The Philanthropists

Dorka Keehn | November 30, 2012 | Lifestyle Story City Life

Leila Janah, 30, founder and CEO of Samasource.
The big idea: Helps poor women and teens in Africa earn money by doing outsourced “microwork” for tech companies in Silicon Valley and elsewhere, using an innovative assembly-line model that breaks down big digital projects into small, repetitive, easy-to-learn tasks.
Bio: Indian-Belgian by way of Southern California; Harvard BA; worked at the World Bank and as a freelance travel writer for the Let’s Go books.
Aha moment(s): Teaching English to blind kids in Ghana at age 17, Janah realized that lack of economic opportunity, not lack of education, was the biggest problem facing impoverished West Africans; Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat helped her envision a way out. “In places that lack physical infrastructure, all you need to employ people are a satellite hookup, a laptop, and a power source.”
The San Francisco difference: “When I talked about this idea in New York or Washington, D.C., people said, ‘You don’t have the right credentials, you don’t have any power, you can’t do that.’ Whereas in San Francisco, people say, ‘Really? That’s awesome. Tell me more.’”
Next up: SamaUSA, a pilot program to train low-income community college students in Bayview and other parts of Northern California to do digital work.
On the side:, a crowdfunding site that funds surgeons who perform simple but lifesaving medical procedures in Africa.

Alison Carlson, 56, cofounder of the Passport Foundation and founder and president of the Forsythia Foundation.
The big idea: Provides strategic funding in the environmental health field (in Forsythia’s case, this includes green chemistry solutions to toxic chemical contributors to disease).
Bio: The Stanford-educated Carlson spent many years as an athlete, coach, and advocate for women in sports, then worked at Stanford’s business school before shifting her focus to toxic issues.
Aha moment(s): As a young woman, Carlson worked as a tennis coach in New York’s Hudson River Valley, near a petroleum company that was later discovered to have buried barrels of PCBs. Once married, she struggled with infertility and wondered whether PCBs, which had been associated with a higher risk of reproductive problems, might be to blame. “But doctors get almost no environmental health training,” she says, “so they were essentially clueless about how to address my concerns.”
The San Francisco difference: “Compared to the East Coast, people here are more nimble and less encumbered by history, and that extends to how they solve problems.”
The gender thing: “In my field, women get the issues right away because we are the habitats that gestate children.”

Carla Javits, 57, president of REDF (aka the Roberts Enterprise Development Fund).
The big idea: Creates jobs and employment opportunities for people facing the greatest barriers to work by providing grants and business assistance to nonprofits that launch or expand social enterprises.
Bio: Started in the bookstore and restaurant businesses, earned a public policy degree at Berkeley, then worked for the city and the state as an analyst specializing in low-income communities before joining the nonprofit Corporation for Supportive Housing.
Aha moment(s): Witnessing the connections between the AIDS and crack epidemics and homelessness made her see the need for systemic change, starting with housing and economic opportunities for people at the margins.
The San Francisco difference: “In the Bay Area, there’s been more of an openness than in other places [to meld] business thinking with social good. For a lot of the problems we care about, we haven’t really moved the needle on solving them despite all the money we’ve spent. So there’s a new focus on impacts—who do we really help, what really works, how do we measure that and improve it.”

Xochi Birch, 40, angel investor for the nonprofit charity: water.
The big idea: Brings safe drinking water to developing countries, with 100 percent of donations going directly to fund water projects. Birch and her husband, Michael, have invested more than $4 million toward the nonprofit’s infrastructure.
Bio: Started out as a computer programmer; met her husband in London; with him, founded the social networking website Bebo (sold to AOL for $850 million in 2008).
Aha moment(s): After the sale, “I finally had more time and began looking for a cause that had meaning for me,” says the mom of three. “Water is an issue that aff ects everyone, but women and children the most.”
The San Francisco difference: Whether giving money or making it, “entrepreneurs here take a business-minded approach—we want to leverage our [resources] and time.”
On the side: Cofounded the Monkey Inferno, a startup incubator in SoMa.

Kat Taylor, 54, cofounder and board member of Oakland-based One PacificCoast Foundation.
The big idea: Provides financial services to social enterprises and nonprofits in California and the Pacific Northwest using a triple-bottom-line sustainability model; a pilot program makes short-term emergency loans to low-income people as an alternative to exorbitant payday lenders.
Bio: Harvard BA; Stanford business and law degrees; worked in banking in the 1980s; married to Tom Steyer, the billionaire financier, Democratic donor, and philanthropist; mother of four.
Aha moment(s): A friend, Working Assets cofounder Michael Kieschnick, first suggested that Taylor start a bank back in 1986, but "that seemed a bit silly for a 28-year-old," she says. After John Kerry’s loss to George W. Bush in 2004, Taylor, Steyer, and a group of friends decided they needed to be involved in social-justice projects that didn’t depend on politicians. “The important thing about a federally regulated bank is that we can leverage our capital 10 to 1 with depositors’ funds,” Taylor says. “It’s an amplification of investment capital not available to other types of organizations.”
The San Francisco difference: “This place is innovative, it’s iconoclastic, it’s a total magnet for sharp, positive young people, which makes it incredibly fertile ground.”
Next up: Growing the bank’s assets (now nearly $300 million).
On the side: TomKat Ranch in Pescadero (provides education about sustainable agriculture); the couple have also signed the “Giving Pledge,” which requires them to donate at least half their fortune to philanthropic causes.

Gretchen Sandler, 45, vice chair of the board of directors at the Women’s Foundation of California.
The big idea: Pools donors’ resources to drive projects that increase economic security for women and girls around the state, with plenty of room to pivot as needs change.
Bio: An educator by training, the Minneapolis native married into the family that founded Oakland-based World Savings Bank (aka Golden West Financial).
Aha moment(s): Teaching third grade at Paul Revere Elementary School in Bernal Heights opened Sandler’s eyes to the problems facing immigrant families; watching her philanthropic husband and in-laws spread their money around inspired her to think big.
The San Francisco difference: Donors here take a big-picture, long-term, help-them-to-help- themselves approach. When the recession hit and many cash-strapped nonprofits could no longer afford to advocate on their own behalf in Sacramento, Sandler and her fellow donors provided small travel grants. Workshops on how to get legislation passed have resulted in 16 bills signed into law in the last 10 years.
On the side: Sandler is a big booster of Mujeres Unidas y Activas, which provides services to Latina immigrants and trains them to become leaders in a variety of causes.

Sarah Wigglesworth, 43, board member of Full Circle Fund and cofounder of its Global Economic Opportunity Circle.
The big idea: Uses the “giving circle” model to support social entrepreneurs as they scale up their ideas for greater impact. “We hope to catch them at a transformational moment when we can be really catalytic,” Wigglesworth says.
Bio: A Harvard grad, former management consultant, and mother of two who moved to San Francisco from New York five years ago.
Aha moment(s): New in town and eager to meet like-minded people, Wigglesworth and her husband attended a house party organized by Full Circle members. The highly leveraged, highly collaborative model “was so interesting to me,” Wigglesworth says.
The San Francisco difference: “In New York philanthropy, it often starts and stops with the check. In the Bay Area, people give more broadly of themselves—ideas, connections, and skills.”
Favorite projects: The food-entrepreneur incubator La Cocina; Embrace, an S.F.–based enterprise that makes low-cost portable baby warmers to reduce infant mortality in developing countries.

Donna P. Hall, 64, president and CEO of the Women Donors Network.
The big idea: Helps wealthy progressive women around the country leverage their energy, money, and strategic savvy to support projects aimed at building a just world.
Bio: With a BA and MBA from Stanford, a master’s in public health from UC Berkeley, and a longtime focus on reproductive health, Hall has crisscrossed the public and private sectors as a manager, strategic planner, foundation executive, and deputy director of a women’s think tank.
Aha moment(s)
: A consulting gig for the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation in the 1980s opened her eyes to the possibilities of using VC thinking to invest in causes. “We like to get in on the ground floor, do risky things, move quickly,” she says.
Favorite projects: The antiwar groups Win Without War and CodePink; the new online-based group Ultraviolet (a feminist MoveOn).
The gender thing: The “women are more collaborative” idea is clich├ęd but true, Hall says: “They’re less interested in having their name on the building than in building and sharing power.” The biggest downside to that modesty: Other women can’t be inspired by their achievements.

Sharon Su, 34, member of the board of directors of the One Percent Foundation.
The big idea: Makes doing good by doing well a no-brainer for millennials, who pledge at least 1 percent of their annual income to the foundation, which distributes the money to socially conscious nonprofits voted on by donors.
Bio: The Hong Kong native started in finance and now manages strategic partnerships for Yahoo.
Aha moment(s): While she had always volunteered her time, she wanted her efforts to feel more proactive and directed. Her work at One Percent has included developing the ground rules for deciding what nonprofits to fund.
The San Francisco difference: “Technology is such a part of our everyday lives—it’s a natural progression to figure out how to incorporate it with giving.”
Next up: The foundation will soon launch a new digital platform that will let anyone, anywhere, start and manage a giving circle.

Mona Motwani, 35, cofounder of
The big idea: Crowdsources donations and pro bono services to support grassroots women’s organizations locally and around the world.
Bio: UC Hastings–trained lawyer who specializes in social-justice work.
Aha moment(s): A TV news story led Motwani and friends to band together to raise a few thousand dollars for Rwandan genocide survivors, igniting her ambition and providing an unexpected proof of concept.
The San Francisco difference: More than just donating or volunteering, people here aim to do “grassroots venture philanthropy,” Motwani says. In SparkSF’s case, that translates into 5,000-plus members (more than half of them men) who’ve donated more than $1 million in funds and “social capital” (including website development and accounting and legal services) to 93 fledgling organizations since 2004. Says Motwani, “You don’t have to have a trust fund to create real change.”
Next up: Working with Spark’s fledgling New York chapter to get it off the ground.

Michelle Cale, 44, board member of the Women’s Foundation of California.
The big idea: See Sandler.
Bio: The first of her English working-class family to attend college, Cale worked on legal aid and family law policy at the UK Ministry of Justice; after moving to the Bay Area in 2001, she was assistant director of Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research.
Aha moment(s): When her husband sold his startup in 2008, she no longer needed to work and shifted to education-focused philanthropy instead. “Oxford allowed me to step out of the social environment I grew up in. I want other young people to have that transformational opportunity.”
The San Francisco difference: The collaborative model so popular here is great for newbies, Cale says. “You need people who know the scene and won’t mind you asking stupid questions. Through groups like WFC, I learned how to do research, what to look for, and how to get the most impact for what I give.”
On the side: Reading Partners (an Oakland–based literacy program); Breakthrough Silicon Valley (prepares lower-income kids for college).

Originally published in the December 2012 issue of San Francisco.

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