The Passion of S.B.F. & The Next MacKenzie

Nicole Shanahan
Nicole Shanahan, president of the Bia-Echo Foundation. Photo: Gonzalo Marroquin/Getty Images

There are few more fascinating figures in our zeitgeist than Sam Bankman-Fried, the 30-year-old crypto billionaire and FTX founder whose personal ambitions range from politics to media to, of course, the frontiers of digital finance. Over the past several weeks, Bankman-Fried has aggressively expanded his influence over the embattled crypto industry, saving rival firms from insolvency on financial terms that could double or triple his fortune, if ever the crypto market ever bounces back. A Bloomberg television chyron on Tuesday afternoon captured the vibes: “BANKMAN-FRIED RIDES TO THE RESCUE.”

On the political front, however, S.B.F. keeps racking up blaring defeats. First, there was the record $12 million that he spent trying to elect Carrick Flynn, a political neophyte congressional candidate who got creamed in Oregon. Then, in a less-noticed but equally seismic political whiff, S.B.F. and his team spent another $12 million or so that, for now, just disappeared into the electoral ether. On Friday, it became clear that a California ballot initiative supported by S.B.F.’s lobbying group, Guarding Against Pandemics, wouldn’t qualify for the 2022 ballot, despite over $21 million in campaign money behind the effort, including about $9 million from Open Phil, the philanthropy of Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and his wife, Cari Tuna.

The county-by-county blame-game of how an initiative with so much money behind it could fail to qualify hasn’t resolved itself, but I can tell you that politicos were buzzing in my inbox last week about what an embarrassing screw-up this was for S.B.F. (who, to be fair, isn’t involved in day-to-day campaign tactics like this, and has also been busy bailing out the crypto industry). The ballot measure, which would establish a new state bureaucracy to try and prevent future pandemics, will still qualify for the 2024 ballot—but an election two years from now, when the politics of pandemics will be different, certainly was not anyone’s objective when the campaign began late last year. In a statement on Tuesday, the group even floated the idea of pulling the measure altogether, saying that the extra time might yield legislative breakthroughs, “potentially obviating the need to go to the ballot.”

Meanwhile, S.B.F.’s media ambitions, which I described several weeks back, are full-steam ahead. Earlier this year, S.B.F. hired a number of media aides, to help him deduce what nonprofit and for-profit investments to make in journalism properties. The first of those passion projects, as revealed a few days later by the Times, is Semafor, the much-buzzed-about new media venture from Justin Smith and Ben Smith, which is formally launching later this year. Among Bankman-Fried’s co-investors in the Series A is The Information founder Jessica Lessin and The Atlantic chairman emeritus David Bradley, among others.

S.B.F.’s involvement didn’t surprise me—I had heard a few weeks back that his brother Gabe, who also serves as his aide-de-camp, was in attendance at the Smiths’ White House Correspondents Dinner weekend soiree. But it did strike me, on the surface at least, to be slightly off-script. Bankman-Fried’s media investment thesis, as described to me, has been to fund companies that support journalism with “epistemic” value, as befitting his effective altruist philosophy. Earlier this year, for instance, he donated $5 million to ProPublica to investigate the U.S. Covid response. So why Semafor?

But while Semafor isn’t an effective altruist publication, per se, S.B.F.’s investment (of an undisclosed size) fits into his team’s theory that there needs to be more global, non-ideological reporting on existential risks, such as nuclear nonproliferation, for precisely the elite audience that Semafor is targeting. The great challenges of this century, as S.B.F.’s team sees it, revolve around how international governments cooperate on issues pertaining to emerging technologies—the type of high-brow stories that very much appear to be in the crosshairs of the Smiths. Plus, given the Semafor founders’ track records, the “expected value” of S.B.F.’s investment—the cardinal virtue of the effective altruism movement—is pretty high out of the gate. So this was likely an easy decision for S.B.F.’s team, although I imagine we’ll know much more about Semafor’s EA bona fides when the site actually launches. 

But perhaps the most consequential news in the Bankman-Friedverse concerns what he’s doing in his day job. As the crypto market continues to hemorrhage value, S.B.F. has been buying the dip to the extreme—picking up distressed assets like BlockFi (to which FTX has extended a $400 million line of credit, with an option to buy the company outright, reportedly for as little as $25 million) and circling a potential deal to acquire Robinhood, the public trading platform now worth a fraction of its pre-crash value. 

For more on all of this, make sure you read the astute analysis of my partner Bill Cohan, who sees parallels between S.B.F. and J.P.M., or John Pierpoint Morgan. But I also want to flag a comment that crypto industry journalist Jeff John Roberts made on a podcast we recorded together last week. Roberts, who has also written a book on Coinbase, posited that Bankman-Fried’s bailouts of rival companies is not simply about stabilizing the crypto market, but rather a way for FTX to better compete with the Coinbases of the world by essentially acquiring potential customers on the cheap. That perspective posits a whole new side of S.B.F.: he’s not merely a good steward of the crypto economy, doing this all as acts of benevolence, but also something of a shark.

The Next MacKenzie?

The name Nicole Shanahan first appeared on my radar in early 2019, shortly after she married Google co-founder Sergey Brin, becoming part of one of the world’s ten biggest fortunes. Brin, in his first 40 years of life, had been a fairly modest philanthropist, or at least a quiet one, outside of writing big checks for Parkinson’s research. And despite building a proudly political culture at Google and personally aligning with the anti-Trump Resistance, even showing up at S.F.O. to protest Trump’s “Muslim ban,” Sergey had not shown much interest in participating in campaigns and politics. But over the last few years, I would regularly hear from fundraising sources to keep an eye on Nicole—that she was much more interested in innovative philanthropy and political mega-donordom than her husband, and that she might even push Sergey in more fascinating directions as they aged, uncorking $100 billion for the left.

Shanahan grew up as a self-described “welfare kid” in Oakland but rose to become part of the Silicon Valley firmament—a regular at Burning Man, a founder of a patent-law startup, and eventually one of the most-buzzed-about next-gen tech philanthropists. Late in 2019, I remember being surprised to see Nicole’s name pop up on a fundraiser invite for an event hosted for Pete Buttigieg, alongside many Democratic bundlers who are longtime participants in the Game. From conversations with sources, I came to see that Nicole would be the key to understanding what would happen to one of the world’s largest fortunes. 

But timing is everything. Nicole and I were supposed to meet up in-person in February 2020, but we had to reschedule for pedestrian, logistical reasons; then she changed P.R. teams and her staff more broadly; and then a pandemic scrambled everything for the foreseeable future. Writing about Nicole, as interesting as I found her, became another item on my interminable “long list” of story ideas piling up. Every few months, I’d ask an aide or a mutual friend to check in for a possible interview, but there was no urgency from either side.

That was the state of play until earlier this year, when I first heard rumblings from sources that Shanahan and Brin might be headed for divorce. (This would be Brin’s second divorce after splitting from his first wife, the 23andMe C.E.O. Anne Wojcicki.) I’m not in the business of caring about personal matters like divorces, especially when there are young kids involved, but divorces can have long-tail impacts in philanthropy. The fallout from the separation of Bill and Melinda French Gates temporarily threw the 1,500-person Gates Foundation into turmoil last summer. And of course, the story of the incredible rise of MacKenzie Scott as a philanthropic powerhouse and, frankly, a cultural icon, began in mid-2019 when she finalized her divorce from Jeff Bezos, dividing one of the world’s largest fortunes. 

It goes without saying that the world of mega-donordom is heavily gendered: The wealthiest people in the world are almost all men, and philanthropy and politics, like all things, reflect the biases of the principals. How might the world be different if more of the nonprofit and political capital was held by women? Who knows, maybe Roe would still be law. And that’s why divorces do matter, because they shift the power centers. And I do believe Shanahan will be a power center going forward.

So last week, I finally reconnected with Shanahan for our long-awaited chat —not to talk about Brin per se, but to talk about her politics, her unique philanthropic portfolio, and her plans going forward. We spoke Tuesday, in her first interview the couple’s split was made public. Our conversation, below, has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Teddy Schleifer: Tell me about your upbringing. You grew up on welfare and other public assistance. Now, you’ve been living the other extreme—part of one of the wealthiest families in the world.

Nicole Shanahan: My mother came over [from China] with a family sponsorship, but needed to work to survive here. And so she worked as a maid actually for a woman named Mrs. Ames, who I grew up around. She was a very sweet old lady, and my mom did everything for her: Cooked for her, cleaned, took her to places on walks, really took care of her. And she spoke no English, my mom. So it was all learning by seeing and doing. And it’s interesting because NASA Ames and Moffett is actually named after Mrs. Ames’s relative—I think it was her father-in-law or something—and obviously the last few years with Sergey, flying out of NASA Ames and knowing that my mother was her maid was a pretty stunning moment for me.

It was never for me about trying to be rich. I’d never actually said growing up, ‘I want to be rich.’ I never felt poor because I believed the safety nets we had in the ‘90s were actually quite good. I lived off them. I survived off them, and dare I say I felt I had the opportunity to thrive.

The work of yours that first caught my attention, and that I’ve written about, is your investment to extend the timeframe over which women can have children. That’s not a typical program area for a foundation. Why did you choose to make reproductive longevity one of your initial philanthropic priorities?

Reproductive longevity came out of my personal experience—a lived experience that so many women have in this world today. Which is, late 20s, early 30s, entering what should be the beginning of the prime of your career, and feeling an early form of death. You’re losing something. Imagine going blind or losing the ability to hear. This is the ability to do something so fundamental to the human experience, to have a baby, to be a mother, to start a family.

I was trying to bank embryos with Sergey and I was told by several of the clinics that my stats were reading that I was going through an early menopause. And that I was running out of time and I had to urgently do it. And due to a condition, I wasn’t actually able to successfully go through a full IVF round. At the age of, at that point, 30, I believed I wasn’t going to be able to have children. And I then felt that it was my responsibility to help other women in similar situations feel more empowered. Because I felt so helpless.

That program is fairly unconventional precisely because male funders would not tend to think to fund that—because they lack this direct personal experience. I feel like it affirms the thesis that shifting more philanthropic and political capital to women would yield a different world. I wonder, for instance, if Roe is still the law in a world where more of the political and philanthropic decision-makers are women. 

Roe was top of mind when I started the reproductive longevity work because when Ruth Bader Ginsburg did not step down during the Obama administration, many people in the legal community, especially around Stanford because I’m a Stanford academic, there was a discussion of the likelihood that we were going to lose Roe.

I realized that the reproductive longevity work was going to be that much more important in a world where Roe didn’t exist. Seeing such a great division in this country … I think the division is so unfortunate, because at the end of the day, I think we all agree that life is precious, so precious. And I think the narrative of pro-life versus pro-choice is just not the right one for today. The one for today is: Let’s use technology as a connector to bring us together, and not divide us.

What do you mean by that? Do you feel like the politics of choice have gotten too fever pitch, too heightened?

The execution of how [Dobbs] has been done is enraging. The pitch is warranted in every way. I think that how we evolve past this moment is something that we don’t understand yet as a community, on either side of the aisle. But we must evolve, and I think that science helps us evolve…I think we can bridge this empathy gap that gets us to a place where we evolve to something even better than Roe.

I understand from my contacts that you’ve explored interest over the years in getting more involved in Democratic fundraising. I remember you helped put on an event for Pete Buttigieg in late 2019. But then I have also talked with some people who detect that you see campaigns and super PACs and advocacy as an inefficient way to save the environment, for instance. Tell me if we’re putting words in your mouth, but one person I talked to said that they thought you saw politics and campaigns as something of a useless vessel for addressing climate change, that democracy was more or less doomed. In which case, maybe the fundraising world isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

I mentioned this to a recent candidate that was fundraising: I said I’d rather put my money into the thing that you want to solve rather than paying for TV ads and further dividing the country. I don’t want to fund anything that’s polarizing, because there’s so much work to be done that is apolitical.

There are these climate solutions candidates, and I really like them—don’t get me wrong, I do quite a bit of funding. I just don’t like the super PACs. I like coming in and doing very specific checks to certain candidates, very specific checks to certain pieces of legislation that are being proposed. For me, that feels more authentic, because I’m able to really look at a multivariable situation. And I learn a lot from these candidates too. So I like spending time with them. Being able to be more strategic—I’m young, I’m 36 years old, I’m probably overly-educated—if I’m just cutting money to a super PAC, am I really adding value? I don’t think so.

How concerned are you about the Democratic party moving too far left? I know you’ve supported the fairly lefty group Way to Win in the past, but I also saw that you donated to back the recall of Chesa Boudin, which caught my attention given your interest in criminal justice reform. Where is Nicole politically?

I don’t think about it in terms of party. I think about it in terms of people, places and ideas. 

[Before Chesa ran,] I thought San Francisco was in a good place. I’ll just leave it at that. I thought it was in a good place. And then Chesa won on a very pro-reform stance, which San Francisco wanted because they had seen what George Gascón had done … Chesa came into a situation that needed to be maintained, in my opinion, not necessarily reformed in the same tone and pitch that he brought in. And I think that caught a lot of people off-guard over time.

Can I ask now about the future? I want to give you the chance to have your voice heard on your marriage, given all the speculation about the terms of the separation agreement and how the assets will be split. I ask because the numbers, obviously, affect the scale at which you can make an impact.

I hope for Sergey and I to move forward with dignity, honesty and harmony for the sake of our child. And we are both working towards that. The headlines paint a simplistic picture of a very personal, and multi-layered relationship. And I think the details of our separation are a private matter. We were together for about eight years. 

I want to get the word out that and assure everyone that I am committed as ever to dedicating my life’s work to social justice, climate solutions and a thoughtful, caring democracy. And I actually think that as I move forward out of this separation, I feel very optimistic in how I might grow in this role.

What do you mean?

There’s an opportunity for personal growth right now. And separation is not easy, and separation with a child is certainly not easy. I believe that a lot of the value I brought has been capital to the philanthropic world, but I think more so just passion and dedication. And as I move into a new chapter in my life, it’s very clear to me what is important.

I know the plan announced back in 2019 was to give a total of $100 million or so to nonprofits through 2024. I’m asking about scale because I’m trying to think how this affects the size of your giving.

All of my former commitments I intend to follow through on, yes.

Will Sergey be involved with Bia Echo, your private foundation, going forward? Or are you two going separate ways philanthropically?

For the most part Bia Echo has always been my foundation, and it’s always been under my leadership. And so there really isn’t a breaking of that.