The landscape of philanthropy is changing rapidly with the growing popularity of charitable LLCs and crowdsourced support for causes. One of the drivers of this trend is Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Steve Jobs. She has become one of the wealthiest women in the world with her net worth of about $20 billion. A talented entrepreneur and executive, she now heads Emerson Collective, a philanthropic organization with the mission of removing barriers to opportunity. The organization has emerged as an extremely influential force in Silicon Valley and beyond, yet Emerson Collective is far from a household name—which is Powell’s preference. Powell Jobs once sent an essay to all of her employees about the importance of giving anonymously.
How Does Emerson Collective’s Approach Differ?
Like the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and some other recently established philanthropic organizations, Emerson Collective operates as a limited liability corporation (LLC) rather than a foundation. This strategy provides more flexibility in how the organization can invest its money, though it also comes with slightly higher taxes. Powell Jobs chose this structure because she believes in the importance of supporting entrepreneurs in addition to nonprofits. As she explains, entrepreneurs who are aligned with a philanthropic mission may envision some unique solutions that would never occur to a traditional nonprofit. Emerson Collective also provides support to advocacy groups and manages its own activity campaigns while contributing to political organizations, all of which would not be possible as a foundation.
For Powell Jobs, philanthropy means more than just writing a check. She wants Emerson Collective to be a place where leaders can come and try novel solutions to address extraordinarily challenging issues. Her emphasis on innovation is perhaps best shown through her “tech tours.” Together with angel investor Ron Conway, she visits up-and-coming companies in Silicon Valley to hear from founders about their vision. Through these tours, she connected with Airbnb, Facebook, Pinterest, and others before these companies became successful. Emerson Collective has been able to bring some of the most visionary minds on board, which has created an environment that feels almost like an accelerator, but for social change rather than product development.
Who Is Involved with Emerson Collective?
Over the years, Emerson Collective has attracted an impressive array of minds to work on some of the most pressing social issues in the country. For example, Arne Duncan, secretary of education during the Obama administration, joined the team to focus on diminishing gun violence in Chicago. The assistant secretary for renewable energy in the Bush administration runs Emerson’s environmental programs. The assistant education secretary for civil rights in the Obama administration cofounded the organization’s education reform affiliate, the XQ Institute. However, Emerson Collective also attracts creative minds. Marc Ecko, the fashion designer and entrepreneur, serves as chief creative and strategy officer.
After founding Emerson Collective, Powell Jobs slowly grew the organization. However, starting last year, she has begun making more dramatic moves that have captured the attention of other philanthropists. For example, last July, the organization bought a majority stake in the periodical The Atlantic. Shortly thereafter, the collective purchased an hour of live television on the four major networks to simultaneously present a number of celebrities discussing education reform. Also last year, Emerson Collective purchased a large stake in the holding company that owns multiple Washington, DC-based sports teams. This year, the famed basketball player Kevin Durant announced that he would contribute $10 million to expand one of the organization’s education programs to the Washington, DC area.
What Is Emerson Collective’s Endgame?
With such varied investments, it is difficult to identify Emerson Collective’s endgame, especially given the fact that Powell Jobs believes in anonymous donations and the LLC status of the organization limits the number of financial statements made public. At the same time, she has articulated her beliefs about philanthropy on several occasions, including recently during a commencement address at Miami Dade College, in which she told students to become “angelic troublemakers,” a phrase coined by the civil rights leader Bayard Rustin. She went on to explain that change seldom comes from the top because power is stubborn. Pushing for change through Congress is important, but grassroots movements are the way forward, she said. She tied all of this back to the growth of social media and the incredible connectivity with which today’s graduates came of age. These tool, she believes, facilitate democracy.
For her part, Powell Jobs is fighting for democratization of access and opportunity, which means that people who have traditionally been ignored will be able to engage the system and effect change. She recognizes that she is using her own money and privilege to bring about a world where money and privilege matter less, and sees the inherent paradox. In response, she turns to Martin Luther King, Jr., who affirmed the importance of philanthropy, but reminded us that we cannot ignore the conditions that necessitate philanthropy. Powell Jobs sees Emerson Collective as a way of democratizing philanthropy and empowering people who have novel ideas for social change, even if they may fail.