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04.09.08

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Phaedra

Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
BOSS TALK: SVLG President and CEO Carl Guardino, hosting his radio program 'The CEO Show' on KLIV-AM (1590).

Private Business, Public Interest

If there is such a thing as an enlightened business group, Silicon Valley Leadership Group could be the prototype

By Erin Sherbert


BY attendance standards, the news conference at which the Silicon Valley Leadership Group announced its plans to help tackle global warming wasn't exactly a success. It's hard to fault the organizers, though, for the general absence of reporters. It was early 2001, after all, and climate change wasn't a big story yet.Five years later, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the nation's first cap on greenhouse gas emissions, catapulting California into a leadership role on the issue.

Groups such as the California Manufacturers & Technology Association and the California Chamber of Commerce attacked the legislation, calling it business-unfriendly and saying it would make the state's companies less competitive.

In keeping with its maverick reputation, the Silicon Valley Leadership Group broke with the pack of business groups opposing A.B. 32. It not only endorsed the bill—it sent a delegation to Sacramento to lobby lawmakers.

Tackling social issues—from mass transit to public education and environmental responsibility—have made the association an oddity among trade groups, which traditionally try to lower taxes and decrease regulation. True to its contrarian nature, SVLG has championed tax increases, namely local sales taxes that have been used to expand the valley's freeways and rail lines over the past two decades.

With more than 260 member companies, ranging from high-tech giants including Google, Intel and Yahoo! to smaller financial and media businesses, the organization represents companies that supply almost one out of every four private-sector jobs in Silicon Valley.

Its broad focus beyond its members' short-term business concerns has prompted it to look to the long-term health of the economy and take on issues such as education, transportation and affordable housing.

"The members seem to take a longer view," says Margaret Bruce, a former SVLG staffer who now works with an international nonprofit environmental organization, the Climate Group. "They take a broader view of what's good for business than the traditional 'your father's chamber of commerce.' They have the ability to connect the dots."


Bigger Business

In the summer of 1977, an energy crisis swept the nation, and rolling blackouts hit California. It was this energy crisis that prompted David Packard, the co-founder of Hewlett-Packard, to call together a group of CEOs for a meeting at a Palo Alto hotel. During that meeting, Packard introduced an unconventional concept: a business group that would assist government in dealing with quality-of-life issues.

He believed that creating jobs and contributing to a stable economy weren't enough. Packard wanted something more than a think tank that spewed studies. What he wanted was a group of employers who were willing to act on issues that were challenging the communities where they were doing business. The following summer, Packard and his fellow CEOs launched what was then called the Santa Clara County Manufacturing Group. (The group changed its name in 2004.)

One of the group's earliest milestones came in 1981, when its board voted to endorse a housing project. This was something more than a self-serving plan to build worker housing. The project, called Villa Vasona, was an affordable rental housing development for senior citizens in Los Gatos that initially proved unpopular with some of the town's business owners, but ultimately won approval and continues operating to this day.

It was a powerful statement coming from a group of CEOs, who really had nothing to gain from supporting an affordable housing project like this. At that board meeting, the directors suggested that it would be "hypocritical" for the organization to support housing that solely benefited their employees, says Carl Guardino, the SVLG's president and CEO.

"They understood at the time that what was good for the valley is also good for our workers and good for our companies," Guardino says. "It was an exclamation point right near the start."

Housing remained a centerpiece of the Leadership Group's agenda. The group just celebrated a milestone with its seven-year-old Housing Trust; it has helped open housing units for more than 6,800 people in Silicon Valley, including 500 teachers. Local city halls look to the leadership group to represent a business perspective. San Jose reserved a seat on its Sunshine Reform Task Force for the Leadership Group, which named Metro's executive editor to represent it in drafting an open government law for the city. (Metro's new-media subsidiary, Boulevards, is a member of SVLG.)The organization's leadership positions on transportation are among its more indelible impacts on the valley's landscape.

Almost 25 years ago, the organization spearheaded a campaign to make Santa Clara County the first county in the state to pass a tax measure dedicated to transportation projects. SVLG raised $680,000 to run the Measure A campaign, with staff dedicating time to design campaign material, poll voters and hold press conferences. The campaign succeeded, and in 1984 voters passed Measure A, a half-cent sales tax which has helped pay for large scale transportation projects, such as the expansion of Highway 87.

While it seems rather audacious for a business group to support new taxes, the Leadership Group sometimes has seen new fees and taxes as positive long-term investments, especially for transportation projects that help relieve congestion on the roads and build more transit options that would offer Silicon Valley employees an alternative way to work.

The organization is already front-and-center on a proposal that's expected to surface as another tax measure for the November ballot. This would go toward paying for BART to Silicon Valley, a project that Leadership Group has thrown its considerable weight behind.

"There are too many business groups that have a one-word vocabulary when it comes to investment, fees or taxes, and that is 'no.'" Guardino said. "This group has never been that way."

"The leadership group tends to wear the white hat," said Bruce, who is also a former Silicon Valley Leadership Group employee. "They don't always say 'Yes,' but they don't always say 'No.'"

Behind the Scenes

Working behind the scenes of the Leadership Group is a group of 18 employees and volunteers with a lot of energy—both intellectual and physical. (They have contests to see who can take the stairs more than the elevator to their sixth-floor offices).

Nonpartisan by design, the group often works side-by-side with politicians to help advance policies it favors. That means SVLG has long grappled with the traditional problems in the valley, such as transportation and housing. Recently, the Leadership Group is also confronting newer challenges that are affecting businesses, such as immigration.It used to be that Silicon Valley businesses regularly recruited some of the world's greatest minds. But following 9/11, local companies found it much more difficult to hire foreign-born talent, because the federal government lowered the number of visas available to foreign-born technology workers. "It's been a great detriment," says Aart de Geus, Chairman and CEO, of Synopsys Inc., a member of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group for nearly a decade. "Many companies shave been founded or greatly enhanced by people in other parts of the world."

The Silicon Valley Leadership Group is planning to send a delegation of executives to Capitol Hill in May to talk with lawmakers about this issue.

At the same time, it has rolled out local programs to help prepare American students in math and science at an early age. Members of the organization fund programs to help train math teachers in poorer school districts to sharpen their skills.

"Our approach is to continue to emphasize education and to engage and educate American kids to care about math science and technology education and try to make sure America plays the role globally," Guardino says.

Meanwhile, SVLG is keeping its eye on the bigger picture. Seven years after launching its climate-change initiative, the organization is still thinking global. On Wednesday, April 23, the group is sponsoring "Solar Summit 1.0," which will bring civic leaders from around the valley together to "foster innovative thinking" about how to make solar energy more affordable. This time, it's likely the media will show up.


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