Following his road not taken

Entrepreneur Steve Blank is known as a Silicon Valley kingpin, but he chose a far different path in his mid-40s

Steve Blank enjoys a summer day outdoors on his Pescadero property. Photo by Magali Gauthier/The Almanac

At age 45, Steve Blank retired from a career as a serial entrepreneur who co-founded three startups in Silicon Valley. Having passed through the stage of being a money-oriented "maker of things" at that point, he says, he began following a credo he learned from an old friend: Don't forget the common good.

Blank, who now splits his time between homes in Menlo Park and Pescadero, looks back today at an old college pal, Michael Krzys, who went to law school and moved to the South to practice civil rights law with a nonprofit.

In contrast, Blank dropped out of college to join the Air Force during the Vietnam War when many of his peers were resisting the draft.

"(The military) sounded like an adventure to me," Blank said. "I learned electronics in the middle of a war zone and found out that I operated well under chaos."

During those years, he kept in touch with Krzys, who was leading a very different life.

"From the day I met him he had a commitment to public service that was deep, heartfelt, profound, unshakable and to me, mysterious and completely unfathomable," Blank told graduating seniors in a recent commencement address at UC-Santa Cruz's Rachel Carson College.

Blank says his evolution from entrepreneur to environmental watchdog came gradually during his days in Silicon Valley.

"I grew up in New York in a 600-square-foot apartment and never knew what living outside of a city was like until I went to Vietnam," Blank said during an interview with The Almanac.

"When I moved west to work in Silicon Valley I spent my free time on the coast walking and hiking," he added. "With big stretches of land over the hills I figured that somebody was going to develop them."

Blank's entrepreneurial background and environmental interests met head-on when he was named to the California Coastal Commission in 2006 by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who assumed that since he had been a Silicon Valley kingpin that he was on board with "being reasonable" about coastal development.

"Because I was retired, I was looking to give back through public service," he explained. "Schwarzenegger thought I would be another vote for development. It took me a while to get educated."

The first project Blank encountered that caused him to rethink his ideas was a proposal for a desalination plant in Carlsbad on the San Diego County coast.

Desalination seems like a good idea at first blush, he said. You pipe sea water in, eliminate the salt, and pipe fresh water out the other side, he said.

But the plants produce a byproduct, brine, that becomes a poison for fish and plant life when it is released into the ocean and the plant's intake sterilizes all the eggs that could become fish.

"Desalinization plants were really not about providing water for the coast; they're designed to sell that water to other areas to enable more growth," Blank said. "You could bury the outflow pipes under the sea bed to make the release less toxic, but that would cost a lot more money."

Blank was in the minority in voting against the project in a move that he said surprised the plant sponsors and his colleagues on the commission.

"There was nothing wrong with it when you just look at it," he said. "That was me when I started on the Coastal Commission, and then I went OH!"

Blank was also part of an 8-2 majority that turned thumbs down to a project to run a freeway through open space at San Onofre State Beach near San Clemente that contains a popular surfing spot called Trestles.

It was the largest hearing in the history of the Coastal Commission, attracting about 5,000 people at the local fairgrounds with half environmentalists and surfers and the other have half construction workers hankering for local jobs, he said.

While the hearing was transpiring, Blank said, he was being badgered over the phone by Schwarzenegger's chief of staff, Susan Kennedy.

"She was saying 'The governor wants this and you're going to vote against?" Blank recalled. "I was not an elected official, and I was trying to represent the public interest.

"If you are 'reasonable' about coastal development, you have been captured by the people you are supposed to regulate," he added.

Coming from a background in Silicon Valley, Blank's main concern about the Coastal Commission and environmental regulators in general is that "they tend to make complicated things more complicated."

"The environmental community will give you all the facts, but we're confused about how human beings operate," he said. "You start with the facts, but you have to learn how to communicate them."

Blank gave the example of Rachel Carson, whose best-selling 1962 book "Silent Spring" caused a sensation when it exposed the dangers to the environment of the pesticide DDT.

"She was about the 45th person to write about DDT, but the first to really get the message across in a major way by simplifying the issues," he said.

Blank thinks that the California coast from Half Moon Bay south to Cambria in San Luis Obispo County is a treasure unlike anywhere on Earth, but wouldn't have remained that way if not for the efforts of environmentalists.

Leaders in mid-20th century California had plans for nuclear power plants up and down the coast, one of which was to be built in Davenport, a few miles south of Blank's Pescadero ranch.

With freeways and dense housing development, the coastline could have become "Sunnyvale by the Sea."

"Look at Orange County, which is really the Tragedy of the Commons where people have overused a shared resource," Blank said. "Without any regulation, the coast of San Mateo would have ended up like that, where there were no rules and wall-to-wall housing."

Further inland, agencies and groups like the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, the Committee for Green Foothills, and the Peninsula Open Space Trust have preserved a green belt and prevented developers from paving over the Peninsula, Blank said.

"What happened on the Peninsula is incredibly unique, and it was a unique combination of agencies that did it," he noted.

The open space district alone has preserved about 65,000 acres and extended its authority from San Francisco Bay to the Coastside, Blank said.

"We take for granted that the Bay Area looks like this, but it's not the natural state of capitalism," he said. "This is the most capitalist place on earth with the most socialist dream."

Besides his work on the Coastal Commission, Blank has been on the board of the Peninsula Open Space Trust and the California League of Conservation Voters, and is also a past board member for Audubon California and a past University of California-Santa Cruz trustee.

"It took me a long time, but as I got older, I realized that life was more than just about work, technical innovation and business," Blank said.

"Michael (Krzys) and others worked to preserve and protect the values that make life worth living. They were the ones who were changing our society into a more just place to live."

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6 people like this
Posted by Alan
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jul 12, 2019 at 1:08 pm

Well done Steve ! Bravo.
We have our beautifully untouched and undeveloped stretches of countryside and oceanfront because of folks like you that had the right vision to “leave well enough alone”
Thank you !

BTW - How do you feel about local Menlo Park, libraries ? We could always use more advocates and supporters - emotionally and financially !jere in MP?


3 people like this
Posted by Nancy Reyering
a resident of Woodside: other
on Jul 13, 2019 at 1:46 pm

Lovely article, Rick. Endless thanks, Steve, for your years of service to our "socialist dreams". Sharing this bounty of riches that we enjoy would not have been possible if not for the advocacy of you and a handful of other local environmental heros. Love your quote: "We take for granted that the Bay Area looks like this, but it's not the natural state of capitalism. This is the most capitalist place on earth with the most socialist dream." Driving Hwy 280 and our coastline, "What We Don't See"* is an education in itself.
*Lennie Roberts, Committee For Green Foothills Advocate

Like this comment
Posted by Jack Hickey
a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills
on Jul 13, 2019 at 3:58 pm

Jack Hickey is a registered user.

"Driving Hwy 280 and our coastline, "What We Don't See"* is an education in itself."

From Hall and Goodhue "Recreational Potential of the Junipero Serra Freeway through the Upper Crystal Springs Watershed" Prepared for State of California Division of Highways, December 1967.

"The four mile section now under study will be like a four minute reel of a movie travelogue extolling the beauty and variety of the natural Peninsula landscape enhanced by the green grass of golf courses and the contrasting blue of several lakes".
See: Web Link
Thanks to Lennie and her lot, that is what "We don't see".

Like this comment
Posted by Lynne Bramlett
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jul 14, 2019 at 11:52 am

Lynne Bramlett is a registered user.

What an inspiring story! Thank you Rick for writing it and thank you Steve for being the person you are. I also thank Steve's pal, Michael, for his inspiring example as well as Steve's giving him credit. We are so fortunate to people like Steve and Michael for making our world a better place. I love going out hiking in various parks, open space areas and nature preserves and I regularly give mental thanks to those who worked to preserve so much beautiful space in our area.

Our Bayfront area also deserves and needs attention! I recently went out walking on Bair Island in Redwood City and I was so thankful to those who helped preserve the area from development. It's still possible to save more parts of the Bayfront from development via concerned people banding together.

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