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April 07, 2004

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Publication Date: Wednesday, April 07, 2004

Menlo Park couple gives $1 million to support POST Menlo Park couple gives $1 million to support POST (April 07, 2004)

By Marion Softky
Almanac Staff Writer

When dot-com winners Steve Blank and Alison Elliott of Menlo Park began to think about a legacy for themselves and their daughters, they focused on saving the San Mateo County coast for future generations.

The result: a gift of $1 million to the Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) from the Elliott-Blank Family Foundation to support its efforts to save land on the coast from sprawl and development.

"We figured the open space on the coast was an irreplaceable resource," says Mr. Blank. "There's really nowhere else in the United States where you have this amazing conjunction of an urban area with a rural, unspoiled coastline."

The gift pushes POST past the $170-million mark in its $200 million campaign, "Saving the Endangered Coast."

"A gift this size really makes a massive difference to the campaign," says Audrey Rust, president of the Menlo Park-based land trust.

Ms. Rust hails the gift as a sign of the resurgence in giving after the doldrums since 9-11 and the burst of the high-tech bubble.

"This gift signals a return to people stepping forward with significant philanthropic gifts, and I'm very excited about it," she says.

Since it was founded in 1977, POST has helped save more than 50,000 acres as permanent open space and parkland on the Peninsula. That total includes 10,819 acres of coastal land protected in the last three years through the coastal campaign.

Startup founder

Mr. Blank, who has been involved with eight Silicon Valley startups as co-founder or executive, retired in 1999 at just the right time.

"We decided to take the money and go home and play with the kids," he says in his office at the Haas Business School at U.C. Berkeley, where he's teaching a course in entrepreneurship. "When you get lucky, you ought to share it."

That experience with startups, plus a love of the coast, where he and his wife own a ranch in south San Mateo County, steered Mr. Blank and Ms. Elliott to choose POST for their legacy.

"POST is one of the best-run organizations in the country," he says. "I teach how to build companies in the business school. I can't think of a better example than POST."

Passion for open space

Steve Blank grew up in a 600-square-foot apartment in New York. "My fantasy was to have a back yard big enough to spend a couple of hours exploring," he says.

After two stints at the University of Michigan, separated by service in the Air Force in Thailand during the Vietnam War, Mr. Blank came West. He moved into the Willows neighborhood of Menlo Park in 1978, and plunged into the heady world of computers. He also married Alison Elliott, who has written books about software for kids and served as president of the Peninsula School board. They have two daughters.

In 1978, Silicon Valley was far more open than it is today. "I was in love with the way the Valley looked. It still had orchards," Mr. Blank recalls. "It was being paved over as we watched."

Mr. Blank built his career building companies. They include Convergent Technologies, Mips Computers, Ardent, SuperMac, and Rocket Science. In 1999, he retired from his eighth startup, E.piphany. "It makes software to help large companies treat customers better," he explains.

During those years, Mr. Blank and his family indulged their love of the coast and its open lands. They have a 260-acre ranch adjacent to Ano Nuevo State Reserve.

"We just felt very connected," Mr. Blank says. "The kids do community service at Ano Nuevo. We feel part of the coast as well as part of Menlo Park."

Recently, Mr. Blank and his family helped establish the nonprofit Cascade Ranch Historic Farm to help perpetuate farming on the coast. Now, Nando Muzzi grows artichokes, brussels sprouts and fava beans on 480 acres of the historic Cascade Ranch.

"We got lucky," Mr. Blank reflects. "In the Valley, people tend to collect things -- airplanes, cars, houses. But as you get older, you think about legacy. What do you want to leave, not only to your children, but to others?

"We want to help preserve the coast for others as well as for our family, and to be able to share it for generations."

For information on POST, call 854-7696, or go to www.openspacetrust.org.


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