The hoodie-wearing billionaires who connected the world through Internet likes and vacation photos are getting the same rewards as the oil and steel moguls of yore: large buildings with their names on them.
Witness the newly rechristened Priscilla and Mark Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center, or the Benioff Children’s Hospital at the University of California at San Francisco, which opened last month. That’s in the same building as the Betty Irene Moore Women’s Hospital, named for the wife of Gordon Moore, the semiconductor industry pioneer who predicted the ever-increasing computer speeds that fostered the rise of tech-era titans.
The largesse comes amid a widening wage gap and soaring housing costs propelled by an influx of generously paid tech workers. San Francisco has seen protests of private luxury buses that whisk them to Silicon Valley company compounds each day. Unions have demonstrated against the city’s payroll-tax break for Twitter and other tech companies.
Photo: REUTERS/Robert Galbraith
In the face of the opprobrium, the executives are taking a page from their Gilded Age forebears.
“The tech industry has created tremendous value through our products, but we need to do a better job of giving back and supporting our communities,” Marc Benioff, 50, chief executive officer of Salesforce.com, said in a statement.
The gap between San Francisco’s wealthiest and poorest workers was exceeded only by that of Atlanta among the 50 largest US metro areas, according to a Brookings Institution report.
“The people at the top are doing very, very well,” said Alan Berube, the report’s co-author. “Top income is placing big cost-of-living pressures on other households in the city.”
While the tech wunderkinds ushered in an economy based on virtual goods, their donations to hospitals, universities and public schools are reminiscent of gifts by industrial tycoons John Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, who made fortunes from sweat and steel.
“I’m proud to be part of the long history of tech leaders giving back to their communities, which is really nothing new,” said Ron Conway, an early investor in Twitter and Google, who in January gave US$40 million to an outpatient building at UCSF.
Zuckerberg, the 30-year-old CEO of Facebook, gave SF General US$75 million last month. Benioff donated US$100 million in 2010 to build the children’s hospital that bears his name and an additional US$100 million last year.
Zuckerberg’s wife, Priscilla Chan, a pediatric resident at SF General, helped spur the couple’s donation, likely the largest private-individual gift to a US public hospital, said Sue Currin, its CEO.
“Everyone deserves access to high-quality health care,” Zuckerberg said last month in a post. “We are so fortunate that our work in connecting the world through Facebook has given us the ability to give back to our local community.”
Alysabeth Alexander, vice president of politics for Service Employees International Union Local 1021, which represents teachers and nurses in San Francisco, said the tax break the city approved after Twitter threatened to move reduced funding for services.
“Corporations and CEOs who use strong-arm tactics to avoid paying taxes that fund our schools and roads should not be rewarded for occasional philanthropy,” she said.
Benioff has pressed industry peers to step up their charitable giving, including urging Conway to donate to UCSF, Conway said.
The children’s hospital is among three institutions at a new US$1.5 billion UCSF medical center that opened last month sporting the name of tech executives or, in one case, a technology spouse. The women’s hospital was named after Betty Moore, whose husband co-founded what became Intel, following a US$50 million donation last year.
About 48km south at Stanford University, Sean Parker, the billionaire former president of Facebook and a chronic allergy sufferer, pledged US$24 million in December to create the Sean Parker Center for Allergy Research.
“Rising health-care costs will lead to a system of health-care ‘haves’ and ‘have nots,’ which threatens to engender social instability,” Parker said in a statement.
One reason the industry is funding hospitals is to help the widest swath of residents, Conway said.
“Every single person needs health care,” he said.
The medical-center gifts help the industry address the income inequality, said Mark Laret, CEO of the UCSF Medical Center.
“We should be celebrating the generosity of these people,” Laret said.
Technology executives stepped up giving in the area during the past three years, said Alexa Cortes Culwell, managing director at Philanthropy Futures, a Burlingame, California-based firm that advises on giving.
“So much of this wealth is new, and people have needed some time to understand their options,” Culwell said. “These tech leaders understand that there’s a portion of their giving that should go locally.”
The Industrial Revolution tycoons also felt compelled to give back, having been excoriated as robber barons after accumulating enormous wealth with little regard for the public good.
Rockefeller, founder of the Standard Oil Company, funded the creation of the University of Chicago. Carnegie steered US$350 million of his steel and railroad fortune to causes including the founding of 1,679 US libraries.
Conway said he hopes the new gifts from technology innovators will encourage others to follow suit.
“I’m not sure what else you do with the money,” he said. “When you give it away while you’re alive, the sense of satisfaction is awesome, because we get to see the results.”
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