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The Rockefellers of Silicon Valley

Young Internet millionaires begin to use wealth for social good

By Paul Van SlambrouckStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 11, 1999



LOS ALTOS HILLS, CALIF

For all its power and reach, Silicon Valley is a disarmingly informal and youthful place.

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When some of its elite huddled on the back patio of a private residence in this leafy suburb this week, the ambience was a blend of afternoon barbecue and a college reunion.

But as an afternoon breeze fluttered napkins on the circulating trays of asparagus and prosciutto, the talk turned, as it often does here, to ideas that are innovative, out of the box, or as the valley's movers and shakers like to say, part of a "new paradigm."

Put simply, the men and women who are wiring the world are struggling to build a new ethos. Just as the Carnegies, Rockefellers, and Fords of the Industrial Age eventually used their wealth for broader social good, the inventors of the Digital Age are now recognizing it's their turn to carry the torch.

It comes at a time of great irony. The United Way of Santa Clara County, the heart of Silicon Valley, went bust last month and told homeless shelters, domestic violence clinics, and other social agencies to go elsewhere. This in a region that prides itself in being one of the greatest engines of wealth and ideas the world has ever known.

Standing on the lawn and speaking to his peers, Internet millionaire Steve Kirsch drew laughs as he recounted his reaction to the crisis. "I wondered who would step up," said Mr. Kirsch, pausing, then casting his eyes down at himself, "and thought, how about you?"

Kirsch, founder and chairman of Infoseek, wrote a check for $1 million, soon followed by a check from eBay, another Internet success story. Within weeks, the United Way's $11 million shortfall was made up by donations from the technology sector.

But while the immediate need was met, there is no peace in the valley.

THIS week's meeting was the launch of a new effort to spark the kind of social consciousness that has been so slow developing within this exploding class of new American wealth.

Organized by the Community Foundation of Silicon Valley, the backyard gathering was a candid acknowledgment that the valley should do better, and a hope that this kind of informal networking is the key to more charitableness.

"Silicon Valley has been at the forefront of so many things, and we'd like to extend that to involvement in charitable giving," community foundation president Peter Hero told the gathering.

It was little surprise to many in the valley that the first person to step forward in the United Way crisis was Kirsch. He's come to personify the kind of budding philanthropic interest Mr. Hero and others would like to see more of in Silicon Valley, and also the kind of individualistic, personal-interest driven style of giving that is emerging from today's technology leaders.

A onetime pinball machine repairman, Kirsch retains the exuberant fascination with the world around him that led him to be an inventer and, ultimately, founder of the Infoseek portal site. Partly gobbled up by Disney, Infoseek has showered Kirsch with unexpected fortune.

But unlike many other Internet multimillionaires, Kirsch has begun giving early and often. He's established a philanthropic fund that is now worth about $30 million.

In addition to helping the United Way get back on its feet, Kirsch has funded a new computer science center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, various medical research projects, and even sent $100,000 to a University of Arizona project tracking asteroids that might collide with earth.

"He's unusual and represents the next generation of philanthropic leaders," says Hero of Kirsch, who also sits on the community foundation board.

Kirsch exhorted his peers to get involved at an early age, so "you can actually make a difference while you can see it."

While some of technology's most famous, like Microsoft's Bill Gates, have become major charitable donors, the level of giving compared to the level of wealth leaves much room for improvement, says Hero.

Silicon Valley's response to the United Way crisis has served as something of a wake up call. After writing his check, Kirsch sent e-mail to 65 of the valley's leaders, asking them to follow his example. He got two responses.

While the United Way funds were ultimately replenished, the episode seems to have shone a light on the need of the less fortunate in the valley, as well as the relative detachment of the technology wealthy from that segment of society.

There are many explanations for why Silicon Valley and the technology sector in general are not more philanthropic. The pace at which the industry is evolving, as well as its relative youth, are commonly cited reasons. Who, the reasoning goes, has time to think about worthy causes when you're working 60 hours a week and raising a family?

Another feature of Silicon Valley that conspires against the kind of connection industrialists often forged with their communities, is the transience of technology workers. A large percentage of the valley's newly wealthy are from other parts of the country and world.

And even within the valley, worker tenure with any particular employer is, on average, far shorter than the national average.

Whatever its causes, there are a growing number of exceptions and many of them were at the backyard gathering this week. Their hope is to become one of the technology world's most important start-ups of 1999.