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Saturday, May 25, 2013

Laurene Powell Jobs and Anonymous Giving in Silicon Valley

In Silicon Valley, people get very rich, very fast, often when they are very young. As a result, they are often criticized for not giving away enough of that money.

There are signs that is changing, as people like Mark Zuckerberg become more philanthropic. But many in tech are still in their 20s, and say they are working long days running companies and trying to improve the world with their products, and will be able to focus on philanthropy later in life.

There is another story line, though, one brought to light by the tale of Laurene Powell Jobs. She is the widow of Steve Jobs, one of the tech titans who received the most criticism for a lack of philanthropy. Yet for more than two decades, his family has been giving away money - anonymously.

“We're really careful about amplifying the great work of others in every way that we can, and we don't like attaching our names to things,” Ms. Powell Jobs said in an interview for a profile that Peter Lattman and I wrote in The New York Times last week.

One of the main ways she is able to do that is because of the way she has structured her organization, Emerson Collective. It is an LLC, like a small business, instead of a tax-exempt 501(c)(3), like a charitable organization or foundation. That means that Emerson can make grants, for-profit investments and political donations - and does not have to publicly report its donations as a foundation does.

That strategy is becoming more common, as people seek flexibility, freedom and anonymity in their investments, said Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen, who teaches philanthropy at Stanford, runs her own philanthropy and is a close friend of Ms. Powell Jobs.

“The beauty of having an LLC in today's world is No. 1, you have the ability to act and react as nimbly as need be to create change, and you have the ability to invest politically, in the for-profit sector and the nonprofit sector simultaneously,” she said.

“And the reality is,” she added, “we are now seeing a blurring of the lines between the sectors in a way that was not even discussed 10 years ago. The way that we are going to solve social problems is by working with multiple different types of investing.”

Ms. Powell Jobs said that Emerson did not need the tax structure of a foundation, and that “doing things anonymously and being nimble and flexible and responsive are all things we value on our team.”

One of those things is College Track, the college prep organization that Ms. Powell Jobs co-founded in 1997.

“I've always appreciated that being the wife of Steve Jobs, she could have played that as much as possible, but she doesn't,” said Marshall Lott, who has worked at College Track since the beginning and is now chief advocate of college completion. “This is what she's always been passionate about. As much as he had his work, this is her work.”

On a recent Monday afternoon, College Track students hooked arms in a giant circle as tutors talked about sessions like preparing for finals and managing stress. They were in the rough Bayview neighborhood of San Francisco in a new, colorful building, which used to be an abandoned auto shop. Light streamed in the classrooms, named after colleges.

“It's like my second house,” said Chris Seruge, 17, who comes each day for tutoring and will apply to college next year with the help of College Track. “Without it, I'd be struggling.”

Though Ms. Powell Jobs is a major financial supporter of the organization, as well as chairwoman of the board, she does not disclose how much she gives. But there is evidence of other contributions related to the Jobs family. Each year, Pixar, which Mr. Jobs helped start, hosts a screening of a film to benefit College Track. This year, tickets are $1,000 to see “Monsters University.” (The Apple laptops the students use, though, were purchased, not donated.)

And College Track's supporters include a who's who in tech: Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google; Marissa Mayer, chief executive of Yahoo; Ron Conway, the angel investor; and Marc Benioff, founder of Salesforce.com.

“Laurene is a private person, they are a humble family, and they have certainly been generous,” said Ted Mitchell, chief executive of NewSchools Venture Fund, where Ms. Powell Jobs serves on the board. “And I think that the fact that they've not needed to splash their name around speaks quite highly to their intense focus on the work.”