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Gib Myers: Nurturing startups, philanthropists -- and bison on the range

 

"There are many turning points in my life that I don't understand very well," Atherton resident Gib Myers said.

Myers was trying to explain the series of steps that have led him from engineering to computers to venture capital to philanthropy, both in Silicon Valley and on a grander scale.

After decades of nurturing young companies, some of which went on to become huge successes, Myers shifted his efforts to nurturing philanthropic commitment in tech entrepreneurs. Now, he's helping to grow a 3.5-million-acre land preserve in Montana where bison can run free.

But the transition points in his career, which he describes as somewhat random, seem to puzzle him.

As a college senior in the mid-'60s preparing for a career in engineering, Myers was having a drink with someone -- he doesn't even remember who -- who told him, "'You don't really want to be an engineer. Why don't you go to business school?'"

"Someone said this over a beer, and it shifted my whole direction in life," he explained in a recent interview. "This happened a number of times."

After earning an MBA at Stanford, Myers landed at Hewlett Packard, which at that time -- the late 1960s -- was relatively small.

"I loved computers. I was in the computer division, a great place, and thoroughly enjoying it," he said. "But after four years I thought, 'It's getting kind of big. I ought to look around for something else to do.'"

Again, it was through a somewhat random series of conversations, and beginner's luck, Myers said, that he ended up at Mayfield Fund, a startup in the fledgling venture-capital industry.

"To me what's interesting is, in a naive sort of way, I didn't understand venture capital; the industry wasn't well known and I didn't have any network that knew (the Mayfield founders)," Myers said.

But they had raised a $3.5 million fund, needed someone who knew computers and offered to match his HP salary. He took the job. West Coast venture capital was a tiny industry at the time.

"I think there were 20 or 30 of us who got together for lunch in San Francisco and that was the whole group," he recalled.

But in the ensuing three decades Myers' fortunes soared along with those of the storied startups on which he placed early bets: Tandem, Quantum, Genentech, Silicon Graphics, Linear Technology and 3Com.

He left venture capital in 1998 -- barely missing the tech boom of 1999 and 2000, and the bust of 2001 -- without regret.

"I just went cold turkey," he said. "After 28 years I said, 'I'm done with that, let's go on to new things.' Sometimes you can't see what else is out there until you let go and see what the world brings."

Myers turned to philanthropy, launching a startup of his own -- the Entrepreneurs Foundation, a nonprofit aimed at changing the tech startup culture to embed philanthropy from the earliest days rather than as an afterthought.

Despite the image of entrepreneurs as laser-focused, 24/7 workaholics, Myers said, "Companies do all kinds of things to develop a culture -- they have beer busts, things like that.

"Community service can be one element of building a culture and, if you do that, people think differently. When the executives at whatever level make their first million, or 10, they'd say, 'I can give $50,000 to that group, or I can do something.'

"That was our pitch: 'You will be a better company if you incorporate that way of thinking,'" Myers said.

For more than a decade the Entrepreneurs Foundation attracted hundreds of companies and generated millions of dollars in community contributions.

"I think it had some real momentum," Myers said. "We'd have our annual event and get, gosh, 150 or 200 people, and give awards."

Entrepreneurs Foundation merged with the Silicon Valley Community Foundation in 2012. Myers worries that the drive for philanthropy in startup culture has stalled.

"I think it's getting dissipated, but maybe it's still alive -- I hope it is," he said.

"When I started it in 1998, there was just so little corporate involvement. Entrepreneurs would build their company, make their money, and go on to the next one. The whole idea is to change the culture."

Myers' current passion is the American Prairie Reserve, an effort to bring back bison and other native wildlife to 3.5 million acres in northeastern Montana. He came to it more than a dozen years ago through his friendship with one-time Silicon Valley consultant Sean Gerrity, who is now president of the Bozeman-based reserve.

"They just said, 'Do you want to help? And, by the way, it will cost $400 million,'" Myers said.

He and his wife Susan had never even been to Montana but were drawn by the grand scale and long-term impact of the undertaking. The couple joined up, with both taking board positions and Gib Myers serving as chairman for 10 years.

The preserve aims to stitch together ranches and lands held by the federal Bureau of Land Management, remove fences and restore wildlife populations. Once completed, it will be larger than Yellowstone and open to the public.

"We want people to come visit, have a Serengeti-like experience and know the history, the biology, the science," Myers said.

"For us and for many large donors, this is a project that will be there for generations, not something that will be gone in 20 or 30 years. It will be there in perpetuity.

"It's like being a founder of Yellowstone or Yosemite, the jewels of this country. We want this to be another jewel," he said.

Click on the links below to read about the other Lifetimes of Achievement awards honorees.

Ann DeBusk: A leader of leaders

Allan and Mary Seid: A family affair

Bob Harrington: Neighborhood champion praised for commitment to bettering the community

Barbara Carlitz: Kudos to a serial board chair

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