Interviews

The Interview: Richard Blum

by Janet Reilly

Richard Blum, up close and personal

Richard Blum doesn’t typically do interviews, but he’s got a book to promote that he hopes will help people get to know the man behind the enigmatic public persona. With An Accident of Geography: Compassion, Innovation, and the Fight Against Poverty, Blum—one of the most powerful investment bankers in America and devoted husband of Senator Dianne Feinstein—opens up about his passion for improving the lives of those less fortunate than himself.

Stepping into his office on Montgomery Street, I saw a museum’s worth of artifacts that Blum, 81, holds dear: A pin from one of his wife’s political campaigns; photos with Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and the Dalai Lama; outside, on the roof deck, a row of Tibetan prayer flags in rainbow colors.

Blum, who founded the American Himalayan Foundation, which has helped more than 300,000 Tibetans, Nepalis and Sherpas across the Himalaya, is always on the go and fun to be around. In a recent interview, we sat together to talk business, Buddhism and one very high-maintenance Yorkshire Terrier.

You grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in San Francisco. How does your upbringing affect the person you are today? One of the biggest concerns we all have, I certainly have, is the issue of inequality. If you’re ever going to normalize it, it’s education. What has created part of it, the inequality, is education. I went through public schools, including Lowell High School, and attended Berkeley when it was 75 dollars a semester. My father died when I was 10 years old, and my mother got my brother and me through. Today, she couldn’t have done it.

In reading your book, a deep sense of doing good for others shines through—where did that come from? It probably started with my mother. She was one of the ladies who volunteered for everything. I think she was on the Mount Zion Auxiliary for God knows how long. She did this thing for the de Young Museum. Some of it goes all the way back to World War II—my grandmother was working on Mather Air Force Base in Sacramento.

What was behind your ambitious move to launch Berkeley’s Blum Center for Developing Economies? One day I was walking across the campus with then-Chancellor Bob Birgeneau, and I said, “You know, in some ways this place hasn’t changed. You can still take a survey course on art history, or a survey course on music appreciation.” But you can’t take anything to learn about global poverty. He said, “You want to start something?” I said, “Yeah.” We decided to make it a minor, not a major. We now have kids from 50-some majors at Berkeley minoring in Global Poverty. I didn’t know there were 50 majors there, but evidently there are!

What’s your fascination with the Himalayan region? It probably started when I was 7, 8 years old. There was a guy who wrote adventure books named Richard Halliburton. He wrote a book titled The Book of Marvels, and there was a whole section in there about Tibet, the Himalayas, the Dalai Lama and so forth. Then I started reading National Geographic. They think I’m the longest living subscriber…

You met the Dalai Lama in 1972, and have become close. How did that happen? Maybe the second time I went to Nepal… There was a Tibetan refugee camp—still there, right in Kathmandu—and I got to know the guy who ran it. I saw him, he said, “Would you ever like to meet His Holiness?” I said, “Are you kidding?”

Are you hopeful that he’ll ever get back to his homeland? No… There’s nothing I have spent more time on and gotten less results on. I mean, I used to fly over to Beijing, get yelled at, come home. Few months later, go back, get yelled at again. But we tried… Hillary told me when she was Secretary of State that she brought up the subject of Tibet and they yelled at her! I said, “Look, you can be pro-the Tibetan culture and still be pro-China.” Some of the people at the top understand that, but they also know it’s not in their interest to change the way the Chinese government views all this stuff. I actually think the Chinese would make a huge mistake if they let the Dalai Lama die in exile. The Tibetan people will never…forgive them for that.

What draws you to Tibetan Buddhism? It almost started the first days out on the trail. Now I go there, it’s like going home. But back then, it was a strange land. Never saw another foreigner for a month. The trails were narrower, a little scary. … Some of it was like, What the f— am I doing here? But then I noticed quickly that these people who were helping you were not doing it in a subservient way. They were just trying to be nice and helpful to each other.

You obviously spend a great deal of your time on philanthropy, but you’re still active in business as well. What’s the most exciting deal you’ve been involved with lately? I’d have to say the Claremont Hotel. We did a three-year, multi-million-dollar renovation. We redid every room, renovated the lobby, added great food to make it fun again. It’s been great for Berkeley and for the University.

You’re married to Senator Dianne Feinstein. As of this morning, yes.

Why do you two make such a great team? I think we have the same value system—I mean, if you think of what she’s all about, it’s helping people… Lunch led to dinner, and the rest is history. Once we started going out, I never went out with anybody else and neither did she.

Love at first meeting? Yeah. I don’t know if it was first meeting, but it evolved quickly.

You have an amazing life. I never forget where I came from. But then you go, How did I go from Ingleside to this big goddamn house? It’s sort of embarrassing to live in that house. We do anyway.

Any regrets? Not anything that really mattered. We’ve got, between us, four daughters, seven grandkids and a Yorkshire Terrier that runs the house.

I remember when you got that dog! Well, see, I get annoyed at people—at the rest of the people we know who start feeling sorry for themselves. Because look at the rest of the world! It’s an accident of geography that we’re here.

This interview has been edited and condensed. For further details on the American Himalayan Foundation, visit himalayan-foundation.org.

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