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Menlo Park: Meet the Golden Acorn award winners

Chamber of Commerce awards recognize public and community service, innovation and business excellence

Winners of the 2016 Golden Acorn Awards will be recognized at a reception on Tuesday, Sept. 20, starting at 5 p.m., at the Stanford Park Hotel, 100 El Camino Real.

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's chief operating officer, will give the keynote address and Mayor Rich Cline will emcee.

Tickets are $125; cocktails and hors d'oeuvres will be served. Click here for more information.

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If the majestic oak is the symbol of Menlo Park, then golden acorns are – the shiny, good seeds of the city?

Extending the metaphor, it makes sense that the Golden Acorn Awards ceremony, hosted by the Menlo Park Chamber of Commerce, will on Sept. 20 celebrate Menlo Park's leaders in business, innovation, and public and community service.

This year, the winners are:

● Public Service: Menlo Park Police Chief Robert Jonsen.

● Community Service: Menlo Park-Atherton Education Foundation, which raises funds for the Menlo Park City School District.

● Innovation & Technology: Women's Startup Lab in Menlo Park.

● Business Excellence: Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, a Menlo Park venture capital firm.

Chamber of Commerce President/CEO Fran Dehn said the common thread linking the four winners is a strong sense of how each has added value to the community and created a "ripple effect beyond Menlo Park that makes (the city) significant," she said.

The winners were selected by a committee made up of members of the Chamber's board of directors, she said. Nominations came from the community and Chamber of Commerce members.

In all, she said, the committee received about 60 nominations, and they were evaluated based on the information given in the nomination.

Several local companies sponsored the awards, but did not participate in the nomination process or know about who would be selected before the announcement was made, according to Ms. Dehn. Facebook sponsored the Innovation and Technology award, Flegel's Home Furnishings sponsored the Business Excellence award and Bohannon Development Company sponsored the Community Service award.

This will be the 40th Golden Acorn Awards ceremony, and the first after a four-year hiatus.

Public Service: Police chief

In the three and a half years Bob Jonsen has been working as police chief in Menlo Park, there have been significant changes in the department.

One of his first goals as chief was to build trust, especially in the Belle Haven neighborhood in an effort to reduce violent crime in the area. A residents group was created to serve as advisers to the police department. This led to change in traffic enforcement around Menlo Park schools and strengthened neighborhood watch groups.

The department began a "Friday Night Lights" outreach program, tailgate-style gatherings when kids can collect signatures from police officers and get prizes, while parents talk to officers.

The department took steps to become more transparent, placing its policy manual online and, in recent months, uploading data, such as calls for service, traffic stops and police department demographics.

The department developed public-private partnerships, including with Facebook, which has resulted in funding for a Belle Haven police substation and a full-time officer, Mary Ferguson, to work on crime prevention with at-risk youth in the neighborhood.

"If we hadn't developed those relationships, I don't think we'd have such a continued trend of decline (in violent crime)," Chief Jonsen said.

He's seen an uptick in the number of people who call to report suspicious behavior, he said. Recently, it led to the timely arrest of a burglar.

From 2013 to 2014, the overall number of crimes committed in Belle Haven fell by 42 percent and in all of Menlo Park by 12 percent, the police department says. Traffic collisions fell by 15 percent during the same period, according to a city report.

The decline in major crimes has enabled the police department "to focus on quality of life issues," Chief Jonsen said. "That's good because we're able to open the door for community engagement."

Coming from a police career in Los Angeles, where officers had full workloads running from one call to the next, he said the slower (and seemingly slowing) pace of crime in Menlo Park has given the department the freedom to develop new programs.

He said he's been focusing on expanding services and capacity without increasing staff, and has done so by taking officers off of general patrol duty and placing them elsewhere, such as working on just motorist-related issues, and working with homeless and transient people to connect them to resources and find more permanent places to live.

"I'm very honored by (the award)," he said. "I'll be receiving it on behalf of the men and women of the department and people in the community. The things we've accomplished were not just by one individual."

Community Service: Menlo Park-Atherton Education Foundation

The winner of the Golden Acorn Award for community service is the Menlo Park-Atherton Education Foundation, which raised $3.6 million last year for the Menlo Park City School District and its K-8 schools: Laurel, Encinal, Oak Knoll and Hillview.

The foundation, run by a board of 58 volunteers, boosts the district's annual budget by about 10 percent, or about $1,500 per student, according to the foundation's website.

The funds go directly to the district's general fund, which leaves it up to the elected school board to decide how to spend the money, said foundation Executive Director Susannah Hill.

The extra dollars in the district's budget go a long way toward paying teacher salaries, which keeps class sizes smaller, she pointed out.

Foundation funds help pay for specialist teachers such as science aides, art and drama teachers, and "Jeanie Ritchie Innovation Grants" that district teachers can apply for to pay for specific initiatives in the classroom. One such grant in the 2015-16 school year allowed students at Hillview Middle School to build a model of the Tuolumne River watershed and learn about the water cycle in a hands-on way.

The foundation has helped fund the district's guidance and wellness programs. There's a guidance counselor at each of the district's schools, and a growing wellness program that offers a support group for middle school students with behavior infractions and citizenship lessons for kindergartners, Ms. Hill said.

The foundation raises money via annual campaigns and events such as a spring auction and a community 5K fun run. Money raised goes to the school district or toward the foundation's endowment. Gains from the endowment go toward funding professional development for teachers, Ms. Hill said.

"It's a lot of work," she said of the foundation's volunteer efforts. "It's not easy asking for money."

This year, the foundation's goal is to raise $3.7 million, she said.

Innovation & Technology: Women's Startup Lab

The winner of the Golden Acorn "Innovation and Technology" award will go to Women's Startup Lab, a for-profit company, with offices at 1020 Marsh Road in Menlo Park, that offers an accelerator program for female-led startups. Since the company started in 2013, it has provided training to 80 to 85 female entrepreneurs, according to founder and CEO Ari Horie.

"In order to have true innovation at a global level, we have to optimize opportunity in the world," she said. "There's no way we can do that without women being a part of that."

Women's Startup Lab has focused mostly on providing educational tools and mentorships to help women succeed as entrepreneurs. The company also plans to launch its own venture arm in the coming months, which will enable it to offer funding to the startups it helps, said Ms. Horie.

As the startup lab grows, she said, it will develop three kinds of programs focused on helping female startup founders explore, grow and fund their businesses.

The idea is to launch branches of the company in other locations, such as Japan, Singapore and Washington, D.C., and provide educational and networking opportunities for women working on their startups at an earlier stage. Then, when those companies become more focused on growing and seeking funding, Women's Startup Lab would offer on-site training at the company's Menlo Park location.

What would it mean, she asked, if Menlo Park became known as a place in Silicon Valley where "we really provide a playing field for women to thrive?"

Business Excellence: Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers

The winner of the Golden Acorn Award for business excellence is Sand Hill Road venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

The company has amassed the quintessential Silicon Valley portfolio since it was founded in 1972, and has funded many of the tech companies that have come to define the sector today: Google, Twitter, Amazon, Uber, Airbnb, Snapchat, Spotify, Square, Doordash, Waze and Coursera, to name a few.

The firm invests in companies that create products in the areas of "consumer digital, enterprise digital, connected devices, life sciences, digital health and sustainability," a Kleiner Perkins spokesperson said. "We're always looking to invest in companies that impact the world and create value."

The firm also runs paid fellowship programs in design, engineering and product development that give fellows work experience at companies in the firm's portfolio, and operates an educational blog and podcast for entrepreneurs, according to its website.

"We'd like to thank the Chamber of Commerce for this award, as well as the city of Menlo Park and its residents who have been gracious neighbors for the past 45 years," the spokesperson said. "We're grateful for the community's support."

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