Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

A brief rant on Felix Salmon and philanthropy in Silicon Valley

I love Felix Salmon’s work. He’s one of the best financial reporters in the business, someone who’s got tons of insight and an ability to explain complicated, obscure but important things to a general audience.

So I was pained to see him get a small but significant detail wrong in his piece about Marc Andreessen. Among Andreessen’s achievements, Felix writes, is that “he’s dragging Silicon Valley into the world of philanthropy, where it’s historically been very weak.”

Umm. No. Absolutely wrong.

Dave Hewlett and Bill Packard, and their families, have been philanthropists for decades. The value of their gifts to Stanford University exceed the Stanford family’s original endowment (or so I was told by some development folks there). The Lucille Packard Children’s Hospital (where both my children were born), the open space trusts that have kept a significant part of Silicon Valley from turning into places to park Range Rovers in front of McMansion… not to mention a variety of locally-famous schools, charitable foundations, etc. etc. ad infinitum– have all benefitted from the work of Hewlett, Packard, the Varian family, and many others.

Too elitist? Fundraisers for schools sound too self-serving? Maybe Santa Clara U.’s social innovation prizes, and its goal of improving the lives of a billion poor by 2020, is a bit more to one’s liking.

Indeed, you might make the case that Marc learned about the value of philanthropy from his spouse, whose family real estate business shaped Silicon Valley, and whose family foundation has shaped Silicon Valley in different ways.

I think the idea that the Valley isn’t interested in philanthropy comes from extrapolating the example of Steve Jobs, who famously was uninterested in it. However, what you have to realize is how much Steve was the exception to the rule; indeed, you’d have to be someone of Steve Jobs’ caliber (in other words, only Steve Jobs) to get away with it.

So Marc’s not inventing a new tradition. If anything, he’s doing a great job of showing how new money legitimates itself by imitating old money.

And yes, here in the Valley money made selling klystrons and calculators– anything before about 1990– is Old Money. Those dollars might as well have been printed by Rembrandt.

1 Comment

  1. It’s true that H&P were both big philanthropists, but philanthropy in the Valley has generally gone nowhere since their day. Certainly if you look at the VC crowd that Marc Andreessen now hangs with, they’ve been very bad on the philanthropy front. (It’s not just Steve Jobs.) And do you think that Larry Ellison is any better at giving his money away than Jobs was?

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