochester.

Laura Fox O’Sullivan is the new director for the Finger Lakes region of Empire State Development (ESD).

In October, she officially took over for Vincent Esposito who was promoted to senior vice president for regional economic development at ESD. He also serves as assistant secretary for upstate intergovernmental affairs under Gov. Kathy Hochul.

Empire State Development is the economic development wing of New York state, and Fox O’Sullivan is responsible for ESD projects in a nine-county area.

Fox O’Sullivan, 37, previously was vice president of the Rochester Downtown Development Corp. where she was responsible for creating the Commissary, located in the Sibley Building in downtown Rochester.

The Commisary provides kitchen space and food industry business assistance to help aspiring entrepreneurs build food companies and create jobs.

“We are the part of New York state that works with companies who are looking to grow here, that are looking to locate here, expand here,” she said.

As a recent example, ESD played a key role in bringing Coca-Cola’s new 745,000-square-foot dairy production facility to Webster. The plant on Tebor Road will produce Fairlife milk and employ about 250 workers.

Esposito said Fox O’Sullivan “is probably as poised and as quick and as overall professional as anyone I’ve met.”

“She just has all the characteristics of a leader. I’m astounded by how quickly she grasps new material,” Esposito said.

Esposito said he had a keen interest in who replaced him because, after 10 years in that job, he knew the importance of the position.

“I think she’d be successful in anything she did. Her overall professionalism, competence, and smarts just make her incredibly well suited to be a leader in our community,” he said.

“She has exceeded my expectations in the way she’s doing the job. It has been a fantastic fit for her, and for the Rochester ESD office and the Finger Lakes region,” he said.

Since joining ESD, Fox O’Sullivan said she has been pleasantly surprised by the team approach to projects.

“Everyone is really willing to help each other. Even if it’s not their project they’ll dig for answers, or call somebody, or be very helpful,” she said.

And she has been fascinated by the business operations she has learned about since starting the job.

“I work with a lot of manufacturers. I’m amazed that someone is able to identify a problem, identify a solution to that problem, and then create the mechanics to manufacture that solution and distribute it, in some cases around the world. And that’s done in these totally inconspicuous places all over our region,” she said.

Fox O’Sullivan sees herself as a problem solver.

“The problem that I was solving at the Commisary was that a lot of people, especially woman and people of color, wanted to start food businesses but couldn’t afford to open up their own kitchen, or their own restaurant on their own. So, I thought, let’s create a facility in which they can rent space affordably and then provide them with the services to wrap around that,” she said.

“I approach things, in general, from a perspective of, how can I help create a solution? If it’s working with my colleagues at ESD, or if it’s working with a company that wants to locate here, that’s still my approach one way or the other.”

O’Sullivan works with businesses in a wide range of industries but knows it’s impossible for her to be an expert in all of them.

“I’m not going to micromanage how someone handles their part of the job. I’m going to be there as a resource, but I’m not going to question their competency, or their ability to do it,” she said.

Fox O’Sullivan sees her role as that of a quarterback, “directing traffic and keeping everything running.”

“It’s not necessarily diving deeply into every situation to understand it fully because we do so many different things at ESD … we can’t be an expert in everything,” she said.

“There are not enough hours in the day, or the brain capacity, to dive deep into those things, so I feel like, for me, what I have to come to terms with, in my role here, is that I need to know just enough to understand who to call to ask for clarity and additional information, and who to connect somebody to as needed,” she said.

Fox O’Sullivan

ESD often works on projects with county industrial development agencies.

“They are really the boots on the ground for us. They know when a company is looking to make an expansion or is just getting started. What we want them to do is connect that company to us so that they can learn about what we can do to help them grow,” she said.

Originally from Pittsford, Fox O’Sullivan received a bachelor’s degree in the history of art and architecture and Italian studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She received a master’s degree in urban planning at Tufts University.

“If someone had told me at 24 that 13 years later this is where I would be I would be a little surprised, very pleased, but not necessarily where I thought I would end up,” she said.

After graduate school, Fox O’Sullivan worked as an urban planner at Bergman Architects, Engineers & Planners. She then went to the RDDC, where she had been an intern during graduate school.

She first got the idea for the Commisary in 2017. The project required $2 million in funding and was ready to open at the peak of the COVID pandemic at the end of 2020. Now 60 businesses use the facility.

Fox O’Sullivan’s undergraduate academic focus was a continuation of an interest instilled as a child. Family trips always included visits to art museums with her mother when she was growing up.

“I was fortunate to have really early exposure to the art world. Art history is a platform to understand history and politics and philosophy and human nature, and so many different things. I think it’s a great undergraduate education,” she said.

But mixed into her studies was a class in community economic development.

“It changed my life,” she said.

“That was very eye opening to me. What I struggled with as an art history major for myself was making it meaningful to the world today and big problems,” Fox O’Sullivan said.

She was hoping to become “a problem solver,” and going to work for an auction house like Sotheby’s or Christie’s — a common destination for art majors — would not have satisfied that ambition.

“That class opened my eyes up to the different ways that urban planning and policy can tie into economic development,” she said.

“I feel so privileged that I’m in this role at this moment because it seems like economic development is a game of patience; it takes decades sometimes for things to come to fruition … I feel like we’re at this point in our region where a lot of that hard work is now starting to pay off and you can see the fruits of the labor,” Fox O’Sullivan said.

[email protected] / (585) 232-2035


Laura Fox O’Sullivan

Title: Finger Lakes Regional Director, Empire State Development

Residence: Rochester

Age: 37

Education: University of Pennsylvania, bachelor’s degree in the history of art and architecture, Italian studies, 2008; Tufts University, master’s degree in urban planning, 2013.

Family: Husband, Marty O’Sullivan; daughters, Virginia Rose, 5, and Evelyn, 2.

Activities: Gardening, family,

Quote: “I approach things, in general, from a perspective of, how can I help create a solution? If it’s working with my colleagues at ESD, or if it’s working with a company that wants to locate here, that’s still my approach one way or the other.”