U.C. Santa Cruz Commencement Speech – 2019

I was honored to give the commencement speech at the University of California Santa Cruz, right down the road from the ranch. Rather than my usual talks about innovation and entrepreneurship I shared a few lessons learned after serving seven years as a public official on the California Coastal Commission. I told four stories about the conflict between money and power versus the common good.

I was invited to give the talk by Professor Sue Carter, now the provost of the college. In 2011 Professor Carter was in the first National Science Foundation I-Corps class. Last year, she testified in front of Congress about the program.

Bay Nature, the San Francisco regional nature magazine, did a great job in capturing the context of my commencement speech in this article.  Worth a read first, before you read below.

The speech is below.

—–

Congratulations to the graduates!

The talk starts at 27:00

If you can’t see the video click here

Today while we celebrate your college degree, it represents just the end of one part of your life and the beginning of the next.

You’ve just spent the last four years putting passion, energy and conviction into your friendships, politics, social justice, partying and – every once in a while – your classes.

Now your time in the classroom is over and your real education is about to begin.  Many of you will find yourselves colliding with a world driven – less by ideas, knowledge and the pursuit of truth – and more by money – ideology – and power.

So today, I’m going to offer you a glimpse of how the world outside of this esteemed institution really works. And offer some tips on how to be effective change agents for repairing the world.

It’s altogether fitting and proper that in a college named after Rachel Carson, to share four short stories of what happened when truth and justice faced money and power – for the seven years I served as a public official on the California Coastal Commission. The agency that regulates land use on all 1100 miles of the California Coast.

My first story is that the Smartest person in the room is almost never the most effective.

One of things I loved about being a coastal commissioner was how much I learned. Coming out of Silicon Valley and the tech world, I was a complete novice on how policy gets made. So, I had to read the Coastal Act, the Coastal Regulations, and enough law to understand the positions our staff took and what the applicants were contending. And each month I’d have to read through 100 staff reports to figure out how to vote. Deciding between the applicants, their lobbyists, the environmental community, the staff, the coastal act and the law.

Meanwhile, while I was reading everything, I noticed that one of the other commissioners was reading nothing, not the staff reports, not the coastal act, not the law.  In fact, all he could do was count to seven.

And that ability to count to seven made him the most effective commissioner.

Why? Because out of 12 commissioners, seven is the number needed to win a majority in a vote.

While I was the master of the facts and data, he was calling in favors, cajoling others, and building a coalition to get the majority of commissioners to see the world his way.

So, my first lesson is – You don’t need to be the smartest person in the room to be the most effective. Being effective means not just mastering the facts but – figuring out how to move your agenda forward.

My second story is about the power of Misdirection over the truth

Magicians use misdirection all the time: they sweep off their top-hat, you fixate on it, and all of a sudden, their assistant standing next to them disappears.

I got to watch a magic act unfold before my eyes when real estate developers made eight office buildings totaling ¼ million square feet — twice the size of a Wal-Mart — disappear. How?

The developers wanted to build office buildings in an area zoned for farmland. Traffic from this huge project would have filled local roads not designed for this density and would impact the public’s access to the beach. Given that on the face of it, this project violated all kinds of laws, how did these developers make it disappear – andget unanimous approval from the county’s Board of Supervisors?

Their solution was brilliant – and evil. They proposed that after building these eight office buildings, they would build a housing facility for developmentally disabled adults. They convinced the dedicated, deserving and passionate parents of this group that this project was the only hope these families would ever have to secure housing for their children (neglecting to tell them they had located the housing for the disabled in a tsunami inundation zone).

Naturally these parents became vociferous advocates for the project. They brought their disabled children to the hearings and did exactly what the developers had hoped – with not a dry eye in the house, no one could see the project anymore. The developer had moved the attention from a project that violated local and state zoning onto a small and deserving group of individuals. It was heartbreaking. And it was world-class misdirection.

The lesson here is that misdirection is designed to distract you from the truth. Obscuring a fact-based argument with a faith-based one is what demagogues do – in policy and politics.  See through it. Help others to see how this kind of misdirection distorts their perspectives.

My third story was about the day I learned to Follow the Money

The business model for real estate developers isn’t hard to understand – they buy farms and ranches then build houses and sell them off. And in California if you can build 1,500 houses on a 400-acre farm, that might be worth a billion dollars. Developers make their profit off the difference between the cost of the land and the net profit on the houses.

But one obstacle for California developers is that the Coastal Act says you can’t build on land that has been designated a Sensitive Habitat or wetland. So, if you’re a developer, having any land declared sensitive is a loss of potential revenue.  In fact, it can kill the project. However, … there is one loophole in those rules – if you’re a farmer you can plow under anything.

So as a consequence,real estate developers are great farmers. They buy-out family farms for prices that far exceed what the farmers could ever get from selling their crops. And then they lease the land back to them so they can continue to farm. The developers invest in equipment so farmers can plant multiple crops each year, till each and every inch of their fields, and ensure those fields are perfectly level so no water can collect on the fields.

When I first ran into this I thought, “Wow what a great deal. The developers are great for the environment, they’re helping farmers by making all these improvements.

It took me a year and lots of looking at puddles on farms for the dim lightbulb to go on over my head. Real estate developers couldn’t care less about farming or the crops.

The developers were keeping the farmers plowing the fields to make sure no sensitive habitat would appear.  And the day a developer got the zoning approvals, the bulldozers would show up to start building the houses that would bury the farm.

The lesson here was that when I was standing in the farm field, I wasn’t looking at a puddle – I was staring at a billion dollarsv- and I didn’t see it.

So when you hear or see something that is too good to be true – follow the money. It’s usually a long and winding road – but eventually you’ll find it.

My final story is: if you want to make change you have to learn to communicate and inspire others.

In all these lessons, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the namesake of your school – Rachel Carson. You all study her work your first year here. You know she was a marine biologist at theU.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – only the second woman in the job – and she served as editor-in-chief of all its publications.

Her 1962 book, Silent Spring, launched the modern environmental movement.

The book’s title evokes a spring when all the songbirds died. Ittold the story of the damage caused by indiscriminate use of pesticides, especially DDT, to control insects. It educated a mass audience, most who had never seen a scientific paper in their lives, about how these chemicals entered the food chain, accumulated in the tissues of animals and ultimately made their way up to humans.

DuPont and other chemical companies threatened Carson’s publisher as well as the New Yorker and Audubon Magazine unless their planned Silent Spring features were canceled but nevertheless, she persisted. The book was a moral call to arms for people to take personal action.

Rachel Carson wasn’t first to raise concerns about DDT, but her impact was to communicate scientific evidence in a way that the general public could understand – she used facts to inspire others to take action.

In naming this college the donors said, “Carson, like UC Santa Cruz, epitomizes love of the natural world, ethical judgment based on sound scientific principles, and the persistence and courage to create change.”

Change happens when you can educate and inspire others – when you can use facts to create faith in what’s possible.

For those of you who will continue in the sciences or research, the easy part will be to write papers for your peers. The harder part is how you’ll explain “inconvenient truths” to people who may not want to hear them. How will you rouse an audience to action?

Finally, why do public service?

My work on the Coastal Commission took four days of my week each month in public hearings – at times in exhausting 12-hour days. And I’ve sat on the boards of other local and national non-profits.

But why serve your community, state or country? For me, I volunteered my time because of a gift I received my first year in college.

On my first day of school in Michigan I met Michael Krzys, who one day would be the best man at my wedding.  As we got to know each other, I pretty quickly realized that I had met my match, someone with even more curiosity, creativity and a wry sense of humor.

But as I got to know Michael, there was another, completely foreign part of him I didn’t understand. It would take me another 30 years.

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. Even as a freshman, Michael already knew that his calling was to help others and to do so he was determined to become a public service lawyer.

It confused and unnerved me to know someone with so much certainty about the meaning and direction of his life.  It couldn’t have been more different from mine.

After our first year our lives took different paths. When they would touch again, it would be in ways neither of us could have predicted. 

I left school and joined the Air Force during Vietnam, and Michael and I kept in touch via letters – me telling him about adventures in the military, fighter planes, electronics and foreign countries. His letters to me explained that while he appreciated my dedication to national service, public service was the higher calling. Each of his letters ended with him reminding me that I was destined for a different career.

When I got back from Southeast Asia, Michael was in Law School and I was stationed nearby. Over dinner we’d argue about politics, talk about how to best save the world, and he’d tell me what he was learning that week in his law school classes.  I remember when he taught me the best way to understand an issue was to learn how to argue both sides of a case.

When I got out of the military, Michael was finishing up law school. A year later he and his new wife headed to the South to work for Georgia Legal Services.

I moved to Silicon Valley, and we kept up a sporadic correspondence, me trying to explain startups and Michael telling me about the world of civil rights and social justice for the poor.

If possible, it seemed like his excitement for what he was doing matched mine.  I just didn’t understand why he did it.

For entrepreneurs, understanding why people dedicate their lives to working for non-profits is hard to fathom. Why work for low pay, on something that wasn’t going to deliver a product that would change the world?

Today, each time I see the staffs of those non-profits I support, I get a glimpse of that same passion, commitment and sense of doing right that I first heard my freshman year decades ago.  For the best of them, it’s not a job, it’s a life-long calling. They remind me of what Michael might have become.

One fine California April day, three years in Silicon Valley and now into my second startup, I got a call from someone in Michigan who had been trying to track me down.

Michael and his wife were bringing some kids to camp, and he was killed in a head-on car accident with a drunk driver.  His wife and the kids survived.

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. Michael and others worked to preserve and protect the values that made life worth living.  And while we were making things, they were the ones who were changing our society into a more just place to live.

There wasn’t a day that went by during my time on the Coastal Commission that I didn’t wonder what Michael Krzys would do. He was my model as a human being who found his own compass.

I always hoped that mine would point in the same direction…

Graduates, as you set out on your own extraordinary adventures, remember the measure of a life is not time or money. It’s the impact you make serving God, your family, community, and country.

Your report card is whether you leave the world a better place.

Carpe Diem. Seize the Day.

15 Responses

  1. Wonderful speech.

    Like

  2. Great speech; stories almost connect. We now have yet another reason to admire you and your work. Kudos. Clint Day.

    P. S. -Tell us you didn’t call the grads “banana slugs”!

    >

    Like

  3. My alma mater!! Nice – great talk.

    Hope you are well Steve!!

    John

    John Burke 703-678-1962

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    Like

  4. Dear Prof Blank,

    I have been received your posts via email for a few years. This is the one post has an immediate impact in my thinking about my purpose in life.

    Thank you so much fo sharing your speech. I’m sure you inspired many and you are a model for many just as your friend Michael has been to you.

    Best regards, robert

    Liked by 1 person

  5. omigosh, i didn’t realize there was a steve blank story i hadn’t heard! lovely speech. i rememberer how much you’ve enjoyed doing these, and this one seems like it was lovely. as was michael and his inspiration.

    but you left out one particularly unusual steve blank story…. “the edge.” a costal commission classic.

    and speaking of public service, what would you call 20 years of nearly-uncompensated full-time work to change the way entrepreneurs do startups and help more of them succeed.

    happy summer Bob Dorf startup guy bobdorf@gmail.com skype: (203)308-5122 us cell (203)253-3656 http://www.bobdorf.nyc

    >

    Like

  6. Loved it!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Amen.

    Roy Mize

    Like

  8. Great speech and message Steve. Very well done. I hope they listened to you.

    Michael

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Wow, this speech is SOOOO GOOD that it compels me to make a religiously-inspired “Ma Nishtana” comment: How is this @sgblank’s speech different from all other Commencement Speeches by Silicon Valley tycoons? Well, Leonard Cohen described the others best:
    “The Maestro says it’s Mozart, but it sounds like bubble gum” – RIP Leonard Cohen … Bravo Steve Blank!

    Like

  10. I wish we could have the time to tell you about how I used your Business Model Canvas and Hacking for Defense to build innovation in academia at the University of West Florida. You might recall that I was the moderator for your fireside chat. I built a new program at UWF that has never been here before and is now one of the most important classes MBA students take in their program

    Gerry Goldstein ggoldstein@uwf.edu University of West Florida College of Business, MBA Office: 474-2350 Cell: 850-501-6262

    Like

  11. Steve,

    Thanks so much for sending. I’m deeply touched. I couldn’t help but think about my little brother while you were talking about your friend Michael Criss (sp?). I’ve sent this to Daniel (my brother), and am sure he’ll be similarly inspired.

    More than that, your commitment to community is an absolute inspiration.

    So much of what you said could be amplified in stories Daniel relays. Unfortunately the work he put in fell short, and while there are a million positives from the effort, he’s going to have to close up shop. It seems the new tax laws really have had an effect on charitable donations, and the differences in expectations between US donors and the fiscal translucency of international programs are pretty close to irreconcilable. But as we say, excuses are like noses, and what matters is what’s next…

    We’re now brainstorming the next thing…

    Thanks again for sending!

    Steve.

    Like

  12. i will remember these insights!

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: