Claudia Anfuso became a millionaire at 25 in what she calls a "lightening strike" of good fortune. The Internet start-up company she joined three years earlier, go2net, saw its stock price boom, and Ms. Anfuso, along with other co-workers with stock options, suddenly got rich.
The change came so fast that Anfuso still struggles to adapt to her new world. "Some people feel I should have a plan to affect humanity," she says. "I guess I'm just trying to stay normal and work on my life."
The rise in Internet and software stocks has created a wave of millionaire Generation Xers in techno hot spots from Washington State to Washington, D.C. Though the Census Bureau doesn't keep a count, experts estimate there are now thousands of young cybermillionaires nationwide.
The Seattle area may have the nation's largest concentration of these young millionaires - being home to Microsoft, Amazon.com, RealNetworks, go2net, and dozens of lesser-known start-up cybercompanies.
This influx of wealth has brought subtle and not-so-subtle changes to a city built on blue-collar values: Flashy cars, hugely expensive homes, and an explosion in real estate prices have brought tensions - and questions.
What are these dot-com millionaires doing with their money?
Well, a mix of things, really, from globetrotting to politics to retiring. But one thing most seem to be doing is breaking the stereotypes of their generation as unmotivated and apathetic.
"This generation is criticized for not giving enough, but I think it's only the second inning of a nine-inning ball game," says Paul Shoemaker, executive director of Social Venture Partners, a group that invests both dollars and volunteer hours in nonprofit organizations in Seattle.
Of the group's 300 members, only 10 percent are in their 20s. But Mr. Shoemaker predicts there's a lot more to come from Gen-Xers. "When you look back in a few years, I think you will see these people giving more of their time and their money than other generations ever have."
Seattle City Councilwoman Tina Podlodowski agrees that the nation is only just beginning to see how this generation will use its wealth to shape society.
"I think you'll see that money forging a renaissance in the city," says Ms. Podlodowski, a former Microsoft executive who became a millionaire in her 20s and ran for city council after taking an early retirement.
After just four years on the council, Podlodowski is credited with using her business experience to help Seattle improve its technology as well as root out management problems in the police department.
She has become a role model for Seattle's young millionaires, and often gets e-mails asking for advice. Her next move: quitting the council to take a sabbatical and spend time with her two children.
Surfing the world
Lots of newly rich who once labored long hours behind a small screen are initially lured to travel and see people and places they knew only through the Web. Many grant themselves sabbaticals, some globe-trot, others spend time with families, and most take time to think about what they want to do next. Some even retire, at least temporarily.
But the number of those who retire completely has been overblown, says Michael Mann of Netpreneurs in Washington, D.C. "Nobody I know has pulled that off, though they talked about it."
Mr. Mann made his fortune in his 20s when his Internet company was bought by a larger one. At first, he took time off to volunteer for a nonprofit organization that offers computer training to inner-city adults. But he soon "fell into a new business," yet another Internet start-up. Plenty of others like him change jobs, start their own companies, or launch dream projects.
Retiring or spending too much time thinking about money can be isolating and even depressing, young cybermillionaires say.
"It's kind of alienating," Anfuso says. "Everyone thinks it's this huge beautiful thing that happens to you, but at first it makes you unhappy. It's easy sometimes to have guilty feelings."
That's why Anfuso, who doesn't have to worry about mortgage payments or student loans or affording a new car, as many of her friends do, doesn't mind picking up a dinner check more often these days.
But she and other millionaire Gen-Xers say they feel uncomfortable when they're approached because of the size of their checkbooks.
That may be why most continue to work, often staying at the same companies that made them rich, and seeking companions among colleagues who are also young and wealthy.
From Taco Bell to retirement
When Mike Hanlon, a former Taco Bell manager, moved to Seattle in 1995 to work for Amazon.com, he knew Internet stocks could get hot - he'd seen what happened with Netscape. But Mr. Hanlon, now in his late 20s, also knew that he could end up unemployed if the company sunk. At his age, he figured he could afford the risk. The decision made him and his wife, Molly, rich when Amazon's stock price exploded in 1997.
The money created many opportunities for the Hanlons. But it also forced them to deal with a whole new set of financial decisions they had not expected. They sought help from financial planners and Social Venture Partners.
The Hanlons recently started their own foundation this year with $500,000, and Molly quit her job in June to spend more time volunteering. But they're not rushing into other changes: Mike still works as a software developer at Amazon.com and they're still living in the same starter home.
They're not sure what they'll do next - or even what kind of projects they'll fund. Their latest project: housetraining their mixed-breed puppy.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society