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What Will Become Of Steve Jobs' Billions?

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Even before his unfortunate death at the age of 56 last week from suspected pancreatic cancer, much was made of Steve Jobs’ impact on computing, entertainment, and the modern world in general. His resignation several weeks earlier from Apple was enough to spark the tributes and memorializing – something the very private tech giant must have found bewildering.

As with any celebrated wealthy notable, the topic of philanthropy as yet another yardstick of Jobs’ impact came into focus – with Andrew Sorkin of The NY Times finding surprisingly very little in terms of giving.

“But the lack of public philanthropy by Mr. Jobs — long whispered about, but rarely said aloud — raises some important questions about the way the public views business and business people at a time when some “millionaires and billionaires” are criticized for not giving back enough while others like Mr. Jobs are lionized,” he writes.

Sorkin adds that Jobs’ privacy in life may have also extended to his charity; with anonymous donations (a suspected $150M gift to the Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of California turned out to be false.) a strong possibility. (Update: Case in point, John Markoff of the New York Times revealed that Jobs was a “large anonymous donor to Amnesty International.”)

At the time of his death, Jobs’ wealth was estimated at just over $8 billion. With private trusts these days hiding any future giving from prying eyes, we may never know how (or if) that money is ever spent on charity – but we can hypothesize what it might benefit.

Jobs was a longtime pescetarian, likely a result of his spiritual roots in Buddhism. In one interesting section of Sorkin’s article, he mentions that at one point, after resigning from Apple in 1986, Jobs founded the short-lived “Steven P. Jobs Foundation.”

“But he closed it a little over a year later,” he writes. “Mark Vermilion, whom Mr. Jobs hired away from Apple to run the foundation, said in an interview, ‘He clearly didn’t have the time.” Mr. Vermilion said that Mr. Jobs was interested in financing programs involving nutrition and vegetarianism, while Mr. Vermilion pushed him toward social entrepreneurism. ‘I don’t know if it was my inability to get him excited about it,” he said. ‘I can’t criticize Steve.'”

That concern for good nutrition appears to have been a core value – with Jobs later being credited for being influential in Disney’s 2006 decision to break ties with McDonald’s and their Happy Meal promotions. “There is value” in fast-food tie-ins, he said before the decision, “but there are also some concerns, as our society becomes more conscious of some of the implications of fast food.”

We also know that Steve’s wife, Laurene Powell Jobs, has a strong interest in good nutrition, having founded the successful natural foods company Terraverra. According to the Wall Street Journal, the family’s commitment to education and social reform will also play a major role in deciding future donations. Last year, she even traveled with actor Ben Affleck to the Congo – and has been a benefactor of his Eastern Congo Initiative.

“She is very much of the school of ‘to whom much is given, much is expected,'” Carlos Watson, who co-founded an educational reform organization called College Track with Laurene in 1997 told the WSJ. “She is focused on ways to expand opportunity.”

While Jobs’ giving in life may have hidden behind the same curtain as Apple’s much-loved products, it’s clear that his impact on society will continue on in parallel with the innovations he left us. As Dan Pollata wrote in a piece titled “Steve Jobs, World’s Greatest Philanthropist“:

“What’s important is how we use our time on this earth, not how conspicuously we give our money away. What’s important is the energy and courage we are willing to expend reversing entropy, battling cynicism, suffering and challenging mediocre minds, staring down those who would trample our dreams, taking a stand for magic, and advancing the potential of the human race.”

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