Can Laurene Powell Jobs Save the World?

Laurene Powell Jobs and actor Harrison Ford
Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/WireImage
Theodore Schleifer
October 14, 2021

This past June, Barack Obama jaunted off to visit with some old friends of Silicon Valley. Obama was coming to the cradle of innovation in part to learn more about disinformation campaigns, and any way that the technology industry might cure America’s trust crisis. And so he called a meeting—and asked none other than Laurene Powell Jobs to host him at the Palo Alto headquarters of Emerson Collective, her for-profit philanthropic enterprise, for the intimate reception, which sources told me was supposed to stay under wraps. The guest list was organized by Obama, not Powell Jobs, but the billionaire philanthropist, along with some people who happen to be her grantees, had the former president’s ear that day to explore one of his top post-presidency priorities. 

Obama, like many members of the American elite, wants to keep Powell Jobs close. He should. In an industry town where every billionaire has a mission or two, Powell Jobs has stretched herself out over the last decade to have a million, with grand and sprawling aspirations to help rebuild American media, close the K-12 achievement gap, overhaul the immigration system and make money along the way.

Emerson has a unique DNA. Over the past several years, and again in recent weeks, I have spoken with current and former employees of Emerson, their grantees and other close observers of the firm to demystify its essence. There are always three common themes that emerge from those conversations. The first, most dominant one is Emerson’s opaqueness, which Emerson admits can make the firm seem secretive or insular. The for-profit philanthropy is structured as a privately held LLC, which means it doesn’t have to disclose key information about its gifts or assets, and its grantees are often told to not publicize their donations. Even the offices of Emerson are unmarked; I’ve heard hilarious stories over the years of guests being unable to find its Palo Alto headquarters. 

This lack of transparency can also inadvertently make Emerson look capricious. The philanthropy has a widely-shared, much-complained-about reputation in the nonprofit industry for being an impenetrable black box. One nonprofit head described catching Powell Jobs’ attention as akin to winning “the MacKenzie Scott lottery”—an insinuation that large funding decisions appear to be made far more covertly than industry standard. “She’ll decide that she wants to wave her fairy wand around you and if it happens, great. But you can’t really plan for it.”

The explanation is that Powell Jobs is an intensely private person who genuinely sees trying to hog the headlines as unbecoming. But that privacy also serves another purpose when it comes to her image. Like her late husband at Apple, she and her team are very sensitive to how she is covered and perceived by the public. Given the expanding nature of work, Powell Jobs certainly is becoming less secretive with time—she gave the commencement address at Penn this year, for instance—but her innate discomfort as a celebrity dates back to the Jobs family’s desire for privacy that Walter Isaacson explored in his biography.

The second essential part of Emerson is its intense courtier politics. Like the MacKenzie Scott comparisons, the quips I’ve heard over the years about “Queen Laurene” have always struck me as gendered, but they do underscore the dual reality that Powell Jobs surrounds herself with high-caliber colleagues and advisers who jockey for position—everyone from fashion designer Marc Ecko to former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is on her payroll—and she is also intimately involved in day-to-day decision-making. “The power dynamics of the organization are pretty intense,” as one former employee put it to me. 

Within Emerson’s halls, she’s the boss; it’s her money, and the culture revolves around her, as one would expect. For instance, former employees recounted the silly, sensitive politics around the seating chart at a conference table during all-hands meetings. Some others reflected on what they saw as quasi-competitive elements between various teams to impress Powell Jobs when they presented her with their gift ideas for Emerson’s wildly-popular, well-meaning, and often-emotional, Holiday Acts of Kindness annual program, where each employee is allowed to anonymously direct $25,000 to a nonprofit of their choice. (Some other Emerson employees tell me they didn’t see the ceremony, which is a sacred part of the Emerson lore, that way.) “If you compare them to Gates Foundation or Walton or any of those groups, Emerson is much more at the whims of Laurene’s interests and a small group of people who have surrounded her that she trusts,” said one person who has worked with them.

Thirdly, Jobs’s ambitions are sweeping and eclectic. Emerson now has more than 150 staff, with at least 125 more at its sibling organizations, and seems to lack concerns about overextension. Last month, Powell Jobs—already a prolific art collector in addition to a co-owner of two sports teams—announced a second family foundation outside of Emerson focused entirely on climate issues. The head of one major Emerson-funded group, who is well-wired in this world, underscored the management challenges inherent to this grand vision. “The things that make things geometrically complex are: Are you a funder? Okay. Also, are you are a doer? Okay. Also, do you work on multiple issues?” said this person. “Because if you’re a funder and doer and you work on multiple issues—and you work on four issues—that’s like 64 different inputs right there.” 

Ten years after the death of Steve Jobs, Emerson is quite the tricked-out family office, and it is learning to balance the complexities spawned by this torrent of activity. When reporters from The Atlantic, which it majority owns, have spoken at the offices of Emerson, I have been told, they offer lengthy preambles about how they are appearing on their own volition. Earlier this year, Emerson was embroiled in a messy lawsuit in the wastewater industry because the firm had sizable impact-investments in both the acquirer and the target in an acquisition—and the firm was eventually sued by its co-investors. When Colorado governor Jared Polis wanted to hire a staffer to work on immigration issues, Emerson footed the bill for the aide’s salary—raising concerns about looming conflicts of interest with a major donor. 

In recent months, Emerson has made headlines for some of the hazards of its many-tentacled ambitions, from its soured investment in Ozy Media to growing tensions between its focus areas and its five-dimensional philosophical mission. There is a bigger, more meta-point, though, often missed in the coverage. Navigating obstacles like these is simply the cost of doing business. (Emerson’s write-down of Ozy isn’t even a rounding error on its balance sheet.) Rather recent events reveal that Emerson finds itself approaching an inflection point. Powell Jobs, after all, is only 57 years old, with a stated commitment to spend down her $22 billion fortune in her lifetime. Saving the planet from apocalypse is hard. So is building an empire that can scale alongside her aspirations.

At these high altitudes, Silicon Valley philanthropy is increasingly vulnerable to—and often resembles—the organizational intricacies of corporate America, with its swaggering egos, diverging priorities and conflicts of interest. The ambitions, as worthy as they may individually be, make the job harder. Growing pains are part of the process.

All three of the aforementioned themes came to the surface this past month in a couple of poignant ways. The first was the highly public implosion of Ozy, whose charismatic founder, Carlos Watson, was a long-time friend of Powell Jobs. I recently wrote about all the chaos that had ricocheted onto Emerson, which I reported had tensions with Ozy for a few years running. But Powell Jobs is loyal to her friends, and she and Watson worked on philanthropy together for 25 years, making it hard to cut him off.

The other enlightening source of tension within Emerson concerned a pair of small education journalism startups: one called Chalkbeat, which Emerson has funded for years, and a second called The 74, which some at Emerson wanted to fund for years. Chalkbeat is a well-regarded publication, but it has written several critical stories about the XQ Institute, a glitzy, Emerson-sibling education program helmed by Powell Jobs focused on remaking the high school experience. One story, by Matt Barnum in 2019, for instance, posited that XQ’s efforts were based on over-hyped data. Another, from Barnum earlier that year, asked in the headline: “Laurene Powell Jobs has given millions to reinvent the American high school. Is it working?”

Those stories rankled XQ’s head, a former U.S. Department of Education senior official named Russlynn Ali, according to several former employees I spoke with, even for years after publication. Ali publicly complained about them at an Emerson all-hands meeting in late 2019, and has brought up the stories frequently in the years since, I am told. Adding insult to injury for Ali was a fact that everyone at Emerson knew, and all readers knew because it was disclosed up high in the pieces: Emerson had funded Chalkbeat. And now Chalkbeat was criticizing Emerson?

According to these former employees, Ali considered the publication’s coverage to be biased—and she told colleagues that she didn’t believe Emerson should be in the business of funding a biased outlet. What media publications Emerson should or shouldn’t fund, however, wasn’t in her purview. The media investments are disbursed by a separate team run by longtime New York Times journalist Peter Lattman. But Ali is, by all accounts, a heavily empowered aide at Powell Jobs’ institution, due partly to their decades-long friendship. When Powell Jobs went to Italy for vacation this summer, The Daily Mail found her there with her family and Ali.

Sometime in late 2019 or early 2020, not long after a spate of critical stories, Chalkbeat, which has been backed with $1.6 million by Emerson since 2015, was told that they would no longer be funded by Emerson. They’d be leaving the portfolio, the publication was told, and they received a $200,000 one-year exit grant, as is common in nonprofit funding, that ended this May. Ali claimed that her advocacy was a factor in what unfolded; she told at least one person who has since left Emerson that the biased coverage in some way influenced the funding decision, the former colleague told me. This upset my source, and others internally, who were concerned that it jeopardized Emerson’s ability to fund journalism impartially. 

Business Insider recently reported on this same anecdote, but my understanding of what transpired differs in a key way: While Ali did weigh in on the Chalkbeat decision, her claims to the former employee seem to have been little more than schadenfreude. For all of Ali’s proximity to Powell Jobs, the final call was, as I understand it, ultimately up to Lattman’s media practice. This, however, was also not the first time that the XQ Institute butted heads with Emerson’s media arm. XQ had a partnership with Pop Up Productions, an Emerson-owned live events and magazine business—the two co-produced a storytelling tour together—and sources told me that the tensions ran extremely high between the XQ and the Pop Up teams. (Pop Up was eventually stripped of its support from Emerson in a high-profile break-up.) 

In an interview, Ali acknowledged “creative tensions” between the two teams and that those may have “bruised” the Pop Up staff. Regarding Chalkbeat, Ali confirmed that she often found the publication’s coverage to be biased in general, but said that her feelings played no role in the decision. 

Emerson said the decision to cut off Chalkbeat was not due to a desire to manage conflicts but instead an unrelated effort to focus its journalism grants on underfunded “news deserts.” They say—not in so many words—that Ali’s claims are incorrect: The decision to yank Chalkbeat’s funding had nothing to do with their coverage of XQ. (“Emerson Collective is proud to have been an early and longtime supporter of Chalkbeat,” a representative added in a statement. “After more than five years and $1.6 million in funding, our support ended this year. We look forward to watching their continued growth.”)

Instead of Chalkbeat, I am told that Ali wanted Emerson to fund The 74, a news outlet founded by longtime and well-connected media executive Campbell Brown, one that the media team saw as an advocacy operation, but that the education team saw as unbiased, unlike Chalkbeat. The media and education teams have long squabbled over The 74, and Ali made another play to get Emerson to fund it this summer.

But Brown’s publication did not get funded either. Around the time that the hullabaloo over Chalkbeat began, Emerson privately pushed through what they called a new “principle agreement” declaring that they would indefinitely no longer fund any education journalism projects. Yet if the agreement’s goal is in part to avoid infighting and conflicts of interest—perceived or otherwise—it may prove difficult at scale. Emerson funds lots of political work. Should it no longer fund political journalism, either? Should it no longer fund immigration-focused outlets given that immigration is Powell Jobs’ top policy priority? And most importantly: How can Emerson successfully deploy $22 billion to change the world when its staff are bickering over $1 million grants? 

I suppose questions like these are meant to be answered at a later date, when new tensions inevitably bubble to the surface. The Chalkbeat flashpoint is admittedly small, but it’s a vivid reminder of just how big Emerson has gotten, and also, I suspect, a harbinger of things to come. To some extent, some of these turf wars are only issues because Powell Jobs is so intimately involved in the organization. Some people who work there wish she actually played a smaller role internally and the institution was not so top-heavy, much like Apple was under her late husband. In the end, however, Emerson belongs to Powell Jobs, and will remain under her control until the last dollar is spent. “Show me a foundation with a living donor at the helm where this isn’t somewhat complicated to figure out and work through,” one Emerson grantee told me.

That stark reality is evident from what I sense is Powell Jobs’ single most important legacy item: immigration reform. When she first stepped into the spotlight back in 2013, just a few years after the grief of losing her husband, Powell Jobs threw herself into the work of protecting undocumented children from deportation. It’s an issue that made her a hero to a generation of progressive activists in the nonprofit world, and it continues to hold her attention, even as Emerson expands to include other world-changing missions. Four years ago, Powell Jobs helped stand up a new immigration advocacy organization, and I hear that Powell Jobs has been spending time directly lobbying legislators and Hill leadership for them to push through protections for the undocumented as part of the reconciliation drama in Washington. “She’s good at it,” said a person familiar with the calls.

Immigration reform, of course, was still a bipartisan concern in the pre-Trump era of Emerson’s founding, and Powell Jobs remains a decidedly establishment figure. While she has strong ties to the Biden administration, and with Kamala Harris’s office in particular, Powell Jobs has also historically had a decent relationship with education reformers like Kevin McCarthy (at least in his earlier, less-Trumpy iterations). Some Democrats I talk to wonder whether her political projects are bedeviled by an unwillingness to be partisan enough: Despite her progressive bona fides, Powell Jobs is not seen by insiders or former employees as politically ruthless like some other other mega-donors, sometimes singing from the classic Silicon Valley kumbaya hymnal. “The idea of bipartisanship coexisting with a lot of the ideological commitments that they’ve got is complicated,” one prominent Democratic activist told me. “There’s a real tension between the idea of being bipartisan, the idea of being technocratic, and the actual political commitments associated with getting immigration reform across the finish line.” 

And yet I’m not so convinced that matters. Because so much of Emerson, both internally and externally, comes down to the cult of Laurene: The phalanx of well-wishers and marquee names and celebrities like Watson and Ali, like Harris and McCarthy, like Leo DiCaprio and Ben Affleck, and all the other people that Powell Jobs collects. Her politics on immigration or issue A or issue B doesn’t matter as much as the fact that she is Laurene Powell Jobs, and she can work the Democratic establishment and command an audience that few others can. During the 2020 primary, I remember hearing about how people like Powell Jobs would invite the few candidates that she didn’t know, like Pete Buttigieg, to stop by Emerson for one of its trademark salon discussions. 

But the real work is what happens when the celebrities are gone. Despite the glamour surrounding her media investments, art galleries, mega-yacht and Halloween pageants, Powell Jobs’ legacy will be shaped by the subtle nuances of managing an empire that is part 501(c)3, part K Street, and part VC. In fact, that’s true for so many of her peers that see her as a model. Silicon Valley’s wealth has gone truly stratospheric, and the town’s rich-and-famous have trained their bazookas on some of society’s most intractable problems. And yet as technology founders and early-stage executives know, success can often be traced back to the simple, unglamorous art of execution.