Nearly 40 years ago, inclination led Richard Blum to found the American Himalayan Foundation
It’s a cool autumn afternoon outside Richard Blum’s Jackson Square office. Just beyond a series of southeast-facing windows that flatteringly frame the Financial District is a stone balcony with primary-colored Tibetan prayer flags gently waving in the foggy breeze.
The walls of the stately corner suite are lined with photos from Blum’s mountain ascents, complete with a chunk of the east face of Everest mounted on a plaque. Interspersed with climbing ephemera are glossy pictures with political friends and allies including former President Bill Clinton. In one huge framed photo, Blum is standing directly behind former President Barack Obama during his inauguration. “It looks like I’m being sworn in!” he jokes. It’s an especially amusing line from the devoted husband of California’s second-longest-serving federal representative, U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein. His pride is evident; one shelf of Blum’s massive bookcase is filled with vintage buttons featuring campaign slogans and political statements, such as a pink aluminum rectangle depicting the recognizable stateswoman’s face with the words “Feinstein for Governor ’90.”
Born and raised in San Francisco, Blum met his wife through the late Mayor George Moscone and is perhaps best known professionally for his prosperous career in private equity and as a long-serving member of the University of California Board of Regents, appointed in 2002. Content for his powerful spouse and their politico pals to lead in the spotlight, he has also quietly tended his passion project for nearly four decades: the American Himalayan Foundation, the nonprofit he founded in 1981 after scaling Mount Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary, who was the first climber confirmed to reach Everest’s summit back in 1953.
The groundwork for AHF was laid in the decade prior, when Blum first hiked the world’s highest peak in 1968. He and his mountaineering buddies began offering support to the children of their Sherpas, the skilled local mountain guides who make most arduous climbs not only possible but safe. But Blum quickly realized that was an unfair method, whereas organized, merit-based aid could help many more individuals in the impoverished region.
AHF grew out of another profound personal relationship, too. In the early 1970s, Blumstruck up a friendship with His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, who was born in Tibet and has been visiting the Bay Area biannually for decades. Shortly before the American Himalayan Foundation’s annual dinner this fall, Blum traveled to India to spend time with his old friend. The nearly 46-year friendship between the businessman and the Buddhist monk born the same month and year — July 1935 — is sustained by such visits. “He doesn’t do phones,” Blum notes with a knowing shrug.
With an initial focus on Tibet, today the foundation also supports vital programs in Nepal and Bhutan. AHF-funded projects continue to encompass a dizzying array of needs, from stemming the trafficking of young girls to protecting endangered wild tigers from illegal poaching. But AHF doesn’t do this work alone. It partners with local organizations already operating on the ground and experienced in the region. In one of dozens of examples, the foundation supports Nepal’s Fund for the Tiger, which disrupts animal-related crimes by stationing poaching patrols in natural habitats and along smuggling routes.
Mitigating complex criminal enterprises such as sex trafficking and illegal hunting requires laying groundwork in local communities. That, in turn, requires improving basic quality-of-life services such as health care and education in order to help young people reach adulthood with every advantage possible. Building medical clinics and schools that are safe and easy to reach is one crucial component. AHF-backed educational initiatives also support young people’s ability to find prosperous work in their community, or to go abroad, whether for study or work.
In some cases, enterprising youngsters from Himalayan settlements find their way to beautiful, bustling San Francisco. Blum even knows a young professional working in finance at a ride-hailing company who is descended from mountain guides. “His grandfather was my Sherpa buddy!” Blum says affectionately, casually demonstrating the depth and longevity of the relationships central to the foundation’s continued success.
Those kinds of stories are what prompted Blum to pen his memoir several years back. The first part of the full title, An Accident of Geography: Compassion, Innovation and the Fight Against Poverty, explains his philosophy that where one is born is incredibly consequential yet essentially the product of chance.
It may seem ironic that philanthropic programs serving some of the highest villages in the world are ultimately meant to level the playing field, so to speak. But Blum notes that this idea is central to the foundation’s mission: capable, intelligent people from impoverished backgrounds lack access to resources and infrastructure, not inherent skills and talents. “I wish more people would realize how easy it is to improve conditions for others,” he says. “It costs so little to change people’s lives for the better.”
The American Himalayan Foundation’s Annual Dinner
On November 7, join Blum at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco to hear from Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk, humanitarian, photographer and author known as “the happiest person in the world.” Ricard’s TED Talks on altruism and happiness have been viewed millions of times. For tickets, visit himalayan-foundation.org, or call 415-288-7250.