Steve Blank is living his dream, and who can blame him?
An unusual combination of Silicon Valley techie, serial entrepreneur, environmentalist, marketer and teacher, Blank has founded or helped found eight Silicon Valley startups–one, E.piphany, he started in 1996 in his own living room–and he knows the Valley like few others. A college dropout, he also teaches at the Haas School at Berkeley and Stanford's business school. He once served in Air Force intelligence, and he has applied intelligence-analysis techniques to his own companies. His "Secret History of Silicon Valley," a speech delivered last December to Google's staff, has become something of a classic in the Valley. "How many people work and live in Silicon Valley and didn't have a clue about any of this?" one YouTube viewer wrote.
Blank's life journey started modestly in Manhattan and has carried him to wealth in California–and now he's got the open space he dreamed about, a home on some 260 coastal acres near the elephant seal haven of Ano Nuevo State Reserve, land that he longed for as part of a larger coastal protection plan and acquired after intricate and prolonged negotiations. "I always wanted a backyard in which I could walk around for an hour and half and never leave the backyard," he said. "Now I have one."
But it is his position on the California Coastal Commission, the 12-member panel that regulates development along some 1,100 miles of coastline, that has placed Blank in the public eye. A Democrat, he was in line to be appointed to the commission by former Gov. Gray Davis, who was recalled in 2003. Later Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, named Blank to the commission, California's most powerful land-use regulator and a model for coastal protection across the country.
He opposed the proposal to build a toll-road extension in Orange County through a state park–a proposal backed by the governor– and conducted a fierce, unrelenting grilling of a local toll road official during the raucus February meeting at which the commission rejected the toll road in a near-midnight vote before 3,500 people. Earlier opposition to the road cost two high-profile state Parks Commission members their jobs, when Schwarzenegger fired two members — Clint Eastwood and Bobby Shriver, the governor's brother in law.
Blank, however, remains in place, despite his opposition.
"I think he's been a great commissioner. I like that he is open and accessible with a strong environmental ethic. You can't ask for more than that," said Susan McCabe, a lobbyist whose clients include the city of Malibu, which regularly does battle with the commission.
For Blank, the politics of the commission is personally intriguing but not relevant when it comes to the commission's decisions, "which, in the end, are zoning decisions." He sees himself a steward of the coast and a protector of public parks-he's chair of Audubon California's board and has been affiliated for years with the Peninsula Open Space Trust. He sees his own property in the same light–as a trust, a stewardship, to be passed on to his children and their children.
"The biggest misperception is that nobody understands that it's zoning. It's not that you've lost property rights, it's just that zoning differs (in the coastal zone). It's unlike any other place in the world. This is because 75 percent of the population lives within 25 miles of the coast, but it is still among the most pristine coasts in the world," Blank said. "You share the coast with 38 million people."
Using his own money-and before he had a lot of it-he purchased land from the state conservancy by mortgaging his home, and has since placed protections on that land, such as leasing it back to sustainable farmers of $1 a year. "His personal goal is to protect the land and keep it wild, but accessible to visitors so they can appreciate it and learn from it," said Kassy Perry, a media consultant who has worked with Blank.
He and his wife — a Stanford business professor and who specializes in nonprofits — also donated $500,000 to the state-of-the-art Marine Education Center at Anon Nuevo. The $3.2 million facility opened this month with a symbolic "kelp cutting" ceremony with donors and state officials that included state parks director Ruth Coleman, who lauded Blank. Without Blank's "determination, vision and cash, this center would still be a dream trapped in the middle of two historic, but dilapidated barns."