The Wild Wild Web

The ‘Me Me Me’ millionaires

The recent $4.05 billion sale of Lucasfilm Ltd. to the Walt Disney Co. caught many Star Wars fans off-guard. While some weren’t happy about it (“Disney’s going to ruin the next Star Wars episode! They titled it number 7, not Roman numeral VII!”), no one can argue with Lucasfilm founder George Lucas’s plans for the windfall: he will donate most of it to charity. In 2010, Lucas signed on to Bill Gates and Warren Buffet’s Giving Pledge, a promise from the wealthy to give at least half of their fortune to good causes before their death. While Gates and Buffet seem to have little problem garnering pledges from the old guard, the Silicon Valley nouveau riche are another story – they’re more interested in helping each other than in helping their communities.

It first struck me one afternoon while I was doing a bit of journalism multitasking, reading an article in The New York Times and catching up on the local TV news. The Times article, “A Circle of Tech: Collect Payout, Do a Start-up,” is about “the kids” who made it big in the Valley and what they’re doing with all that money. Author Somini Sengupta writes like a starry-eyed cheerleader about early employees of Facebook throwing millions of dollars at other early employees of Facebook to fund their own startup ventures in the hope of making even more money.

Of course, over 90 percent of Silicon Valley startups fail, but that doesn’t seem to faze them. Just 36 when Google went public, Aydin Senkut went on a month-long trip to Europe, bought a house in Atherton, and a shiny new Lamborghini. He still had money burning a hole in his pocket, so he began investing in his friends’ budding businesses knowing full well that he may never see a return on those investments.

“Now that you have a windfall,” Senkut said, “why not take a big risk?”

Just as I was reading that quote from Senkut, a story aired on NBC Bay Area about bicycles and tricycles used by disabled and autistic children being stolen from a shed behind Piedmont Hills High School in San Jose. P.E. teacher Brian Ward put out a plea for help to raise the $1,500 needed to replace them. Two weeks later, NBC Bay Area did a follow-up report about individuals sending $10 here and $20 there – whatever they could afford – to help the school replace the bikes. Eventually, the school raised more than $3,000, no doubt from hard-working members of the community. What struck me as strange was why some guy like Senkut with a “windfall” didn’t just write them a check for the bikes in the first place. After all, that’s chump change for guys like him.

Likewise, why are the shelves of Bay Area charitable organizations that feed the needy empty this holiday season? Just nine days before Thanksgiving, the League of Volunteers told ABC 7 news that their pantry was practically bare. Second Harvest in San Jose, which serves Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, went on CBS San Francisco to plead for turkeys – they were 6,000 short. Second Harvest CEO Kathy Jackson told CBS that while the economy has improved significantly in the Silicon Valley, requests for assistance continue to go up.

Not only has the economy improved, there are also more overnight millionaires than ever before. Perhaps it’s utopian of me, but with the vast wealth in the Silicon Valley, it seems the shelves of the food banks there should never be empty.

The same goes for San Francisco, where a number of social media start-ups have minted a whole mess of millionaires. Zynga CEO Mark Pincus recently purchased a $16 million mansion in Pacific Heights, yet the food pantries here are struggling to help the ever-growing population of people in need. (Some of Pincus’s former employees may be showing up to those food pantries this year after the stock tanked and they lost their lucrative jobs.)

Just prior to the much-hyped Facebook IPO, it was estimated that becoming a public company would create over 1,000 millionaires among Facebook’s rank and file. One former employee, who joined the company just after it was founded in 2005, told The Daily Mail Online that he planned to spend $200,000 on a childhood dream – a trip to space with Virgin Galactic. The person, who declined to be identified because “he did not want to draw attention to his financial status,” expected his shares to be worth $50 million. According to the same article, another group of former Facebook workers was organizing a Mexican expedition to “excavate a relatively untouched site of Mayan ruins” (after a little more research, they decided it was best to partner with an existing archeological program). But even with trips to space and Mayan ruin excavations, I imagine these former Facebook employees still have plenty in the bank – at least enough to buy a few thousand turkeys for their local food pantry.

Also just prior to the Facebook IPO, the Palo Alto Humane Society went before the local media to plead for $100,000, without which they would have to close their doors. Palo Alto. That’s the capital of Silicon Valley. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg breaks his own company’s rules by having a Facebook page for his pampered pooch, Beast, the Hungarian sheepdog. Beast was even featured prominently in his quickie wedding to fiancé Pricilla Chan. He’s a dog lover, he says. He lives in Palo Alto. So how hard would it be for Zuck to write a check from his nine billion buck bank account to keep the Palo Alto Humane Society from going under? Or at least have Beast write something about it on his Facebook page to encourage the other lucky dogs in Silicon
Valley to help?

One of the classiest of the old guard, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, has worked tirelessly for years to raise funds for the Silicon Valley Humane Society. When I worked at Apple (back when it was still called Apple Computer) I saw a lot of that generous spirit firsthand. Wozniak and many of the early Apple employees were incredibly in tune with their communities and very visible in fundraising efforts for causes they believed it. I don’t see that with the social media startup gang. What I do see is a lot of “Me Me Me” millionaires – a group of ironically antisocial, cliquish, standoffish, self-indulgent geeks living in a bubble, turning a blind eye toward the very communities that were instrumental in creating their earth-shattering success.

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