People Profiles: Laurene Powell Jobs

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Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, is firmly on the philanthropic radar. With a $2.8 billion stake in Apple and a 7.3 percent stake in Disney, her net worth is estimated at USD $12.9 billion making her the richest women in Silicon Valley. She ranks at number 39 in the Forbes Power Women list, status enough to grab the attention of the media spotlight the world over.

Despite her prominent position, she’s managed to keep both her personal life and her work life, private. But now Powell Jobs is stepping tentatively out of the publicity-averse shadows and onto the world’s philanthropic stage.

Steve Jobs tragically died three years ago from Pancreatic cancer at age 56. He left behind a doting wife and three children (Reed, Erin, and Eve) and also his private legacy, the Steven P. Jobs Trust, which has been renamed to the Laurene Powell Jobs Trust since she took ownership. Administered by financial accounting firm, Howson & Simon, the trust operates out of Walnut Valley, California. In addition to 5.5 million shares in Apple the trust also owns a 7.3 percent stake as the largest shareholder in The Walt Disney Company, a result of the sale of Pixar to Disney in 2006.

Overseeing such an enormous fortune has allowed Powell Jobs to turn her full attention to non-profit entrepreneurship; in July 2013 she agreed to a rare television interview (her first TV appearance since Jobs’ death) where she discussed the immigration bill before Congress.

That’s not to say Powell Jobs hasn’t already been active in a varied portfolio of charitable causes. Her latest efforts are an extension of her previous charitable work and dedication to education, women’s human rights and the arts, as well as global conservation, nutrition and immigration policy. In 1997 she co-founded College Track, an after-school program with its origins in East Palo Alto that prepares underserved high school students for success in college. College Track has expanded to serve students in many areas including Oakland, San Francisco, New Orleans, Los Angeles, and Aurora, Colorado.

Powell Jobs’ recent gravitation towards the media is an indication that she is bringing her commitment to the enterprises, something that’s long remained a private matter, into focus. Following a period of mourning for her husband, the 49-year-old billionaire is approaching her responsibility with a renewed dedication.

And the successes speak volumes of her ambitions. Of College Track’s high school graduates, 90 percent have gone to four-year colleges and 70 percent have finished college within six years, which is 46 percentage points higher than the national average for first-generation students. Immigration reform has been of particular interest to her; last year she launched her new film and website, The Dream Is Now, a project that’s helping get the DREAM act passed that gives children of illegal immigrants the chance to earn their citizenship.

Powell has commented that the inability to employ the college-educated children of undocumented immigrants is both “a waste of lives” and “a waste for our country not to have the human capital that we developed.” But she is also is realistic in her expectations, realising that the path towards achieving success is a slow process. In a rare interview she told Philanthropy Magazine: “We want to keep our standards high and are reluctant to grow through franchising or through dissemination of our curriculum and training”.

In December 2010 Powell was appointed by Barack Obama to be a Member of the White House Council for Community Solutions, which is charged with advising the President on the best ways to help ‘disconnected youth’ across America, by finding solutions to local problems and encourage civic participation around education and job creation through community-led initiatives. The White House Council is Chaired by former Gates Foundation CEO Patricia Stonesifer and is made up of some well known faces, including singer Jon Bon Jovi, President of the Rockefeller Foundation Judith Rodin, and eBay CEO John Donahoe.

So how has she managed to maintain such a level of privacy in today’s media-driven world? In part, it is through the way she structures her business. In 2003, when Powell Jobs founded the Emerson Collective, a nonprofit organization involved in supporting  “social entrepreneurs and organizations working in the areas of education and immigration reform, social justice and conservation”, its dealings stayed mainly under the radar. That’s because the Collective is structured as a flexible LLC enterprise, and not a tax-exempt charitable organisation or foundation, so it has no requirement to publicly report its donations.

Laurene maintains that the advantage of having an LLC in today’s world is the ability to “act and react nimbly to create change”. It also means that Emerson can invest politically, in the for-profit sector and the nonprofit sector, simultaneously.

Naturally, Powell Jobs didn’t arrive into her elevated position without a good deal of business experience and talent in her own right. Her professional abilities and her business acumen bode well for beneficiaries of the trust, and those involved in its management. She grew up in New Jersey, achieved a BA and a BSE from the University of Pennsylvania and went on to receive her M.B.A. from Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. This was followed by a job at Merrill Lynch Asset Management and she spent three years at Goldman Sachs as a fixed-income trading strategist. Powell also previously co-founded Terravera, a food company that specialized in organic and healthy food products.

She met Steve Jobs in October 1989 at a lecture at the Stanford Business School, according to author Walter Isaacson in Jobs’ autobiography. She was a new graduate student, arriving late to a talk given by Jobs and, “after sitting in the aisle, was ushered to a seat that was reserved next to her future husband.” They were married in Yosemite National Park in March 1991 – she was 27 and he was 36. Speaking about his wife before their 20th anniversary, Jobs told Isaacson he had an “intuitive feeling” about his wife and that he “couldn’t have done better, because not only is Laurene smart and beautiful, she’s turned out to be a really good person.”

Good indeed; as of 2013, Laurene serves on the boards of directors of NewSchools Venture Fund, The Foundation for Excellence in Education, Conservation International and Stanford University and Stanford Graduate School of Business. She also sits on the Chairman’s advisory board of the Council on Foreign Relations. Previously she’s served on the boards for the Global Fund for Women, the New America Foundation, the New Schools Venture Fund, and Teach for America. Her passion and commitment is clear.

Powell Jobs might well be Silicon Valley royalty, made famous by her surname, but if anyone is going to uphold the fortune of one of the most successful entrepreneurs the world has ever seen, then Powell Jobs is the right woman for the task.

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