In Silicon Valley, Help for Those Left Out of the Boom

By Rebecca Koenig, Chronicle of Philanthropy

GOING LOCAL: Real-estate developer John Sobrato and his wife, Susan, have personally given away at least $379 million to nonprofits, including many charities in Silicon Valley, where they made their wealth.

Giving used to be simple for the Sobratos. Upon receiving a charity solicitation letter, they sent a check. They simply didn’t have the time or resources to do anything more, says John Sobrato, head of the family’s property-development company in Silicon Valley.

That was more than two decades ago. In the intervening years, the Bay Area exploded as the nation’s technology capital and the family firm grew with it. The Sobrato Organization has developed and rented office campuses to Apple, Yahoo, and other tech giants. Forbes estimates that John and Susan Sobrato and their family are worth more than $6 billion.

Giving, naturally, got more complicated. The Sobratos and their three grown children and seven grandchildren now operate a foundation that, with its offshoot programs, employs more than a dozen people. With their son, John, the company’s CEO, the couple have also signed the Giving Pledge.

Altogether, the Sobratos have personally donated, through general operating support, in-kind leases, and land, at least $379 million to nonprofits. Their first nine-figure pledge was announced in January: $100 million to Santa Clara University to support science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education.


Silicon Valley’s Have-Nots

It was Lisa Sobrato Sonsini, one the couple’s two daughters, who suggested the family start a foundation. A lawyer, she enjoyed tackling pro bono cases and had a deep interest in helping abused and neglected children. She’s now the foundation’s board president.

The Sobratos focus their giving on people in the Silicon Valley area who have been left out of — or harmed by — the region’s economic expansion. “This is where we made our success, and we have an obligation, we believe, to give back to those communities where we’ve been successful,” Mr. Sobrato says.

That goal makes the Sobratos unusual among Silicon Valley philanthropists, who are known more for giving to fight global poverty or grapple with the implications of artificial intelligence. Though the region has some of the country’s highest rates of income inequality, only about 7 percent of giving by the region’s private foundations went to area nonprofits, according to a recent report.

The Sobratos commit much of their charity to helping low-income and immigrant students from prekindergarten through college. In 2012, they gave $1.25 million to found Cristo Rey San Jose Jesuit High School, whose students spend one day a week working at nearby companies. They’ve also given $5 million to National Hispanic University and $10 million to Bellarmine College Preparatory, a private high school for boys.

“We think it’s the fastest way out of poverty, to have a good education,” Mr. Sobrato says.

The family has invested heavily in the creation of a new model of teaching English to young Spanish-speaking children. The Sobrato Early Academic Language Model was piloted in four Silicon Valley schools and deemed a success by independent researchers. The program, which also has received an award from the California School Boards Association, now serves 39,000 students in 87 California schools.

Mr. Sobrato hopes the model will eventually be used statewide. “That’s gonna be a real game-changer,” he says.


CLOSING THE INEQUALITY GAP: Sobrato Family Foundation grants have helped double Silicon Valley-area participation in Year Up, a nonprofit that helps low-income young adults land entry-level professional jobs.

Help for Nonprofits

The Sobratos’ commitment to Silicon Valley’s poor also means they provide direct support to charities. Over more than 10 years, their foundation has given grants for general operating support to hundreds of nonprofits that serve low-income people. The foundation also hosts a speaker series to educate nonprofit leaders on topics such as budgeting, staff management, and improving program outcomes.

Drawing on its real-estate resources, the family converted three office complexes in Milpitas, Redwood City, and San Jose, Calif., into nonprofit centers and provides rent-free work space to about 70 charities — a boon in a region where the influx of tech companies has sent rents soaring and pushed nonprofits to the outskirts of communities they serve. The shared space “gives them the opportunity to collaborate under one roof,” Mr. Sobrato says.

Big institutions have benefited from the family’s gifts and pledges, too. Among them: Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital ($20 million), the University of San Francisco ($15 million), and Valley Medical Center ($5 million).

The $100 million gift to Santa Clara University will go to a new building to integrate the university’s engineering and natural-science departments. “Being a real-estate developer, that got me excited,” says Mr. Sobrato, an alumnus and board member. “We think it’s important to have this cross-pollination of disciplines at the undergraduate level.”

Warren Buffett Calling

The Sobratos had already committed to giving away 100 percent of their wealth during their lifetimes before Bill Gates and Warren Buffett started the Giving Pledge. They formalized their commitment after a surprise personal appeal, Mr. Sobrato says. “I thought someone was kidding when they told me Warren Buffett was on the phone.”

The Sobratos are advocates of giving while living. Mr. Sobrato, who is nearing 80, and his son have talked about stepping away from their daily work at the company to focus on their philanthropy.

“I like to see the fruits of my labor work while I’m still alive,” Mr. Sobrato says.