California’s leaders have an economic problem.

OK, they have lots of economic problems. But amid the hair-pulling about budget cuts, they also have a novel and enviable problem that needs to be solved: how to invest tens of billions of federally borrowed stimulus dollars within a short time span in the Bay Area in an equitable way aimed at creating jobs. Lots of jobs.

So they called Sean Randolph.

As head of the Bay Area Economic Institute — a San Francisco-based advocate of public-private partnerships with a tiny staff but a massive board of trustees starring government, business, nonprofit, labor and academic leaders — Randolph recently took charge of crafting an economic recovery work plan for the Bay Area.

California will receive more than $30 billion from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, with a sizeable chunk of that mind-boggling treasure expected to be invested in the Bay Area.

California Business, Transportation and Housing Agency Secretary Dale Bonner in mid-March asked the Bay Area Economic Institute to pull together federal stimulus spending proposals from across the nine-county, 101-city, internationally influenced and highly diverse Bay Area — and then rank and prioritize them and recommend a work plan.

The institute solicited 475 proposals, covering everything from transportation projects to energy-efficient retrofits of convention centers, and it recently forwarded its recommendations to the state in the form of a work plan.

“The state has told us we should expect to stay engaged,” Randolph said. “From our standpoint, we’re treating the work plan as a strategic plan, in that it’s giving us a number of targets and focal points to continue working on.”

Fortunately, Randolph revels in a challenge, and he has dedicated much of his professional life to building economy-focused coalitions comprising vast casts of cultures, languages and attitudes.

Randolph’s passion for multiculturalism and world affairs began in San Diego in the seventh grade, when his globetrotting parents negotiated with his teachers to let him defer six weeks of classes so he could spend time traveling with them.

Randolph, who now sports doctorates in jurisprudence and philosophy and a bachelor’s degree in foreign service, says the trip was the “best education” he ever received.

“I started to travel at a very young age with my parents and I got the bug — I was fascinated by the cultures and places that I had gone, and I was drawn to learn more,” Randolph said. “I knew from a pretty early point that I wanted a career in international affairs.”

Since completing his undergraduate and doctoral degrees in international affairs, most of Randolph’s life has been spent in the international arena.

After spending the late 1970s handling international affairs issues for members of the House of Representatives, Randolph spent a stint in the Reagan administration, where he managed appointments to international agencies.

He then spent five years in President Ronald Reagan’s State Department and three years in the U.S. Department of Energy before leaving Washington, D.C., in 1988, the final year of Reagan’s presidency, with his very pregnant wife, Basia, to return home to California.

Instead of returning to Southern California, Randolph took a job in San Francisco heading up an international business association of companies involved in trade and investment in Asia and Latin America, and rented a home in Sausalito with his young family.

After five years, he launched an international trade consulting company in Jackson Square, before accepting a job in state government.

Randolph commuted for four years between Marin and Long Beach, where he managed California’s international trade programs, before his present job opened up in 1998.

“We thought we’d come for a couple of years and have a San Francisco experience and maybe go back to Washington. But here we are, 20 years later, and it would be very hard to pry us out of here,” he said.

Randolph is hooked on the multicultural demographics of the Bay Area — and on its influence on the world’s economy.

“The Bay Area is really a microcosm of the world economy,” he said. “In many ways, we lead the world economy, when you think about what’s happening in innovation, technology, IT and biotech. We’re really at the heart of the major international trends.”

After 25 years of building collaboration within the Bay Area, the institute’s latest challenge — helping the state spend tens of billions of dollars that it didn’t earn — is helping create a new level of Bay Area unity and laying groundwork for a future of energized collaboration, according to Randolph.

“The importance of this exercise, to us, is that this may be the first time that this number of partners from this many communities and this many sectors of the community have come together to support a single regional effort,” Randolph said. “I’ve never seen, up until now, a comparable level of focus and collaboration.”

As the 58-year old works to create a legacy of unity across the Bay Area, the dedicated family man is also helping to pass the travel torch from his parents down to his 21-year old son, Ian.

The Yale University student will soon begin an internship in Shanghai, after he joined his father on a business trip that introduced him to Chinese business leaders.

Ian was infected with an interest in public policy and world affairs during high school, according to his globetrotting father.

“Our house is full of stuff from around the world, so I think it’s just part of the atmosphere,” Randolph said. “Ian may have just absorbed it out of the air.”


Whether surfing or cycling, Randolph seeks ‘meditation’

When Sean Randolph isn’t laboring over private and public partnerships and economic policies, he can usually be found riding a wave, pounding a trail, sweating on a bike or heaving along in a kayak.

When asked about his interests outside his California Street office, the thoughtful furrows of the 58-year-old’s brow melted as his thoughts drifted from stimulus funding to his favorite physical pursuits — “a type of meditation,” as he described them.

“It’s either surfing — dropping down the face of a great big wave — or it’s being out somewhere in the wilderness at 6:30 or 7 in the morning, when you’re about to take off on a 50K race  into the mountains, where you know that in an hour, two, three, four or five hours later, you’re not going to be back doing something else, you’re still going to be out there, and you just have to let go,” he said.

“You’re in the wilderness, you’re in the mountains, you’re running through these spectacular places — and you’re just, there. You’re not thinking about computers and you’re not thinking about e-mails or Blackberrys or anything else, and then your mind just goes into a zone.”

Randolph’s passion for running took root when he was a kid growing up on a beach in San Diego.
Randolph was a fit, strong outdoors kid who was suntanned, blond and lanky, recalls Jack Blendinger, a Mississippi State University professor who lived next door to the young high school student.

Blendinger shared outdoor adventures with Randolph, and went skiing and surfing with him regularly.

“Sean would come to me for discussions on careers and so forth, so I was sort of an advisor, and we just developed a close friendship built around mutual respect and we enjoyed each other’s company,” he said. “We caught some great waves together.”

The now-septuagenarian describes Randolph as a “renaissance man,” although the phrase he taught Randolph many decades ago, which has resonated throughout the younger man’s entire life, has been “activist scholar.”

“Sean is just a deep thinker, a creative thinker,” Blendinger said. “A lot of guys who are serious lifelong athletes are not too into the intellectual side of life.”

— John Upton

Sean Randolph

Current job: President of the Bay Area Economic Institute
First job: Janitor and concessionaire for an independent movie theater in San Diego
Age: 58
Residence: Corte Madera, Marin County
Married: For 25 years to Basia
Children: Ian, 21, Senior at Yale University
Favorite San Francisco restaurant: Matterhorn
Favorite TV show: 24
Favorite book: “Hyperion Cantos,” a series of science fiction novels by Dan Simmons
Last book read: “The Last Mughal,” by William Dalrymple
Last movie seen: “The new Star Trek film”