Rocket Science: The mayor of Sausalito designed rockets for the military — the good kind

Rocket Science: The mayor of Sausalito designed rockets for the military — the good kind

In preparation for Pacific sun spotlight on Sausalito this week, I wrote a list of fascinating people to profile. They quickly thought of famous musicians, writers, artists and restaurateurs who live and work in the picturesque village.

Then my thoughts turned to Sausalito’s new mayor, Jan Sobieski, who began his term on the City Council three years ago after winning his seat by just two votes. It would be really interesting to learn a little bit about the lone person on the council of five.

The mayor shares the podium with four highly successful women – Joan Cox, Jill Hoffman and Janelle Kelman are successful lawyers, while Melissa Blaustein, a keen swimmer who has crossed the English Channel, heads a global alliance of start-ups.

Sobieski is no slouch either, serving as chairman of Band of Angels—the first American high-tech angel investment group—which currently has more than 165 members investing in and mentoring early-stage startups. Joining Band of Angels in 1997, soon after its launch, Sobieski also spent years as the band’s managing director.

While venture investing has turned out pretty well for Sobieski, it’s not what he dreamed of as a kid. The son of a NASA rocket scientist, he had similar aspirations. After graduating in philosophy from Virginia Tech, he worked on designing missiles for the military.

“The good kind of rocket, by the way — the one that takes down other rockets,” Sobieski said.

He even went on to earn a Ph.D. in aerospace, aeronautical and astronautical engineering from Stanford in the 1990s. However, it put Sobieski in the heart of Silicon Valley during the dotcom boom and changed the trajectory of his career.

“The drama of entrepreneurship in the startup world captured my imagination and fit into my skill set, sitting aside from the technical and interpersonal,” Sobieski said. “But I still have a passion for space and am a life member of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.”

Another passion, boating, keeps Sobieski a frequent visitor to Sausalito, which he calls “the best marine community in the Bay Area.” His affair with sailing and powerboating began in his hometown of Hampton, Virginia, where he spent every summer day on the Chesapeake Bay.

In 2011, Sobieski bought a home in Sausalito. When he’s not conducting business on behalf of the Band of Angels or tending to city politics, Sausalitans can spot him in Richardson Bay aboard one of his several vessels.

“I love getting out on the water in my 17-foot Boston Whaler, but my favorite is pushing a paddleboard off the Sausalito Cruising Club dock,” Sobieski said.

The former triathlete also rides windsurfers, kayaks and mountain bikes. These days he participates just for fun, too busy for rigorous training.

Still, Sobieski finds time to enjoy wandering around Sausalito, which he says packs a lot of flavor into its two square miles. Try as I might, I couldn’t get the mayor to share his favorite places, even though he admits to having lunch at the same restaurant almost every day.

Of course, he is very open to talking about local politics. Sobieski’s motivation to participate in governance comes from a desire to serve his community.

“I thought my experience and perspective could be helpful,” he said. “The health board has different points of view. I am an engineer with a philosophy degree and I work in a private enterprise. I don’t think I have all the answers, but I add a different voice to the discussions.”

For a small city of just 7,000 residents, Sausalito faces some big challenges, according to the mayor. The top three include aging infrastructure, the effects of climate change and uncertain future costs. Fortunately, the City Council is trying to solve the problems, but there are no quick and easy solutions.

Like many municipalities, Sausalito has neglected its infrastructure due to years of underinvestment. Last year, the city passed Measure L, a tax that would bring in $24 million over eight years for infrastructure improvements.

The elements that make picturesque Sausalito a destination for tourists from around the world—the rolling hills overlooking the bay—present their own set of problems, including the risk of floods, fires and landslides.

“Climate change is affecting our coast and hills in different but profound ways,” Sobieski said. “We have a comprehensive survey of our coastline to assess subsidence and sea level rise, and we’re doing a comprehensive assessment of our city-owned properties.”

Finally, he expressed concern that the volatility of pension costs for city employees makes financial planning difficult.

“Our finance team is building a model to project our finances — not for two years, but for 10 years,” Sobieski said. “It will be imperfect, but better than nothing.”

Sobieski devotes more than 40 hours a week to his mayoral duties. And this is in addition to his daily duties. It sounds particularly demanding, but he claims he’s no different than his colleagues on the City Council — or anyone, for that matter.

“Everyone is busy in their lives with children, work, family and health obligations,” he said. “I juggle my challenges the same way everyone else juggles theirs: imperfectly.”

Perhaps trying to keep all those balls in the air is why Sobieski hasn’t decided whether he’ll run for council again when his four-year term expires in December. And it looks like he might have some interest in checking out other locales.

When I asked Sobieski where he would choose to live if Sausalito didn’t exist, he didn’t hesitate to throw out some ideas.

“Well, ski mountain would have been my answer for the last few years, but more and more I’m thinking about a catamaran in the tropics,” Sobieski said.

Until then, there is still work to be done in Sausalito. And the mayor invites his residents to help. While the city appoints volunteers to official boards and commissions, Sobieski believes the main way people can get involved is by joining community groups like Sausalito Beautiful, Age Friendly Sausalito, Rotary Club, Sausalito Working Waterfront Coalition, the Lions Club and Sausalito Village.

“If we all engage seriously and humbly, I think we’ll come up with better collective answers,” Sobieski said.

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