In December 2012, i wrote an editorial called “The Me-Me-Me Millionaires” in which I called out nouveau riche tech workers for their lack of interest in helping the communities where they do business. I had read an article in the New York Times titled “A Circle of Tech: Collect Payout, Do a Start-up,” about “the kids” who made it big in Silicon Valley and what they’re doing with all that money. Author Somini Sengupta wrote with starry-eyed glee about early Facebook employees throwing millions of dollars at each other to fund start-up ventures, despite the fact that more than 90 percent of start-ups fail. The story introduced Aydin Senkut, just 36 when Google went public, who took a month-long trip to Europe, bought a house in Atherton, and got a shiny new Lamborghini. Afterward he began investing in his friends’ budding businesses, knowing full well that he might never see a return on those investments. “Now that you have a windfall,” Senkut said, “why not take a big risk?” At the time, food banks in the Silicon Valley were talking to the media because, with just weeks before Christmas, their shelves were empty. I remember thinking, Why don’t the Aydin Senkuts of the world care more about their communities? Five years later, I’m still wondering.
Many of the old tech guard signed on to the Bill Gates and Warren Buffet Giving Pledge, a promise from the wealthy to give at least half of their fortunes to good causes before their death. While guest hosting on KGO radio in 2012, I called out Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg for not doing more with his fortune. Since then, Zuckerberg and his wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan, have pledged to donate 99 percent of their Facebook shares, valued at $45 billion, to the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, a philanthropic venture focused on health and education, including $75 million to The San Francisco General Hospital Foundation (the largest single private donation from individuals to a public hospital in the United States).
Zuckerberg isn’t the only generous tech titan. Salesforce founder and CEO Marc Benioff is a passionate philanthropist whose “1-1-1 model” contributes 1 percent of product, 1 percent of equity, and 1 percent of employee hours back to global communities it serves. More than 1,000 companies have embraced Benioff’s concept through the “Pledge 1%” movement (pledge1percent.org). Benioff and his wife, Lynne, have dedicated their personal charitable ambitions to improving public education and children’s health care (through UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital). This past September, the Benioffs also announced a $20 million gift to USC to help build a new cancer institute after Oracle chairman Larry Ellison said he would donate $200 million in Oracle shares over time to the center, which will bear his name.
Benioff has been a vocal critic of the me-me-me millionaires. At the 2016 TechCrunch Distrupt conference, he called tech founders “stingy” for not taking more personal action. “Founders have hoarded their wealth; they haven’t cared about the communities we do business in,” he said. “We can stay and do our code, focus on our own results. That’s fine, but you’re not really going to get the great feeling of life. The real pleasure to help other people …”
I couldn’t agree more. While Benioff, Zuckerberg, and some of the old guard are generous, they are the exceptions. The “tech bros” — young, mostly white men in their twenties — have a sense of entitlement and an attention span that barely lasts from one swipe of their iPhone screen to the next. I hear them in restaurants, on the street, and in stores bragging about their companies and all the money they’re making, not a care in the world. I also hear them complaining about the homeless, the filth, the congestion. What I never hear them say is, “I’m going to make a difference” or “I’m going to do something to change that.”
Recently the Alameda County Animal Shelter announced that it might have to close due to lack of funds. A few weeks before, the Palo Alto Animal Shelter offered the same dire news. The Marina Times was a social media late bloomer, but we’re finally on board, and I have been utilizing it to bring attention to situations like these. On Facebook, I asked Yelp founder and CEO Jeremy Stoppelman, who says he’s a big animal lover, why his company doesn’t “adopt,” one of the shelters. The Yelp Alameda Animal Shelter has a nice ring to it, and the $100,000 they need to stay afloat is pocket change in tech titan terms. I must have hit a nerve, because thousands of people shared my post and asked Stoppelman to step up. We got the typical tech elite silence from Yelp. I guess it really shouldn’t be a surprise that, in the most affluent area in the world, we have nonprofit organizations on the brink of shutting their doors.
In 2011 when Twitter promised to clean up San Francisco’s Mid-Market neighborhood in exchange for a hefty tax break, I was more than a little skeptical. On a walk through the area six years later, I see minimal change to the two blocks surrounding Twitter headquarters and a growing sea of poverty, crime, homelessness, and mental illness everywhere else.
So what has Twitter done since receiving that tax break? They’ve spent $3 million opening a community center called NeighborNest, where Twitter employees volunteer alongside social workers to help families look for housing and learn computer skills, and they’ve invested another $3 million in grants to nonprofit groups serving underprivileged neighborhoods around the city. While that may sound substantial, consider that Twitter is valued at around $10 billion (down from a 2013
high of $40 billion), and its founder and CEO Jack Dorsey, even on a bad day, has a net worth of around $1 billion.
As the holidays approach, once again food banks have empty shelves and homeless shelters don’t have enough beds to go around. Near the Google campus in Mountain View, the working poor live in makeshift RV “Googlevilles,” their campers lined up along the streets of surrounding neighborhoods. A few residents are even tech workers, unable to afford the town’s rising rents. Meanwhile, the tech firms are planning their lavish annual employee parties. Google is infamous for its flashy festivities, from an Indiana Jones-themed bash in L.A. to a giant snow globe for revelers to climb in at the Exploratorium. Last year Twitter threw its event at AT&T Park, where centerfield became a dance floor and the hashtag #celebrate was plastered in neon.
As people took selfies in the dugouts and munched on falafel waffles with tahini aioli, I wondered why it hadn’t dawned on Twitter, Google, and other tech companies to turn their holiday parties into what I call “charitable chances.” Perhaps they could charge an entry fee of one frozen turkey per guest to help feed needy families, or a pair of warm socks to be delivered to the homeless, or toys to be donated to local animal shelters. These are such small gestures to those fortunate enough to be attending such parties, but it would make a world of difference to the recipients. On Christmas night, when a child goes to sleep with a full stomach, or a homeless person with warm, dry feet, or a shelter pet with a toy to comfort its loneliness, the return on investment will likely be far greater than throwing millions at a friend’s start-up.
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