Besides a desire to reshape The City’s crazy, spiraling pension reform system and residence in San Francisco, there are only a few things I share with Michael Moritz.
One is a passion for problem-solving and the pursuit of a good story. The other was office space at Time magazine here in the early ’80s, where Moritz was a staff writer and I was a fledgling freelancer.
I stayed the course, landing one marvelous journalism job after another. Moritz decided to pursue his interest in technology. We were both rewarded, though only one of us extremely generously.
That would be Moritz, the reporter-turned-venture-capitalist who Forbes magazine last year estimated had amassed a $1.5 billion fortune through his firm’s shrewd investments in Apple, Google, Yahoo, PayPal, Cisco and YouTube. Sequoia Capital, the venture capital firm that laid out the seed money for many of the Silicon Valley technology giants, is now considered the gold standard for Internet investment companies.
Moritz also happens to be the main financial backer behind San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi’s second try at pension reform, a proposal almost certain to be on the November ballot. Moritz — who was also the money man behind Proposition B, last year’s failed attempt at sweeping reform of the city employees’ health and retirement plan — has given $250,000 for this year’s campaign while wealthy businessman George Hume has added another $100,000.
Moritz clearly has an eye for spotting trends, yet now he’s part of one himself. It used to be that titans of industry gave financial contributions to politicians in hopes of change. Now they’re seeking policy shifts directly, whether it’s a hands-on approach to pension reform, or in the case of local real estate magnate Tom Coates, monetary backing for individual candidates to steer San Francisco away from some of its socialist leanings.
I would like to tell you about Moritz’s thoughts on pension reform, but so far he’s declined my attempts to interview him. However, others he talks to say he is thoroughly informed on the topic and receives regular updates on the campaign.
“These people who are getting involved have nothing but pure motives,” said investment banker Warren Hellman, who happens to be working on another pension measure expected to be delivered to the Board of Supervisors this week. “It’s just citizen involvement for people who really believe they can make a difference.”
It’s just such a belief that led Sequoia to invest in Yahoo back in 1995 and in Google four years later. Few people understand technology growth better than Moritz, who was obsessed with it before most people had personal computers.
Moritz wrote about Apple back when fellow journalists thought Macintosh was a scotch. He covered the company like he worked there, eventually penning a book, “The Little Kingdom: The Private Story of Apple,” and a lengthy biography of Steve Jobs for Time that all but ended his relationship with the company’s technical guru and marketing genius.
Moritz parlayed his early knowledge of the computer industry into venture capital history, and a few years back the Wales native gave $50 million to his former college, Christ Church, Oxford, which he attended before going to the Wharton School of Business.
He has written a few articles on pension reform, describing in some detail the “monstrous financial holes” created by an underfunded retirement system. But it appears he wishes to remain in the background, only emerging under an occasional byline in the Wall Street Journal.
Coates and Hume remain even further from public view. The last campaign I remember Hume working on was for the underground parking garage in Golden Gate Park, a dangerous but ultimately successful political journey he undertook with Hellman. And Coates, a real estate magnate, surprised many when he wrote checks for a number of independent expenditure campaigns last year.
Money has always been the lifeblood of politics, but not its beating heart. From Bill Gates to Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, philanthropists are getting more directly involved in their foundations to see if their riches are reaping rewards. In a time of economic uncertainty, that is no longer a trend — it’s a necessity.
Venture capital is a high-risk enterprise. So is being inattentive to a retirement system near collapse.