An Interview with Steve Westly

By Sam Ecker

About Steve Westly:

Steve Westly is a well-known venture capitalist, politician, and Stanford alumnus. He served as the State Controller of California from 2003 to 2007, nearly won the Democratic nomination for governor of California in 2006, and served as the California Campaign Co-Chair for Obama for America in the 2008 presidential election. He was one of eBay’s earliest executives and retired from the company in 2000 as a senior vice president. He is currently a managing partner of The Westly Group, one of the largest clean technology venture capital firms in the country. Westly graduated from Stanford University in 1978 with a B.A. in History and received an M.B.A in Public Management from the Stanford Graduate School of Business in 1983.

1. While you are now a well-established, highly successful venture capitalist and prominent political figure, you were also once a Stanford undergraduate. How would you characterize your career path and what were the most important steps for you along the way?

First, I think going to Stanford is one of the best decisions I made in my life. I was not a particular stand out in high school and was very lucky just to get in. To keep up, I learned to be very disciplined, and this trait has served me very well throughout my life. I had also never run for student office or served in any leadership position in high school. At Stanford I became very active in the anti-Apartheid movement and was later elected ASSU Co-President. I’m sure I was a thorn in the side of the University, but I learned that to change the world sometimes, you can’t take “no” for an answer.

2. Not only were you a Stanford undergraduate, but you also graduated from the Stanford Graduate School of Business and later taught there for five years. How was your experience as a graduate student different from life as an undergraduate, and what skills were you able to further develop?

Graduate school was completely different. It is much more intense, much more rigorous, and was one of the best things I ever did in my life. The best courses I took at the GSB were not in business–they were in negotiations, interpersonal dynamics, creativity and leadership. The GSB has done a great job of developing a curriculum in areas that go beyond accounting and finance, but are essential in business and politics.

As much as I enjoyed being a student at the Business School (other than accounting)– teaching there was the single most fun and rewarding thing I have done in my life. The students are exceptional, and the school is the best in the world.
3. As a former California State Controller and gubernatorial candidate, in what ways did your experience as ASSU President prepare you for a political career?

Running for office is never easy. It takes a lot of commitment, stamina, and determination. There are very few times in your life when all of your peers vote up or down on you as a person–and that takes a certain amount of courage. Running for office is one of them. If you want to change the world, holding office is one of most powerful ways to do this.

When we worked on the anti-apartheid movement, the president of Stanford and every member of the Board of Trustees told us that we were wrong. The University maintained that the companies the University invested in were actually a positive force in South Africa–even though black citizens there were segregated and denied basic rights, including the right to vote. Many said we were downright irresponsible.

But I learned at Stanford that if you believe in something strongly enough, you have to stand up for it. Great accomplishments don’t happen without a fight. Over two thousand students gathered to close down the university over Stanford’s investment policy in South Africa and 293 were arrested. Frankly, I was scared to death.

When Nelson Mandela was freed from jail and became president of South Africa, he said South Africa would never have been freed from the chains of apartheid had it not been for the international labor and student movements. There are few things I have been prouder of since.

4. You are currently a managing partner of The Westly Group, one of the largest clean technology venture capital firms in the country. What sparked your interest in clean technology, and where do you expect to see the most growth within the sector in the next few years?

When I graduated from Stanford, I went to work for the Department of Energy in the office of Conservation and Solar, so I have been passionate about renewable energy for 30 years. In short, we have been dependent on fossil fuels for too long. This hurts our economy and puts our national security at risk. It’s also changing the climate of the planet and is affecting our environment. The Harvard Health Project did a recent study that estimates 83 million people will die from lung related diseases in China between 2003 and 2033 because of their pollution problems. It’s time to change our dependence on oil and coal.

I think there is going to be a revolution in electric cars, solar and wind, and energy efficient buildings. There is also going to be a revolution in recycling. We need to understand that revolution is not always a bad thing. I want America to lead this revolution.

5. You recently attended a state dinner held for Chinese leader Hu Jintao. What was that experience like and how do you see Chinese-U.S. relations developing over the next few years? How do human rights play into Chinese-U.S. relations?

My wife and I were honored to attend the dinner for the president of China. The dinner was actually very small for a state dinner (225 people), but the attendee list was extraordinary. The US-China relationship is the most important in the world. Many issues including trade, the environment, foreign policy, and human rights will dominate our relationship for years to come. It’s important to remember that both nations have more in common than we typically realize. In short, we need more engagement, more students from each country studying in the other country, and more Americans learning Chinese.

6. I am originally from Wisconsin and have been closely following the union fights there. What is your personal stance on the issue, and why do you think President Obama at first seemed to stand behind the unions and then backed off the issue?

Both the state of Wisconsin and the unions need to make concessions to balance the budget. Rather than trying to find a bipartisan solution, I think Governor Walker is using the situation for political gain. Attacking the public employees’ right to collective bargaining is the most polarizing thing the governor could do, at the worst possible time.

7. President Obama has pledged to cut U.S. spending in order to bring order back to the federal deficit. However, he has spent more than any other first-term U.S. President. What role do you see the deficit playing in the 2012 presidential election?

President Obama just submitted a budget that proposes over $1 trillion in cuts over the next decade. I give him great credit for this. The President came into office in the midst of the largest recession since the Great Depression. He had little choice but to put forward a significant stimulus plan. He also chose to provide financial support for the auto industry. I think history will judge both actions very favorably. Certainly preserving the manufacturing strength of the nation’s Midwest was an important win for this country.
Having said that, the President and Congress will need to find common ground to cut both entitlements and defense spending. The Republican Congress’ efforts to try to cut discretionary spending like education and basic research and development is a mistake.

8. As you probably know, the mission of The Cardinal Principle is to print well-written and respectful articles from any political viewpoint in order to stimulate debate on campus. Do you believe that having more publications and forums that promote genuine dialogue would help encourage greater bipartisanship and compromise?

Without a doubt. The level of partisanship in Washington and Sacramento is worse than ever, and that hurts all Americans. We need elected officials who are willing to reach across the aisle to find common sense bipartisan solutions.

This entry was posted in Articles for Volume 4, Issue 3, Spring 2011. Bookmark the permalink.

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