Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - May 7, 2010

Josh Becker

Menlo Park entrepreneur hopes to ride his networking skills to victory in the Assembly race

by Sean Howell

Menlo Park venture capitalist and social entrepreneur Josh Becker is stressing his networking abilities in campaigning for the California Assembly, saying that the 21st District needs someone who can unite disparate groups of people to rally for change. In the months before the Democratic primary, his main challenge is likely to lie in convincing voters that those abilities would serve him well in public office.

In a recent interview, Becker spoke energetically and cogently of jumpstarting a state with constant budget troubles and in need of new jobs. He expressed a desire to make California a leader in energy, and to "bring the spirit of Silicon Valley to Sacramento."

His private-sector career has centered on bringing innovators together in various coalitions. He is the founder and chair of the Full Circle Fund, a San Francisco-based philanthropic organization that gives grants to nonprofits and boasts on its board of directors Congressman Mike Honda, Netflix founder Reed Hastings, and Brian David, director of the National Broadband Task Force.

Becker also founded New Cycle Capital, an "early stage" venture-capital firm based in San Francisco. He also sits on the board of trustees for the University of California Merced.

Becker, 40, grew up in Pennsylvania and now lives in Menlo Park with his wife, Jonna, and their two children, Sophie, 5, and Aaron, 4. Though he has worked on Capitol Hill for U.S. Reps. Howard Berman and former U.S. Rep. Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, he is new to state politics. Becker said involvement in the Silicon Valley for Obama campaign sparked his interest in running for the Assembly. According to Becker, he helped launch "Cleantech and Green Business for Obama," which raised funds for the 2008 presidential campaign, as well as the Clean Economy Network.

The home page of his campaign's website features a photo of Becker standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Al Gore.

Becker seems to fit the profile of a "Connector," a term popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his 2000 book, "The Tipping Point." According to Gladwell, connectors can spark a new trend by virtue of their wide networks: "One of the key things she does is to play an intermediary between different social worlds," he writes.

And that, essentially, is Becker's pitch.

"I think that what's needed right now is my kind of background," he said. "The other people who are running are good people, but what's really needed right now are innovative ideas, and people who can bring together different coalitions."

He emphasized his connections to Silicon Valley innovators, saying he's working to get people with good ideas involved in his campaign, people who may have sat on the sidelines in past Assembly races. If his fundraising so far is any indication, he's succeeded, having leapfrogged the other candidates in money raised in six months of campaigning.

He proudly points to the fact that he didn't contribute his own money into the campaign (like former Palo Alto City Council member Yoriko Kishimoto) or receive major contributions from unions and other special-interest groups (like San Mateo County Supervisor Rich Gordon).

He may, however, face a challenge in convincing voters he is ready to confront the realities of serving in the California Legislature. Becker's two opponents have histories as elected representatives.

Asked whether he was prepared to deal with the slow pace and frustrations inherent in government bureaucracy, Becker said: "I'm not a big believer in people saying, 'We can't do things.'"

One of his top priorities, if elected, would be to promote clean technology, which he believes could be the state's engine of job growth. He supports issuing Property Assessment Clean Energy (PACE) bonds, a mechanism pioneered by Berkeley that allows residents to borrow money for energy-efficiency projects and to pay back these loans through their property assessments. If elected, Becker said he would work to create a system that makes it easy for other California cities to set up such programs.

He also said he would use his business skills and Silicon Valley know-how to identify innovative clean-tech businesses and find ways (tax credits, prizes, etc.) to give them an incentive to grow.

When it comes to cutting expenses, Becker is less certain. He said he would support trimming the prison budget by halting design work for prisons California can't afford to build. He also thinks some money could be saved by reviewing the state government's information-technology projects.

But Becker also recognizes that these specific proposals alone won't be enough to close the state's $21 billion deficit and is hard pressed to suggest more substantive cuts. When it comes to the budget gap, addition for Becker is more attractive than subtraction. The real solution to California's economic malaise — a solution he always returns to when discussing the budget — is job creation and the resulting revenue growth.

As an entrepreneur, that's exactly where his skills come in, Becker said. He believes his clean-tech background, his passion for job creation and his business savvy make him perfectly suited for the Assembly.

"This is a critical time," he said. "I just got off the phone with a friend of mine who asked, 'Can California really be saved? Why should we send you up there?' I said, 'Yes, it can be, but it's an all-hands-on-deck situation.'"

Almanac Staff Writer Sean Howell can be e-mailed at showell@almanacnews.com. Weekly Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner contributed to this report.

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