Jeff Bezos $2 Billion Donation to Build Preschools and Fight Homelessness Is, Well, Morally Complicated

Jeff Bezos\ $2 Billion Donation to Build Preschools and Fight Homelessness Is, Well, Morally Complicated
Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos create $2 billion fund to fight homelessness
Jeff Bezos at the Economic Club of Washington D.C. on Thursday evening, interviewed by David Rubenstein, co-founder of the Carlyle Group investment company. (Screenshot via YouTube / CNBC)

Jeff Bezos was drawn to focus a large portion of his new $2 billion philanthropic foundation on preschool education because of the powerful compounding effect that comes from getting kids started with with the right education, the Amazon founder and CEO told an audience in Washington, D.C., on Thursday night.

Helping the homeless has also been a focus for Amazon (AMZN). Earlier this year, the company partnered with the Seattle nonprofit Marys Place to build a permanent homeless shelter in its headquarters. It previously helped the nonprofit temporarily house 200 homeless people. Since March 2016, Amazon customers have also been able to order items from the Marys Places wishlist on the site, such as diapers and socks.

Theres no doubt, we know for a fact, that if a kid falls behind, its really, really hard to catch up, and if you can give somebody a leg up when they are 2, 3, or 4 years old, by the time they get to kindergarten or first grade, theyre much less likely to fall behind, Bezos said at The Economic Club of Washington, D.C. The money spent there is going to pay gigantic dividends for decades.

Bezos tweeted a statement Thursday that the fund will issue annual leadership awards to organizations “doing compassionate, needle-moving work to provide shelter and hunger support to address the immediate needs of young families.” There will also be full scholarships for Montessori-inspired preschools in “underserved” communities, he said.

The new Day One Fund, announced by Bezos via Twitter on Thursday morning, is starting with an initial $2 billion endowment, but he confirmed on stage that he expects to ultimately provide additional funding to the organization. The initiative will also fund existing programs to help homeless families, but Bezos made it clear that he will be more directly involved in the preschool initiative.

He has also been criticized for not contributing his fortune to philanthropy like other billionaires have, including Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Berkshire Hathaways Warren Buffett. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a massive philanthropic initiative tackling issues such as infectious diseases and improving education.

Im very excited about that because Im going to operate that, he said. Thats going to be an operating nonprofit. Im going to hire an executive team. Theres going to be leadership team. Were going to operate these schools and were going to put them in low-income neighborhoods.

Earlier this month, Bezos and his wife donated $10 million to With Honor, a nonpartisan organization and super PAC looking to boost the number of veterans in politics. The organization said the couple donated one third of its $30 million funding goal of helping to elect a minimum of 20 American military veterans in November.

Jeff Bezos will use his riches to open Montessori preschools

Bezos was less forthcoming about where Amazon will put its second headquarters, despite efforts by interviewer David Rubenstein to pin him down on the location of the $5 billion project known as HQ2. We will announce a decision before the end of this year. Weve made tremendous progress. The team is working their butts off on it and we will get there, he said.

Jeff Bezos launches $2 billion fund for homeless

He also talked about the turnaround of the Washington Post, which he purchased for $250 million in 2013. Without calling out President Trump by name, Bezos addressed his frequent criticism of the press.

Bezos, who also owns The Washington Post and space exploration company Blue Origin, became the worlds wealthiest person this year, with an estimated net worth of $164 billion, according to Bloomberg.

If youre the President of the United States or a governor of a state or whatever, you dont take that job thinking youre not going to get scrutinized, he said. Youre going to get scrutinized and its healthy. What the president should say is, this is right, this is good. Im glad Im being scrutinized. And that would be so secure and confident. But its really dangerous to demonize the media.

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Video: Amazons Jeff Bezos launches a $2 billion fund to build preschools, help homeless families

Bezos continued, Its dangerous to call the media low-lifes. Its dangerous to say that theyre the enemy of the people. We live in a society where its not just the laws of the land that protect us. We do have freedom of press. Its in the Constitution. But its also the social norms that protect us. It works because we believe those words on that piece of paper, and every time you attack that, youre it eroding a little bit around the edges.

Bezos said the Day 1 Family Fund would issue grants every year to groups and organizations that provide shelter and food to young families in need. The Day 1 Academies Fund, meanwhile, “will launch and operate a network of high-quality, full-scholarship, Montessori-inspired preschools in underserved communities. We will build an organization to directly operate these preschools.”

The conversation started with a discussion of Amazons market value, and Bezos status as the worlds wealthiest person, a title he claimed from his neighbor, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates. Watch the full video below, via the archived CNBC live stream, and continue reading for extended excerpts.

Bezos has faced criticism for his absence from the Giving Pledge, a commitment by the worlds wealthiest individuals and families to donate more than half their fortunes to good causes. And while his new charitable endeavor should be applauded, many have noted that a number of his Amazon workers remain underpaid and endure difficult working conditions.

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Rubenstein: As a result of [Amazon stock] going up 70 percent this year, you have become the wealthiest man in the world. Is that a title that you really wanted or not? Is it a burden?

Despite his worlds wealthiest man title, Bezos isnt known for his philanthropy in the same way as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, often preferring to focus on long-term initiatives. But in June last year, he decided to use his money to help those who needed it sooner, turning to Twitter for donation suggestions.

Bezos: I can assure you I have never sought that title. It was fine being the second-wealthiest person in the world. That actually worked fine. Its something people naturally are curious about, you know, its kind of an interesting curiosity, but I would much rather if they said like, inventor Jeff Bezos or entrepreneur Jeff Bezos or father Jeff Bezos. Those kinds of things are much more meaningful to me. Its an output measure. If you look at the financial success of Amazon and the stock, I own 16 percent of Amazon. Amazon is worth roughly a trillion dollars. That means that what we have built over 20 years, we have built $840 billion of wealth for other people. From a financial point of view, thats what weve done. Weve built $840 billion of wealth for other people and thats great. Thats how it should be. I believe so powerfully in the ability of entrepreneurial capitalism and free markets to solve so many of the worlds problems. Not all of them, but so many of them.

Now, Bezos has announced the Bezos Day One Fund, which he and his wife MacKenzie will use to fund existing organizations that help homeless families and to create a “network of new, non-profit, tier-one preschools in low-income communities.”

Richest man in the world has launched a $2 billion fund to help the homeless

Rubenstein: So you live in Washington state, in Seattle or outside of Seattle. Now, the man who was the richest man for about 20 years is named Bill Gates. What is the likelihood that the two richest men in the world live not only in the same country, not only the same state, not only in the same city, but in the same neighborhood? I mean, is there something in that neighborhood that we should know about, and are there any more houses for sale?

In January, Bezos donated $33 million for college scholarships to “Dreamers”— childhood undocumented immigrants allowed to stay in the country under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

Bezos: I saw Bill not too long ago. We were joking about the worlds richest man thing. I said, youre welcome. And he immediately turned to me and said, thank you. But no, Medina is a great little suburb of Seattle and, you know, I dont think theres anything special in the water there. You know, I did locate Amazon in Seattle because of Microsoft. I thought that that big pool of technical talent would provide a good place to recruit talented people from. And that did turn out to be true. So its not a complete coincidence. There is some correlation there.

Well use the same set of principles that have driven Amazon. Most important among those will be genuine, intense customer obsession, he tweeted. The child will be the customer.

Jeff Bezos Pledges $2 Billion Toward Education and Homelessness

Rubenstein: But when you are the richest man in the world, you go into a store, when you went to buy something, do you have to put a credit card down? You just say Im Jeff Bezos and they send you the stuff? You carry cash around?

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Rubenstein: So earlier today you made an announcement that is the most significant philanthropic gift youve made. About a year ago, you said you wanted to look for some good philanthropic ideas and you got, I think, 47,000 of them. … How did you decide where to put this $2 billion, and would you describe exactly what youre going to do?

The preschools, Bezos wrote, will be free for students and inspired by the Montessori approach, in which children direct their own learning in an environment that is prepared for them to explore. Montessori instruction has traditionally been available only in private schools, but new efforts to make the model more accessible have taken hold, and recent research suggests that it benefits children from low-income families.

Bezos: Well, that process was very helpful. I solicited ideas, kind of crowd sourced and I got literally, as you said, something like 47,000, maybe even a little more. Some of them came to my inbox, most of them came on social media and I read through thousands and thousands of them. My office kind of correlated them all and put them into buckets. And there were some themes that emerged. But the other thing thats fascinating about this kind of exercise, you see just how long-tailed it is. People are interested in trying to help the world in so many different ways and its all the things you would expect, you know, its uh, but, but, but also some more unusual things, but its, you know, some people are very interested in arts and opera and they think thats underfunded, and so a lot of people are interested in medicine, in particular diseases, and think that those deserve more R&D dollars. All these things are correct. A lot of people are very interested in homelessness, including me. A lot of people are very interested in education of all kinds. Both a kind of college, scholarship-type education, but also apprenticeship programs. So, you name it and people are interested in education.

It’s also not clear how much transparency to expect from Bezos’s effort, which he called the Day One Fund. A number of wealthy individuals, including Mark Zuckerberg, have organized their giving through a limited liability company, rather than a nonprofit. This approach does not require disclosing who receives grants and allows the organizations to give to political causes and invest in for-profit companies.

Im very interested in early education. The apple doesnt fall far from the tree. My mother has become, in running the Bezos Family Foundation … she has become an expert in early education. Im a student of Montessori schools. I started at Montessori when I was 2 years old. And the teacher complained to my mother, the Montessori school teacher complained to my mother that I was too task-focused and that she couldnt get me to switch tasks so she would have to just pick up my chair and move me. And, by the way, I think thats, if you ask the people who work with me, thats still probably true today.

Much about the initiative is unclear, from what “tier-one” means to where, when, and how many schools will open. Bezos’s announcement did not acknowledge the current bipartisan movement to fund preschool more widely, so it’s unclear whether his network might ever seek public money or how it might interact with — or even crowd out — existing efforts to expand preschools.

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Bezos: No, Im in touch with several of my high school and elementary school teachers though, but I dont know any of my Montessori school teachers.

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Rubenstein: So the gift that youre giving — essentially, youre going to have preschool for children who need preschool.

Speaking briefly, Emanuel said he believes that the program will proceed fully without him, pointing to leadership from Illinois Senate President John Cullerton and also Democratic gubernatorial nominee J.B. Pritzker, whose namesake foundation helped underwrite an innovative social impact bond program in 2014 that funded an initial wave of pre-K seats in low-income schools.  

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Bezos: Yeah, full-tuition preschool, Montessori-inspired. Im very excited about that because Im going to operate that. Thats going to be an operating nonprofit. Im going to hire an executive team. Theres going to be leadership team. Were going to operate these schools and were going to put them in low-income neighborhoods. Theres no doubt, we know for a fact that if a kid falls behind, its really, really hard to catch up and if you can give somebody a leg up when they are 2, 3, or 4 years old, by the time they get to kindergarten or first grade, theyre much less likely to fall behind. It can still happen, but youve really improved their odds and probably most of the people in this room have been very mindful about making sure that their kids got very good preschool educations, and got that kind of headstart. That headstart compounds fantastically and if you can get that starting at age 2, 3, 4, theres a powerful compounding effect there. So its highly levered. Thats all that really means. The money spent there is going to pay gigantic dividends for decades.

Bezos: Yes, and thats going to a be more traditional grant-making philanthropy. So there, Im going to identify, with the help of a team — were going to hire a full time team — identify and fund, vet and fund, family homeless shelters.

Until now, Bezos has made only small initial steps into giving. The Bezos Family Foundation, which is best known for its support of children’s education, has been largely funded by his parents from Amazon holdings they acquired as early investors in their son’s enterprise. Outside of that, Bezos and his family’s known donations have included gifts to Princeton University and Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Bezos: Yeah. Its Day One. Everything Ive ever done has started small. Amazon started with a couple of people. Blue Origin started with five people. And the budget at Blue Origin was very, very small. Now the budget of Blue Origin approaches a billion dollars a year, and next year itll be more than a billion dollars. And Amazon literally was 10 people. Today, its half a million people, but its hard to remember for you guys, but for me its like yesterday, I was driving the packages to the post office myself and hoping one day we could afford a forklift. And so for me, Ive seen small things get big and its part of this Day One mentality. I like treating things as if if theyre small. Amazon, even though it is a large company, I want it to have the heart and spirit of a small one. The Day One Foundation is going to be like that. Well wander a little bit, too. We have some very specific ideas of what we want to do. But I believe in the power of wandering. All of my best decisions in business and in life have been made with heart, intuition, guts, not analysis. When you can make a decision with analysis, you should do so, but it turns out in life that your most important decisions are always made with instinct, intuition, taste, heart. Thats what well do with this Day One Foundation, too. Its part of that Day One mentality. As we go about building out this network of nonprofit schools, we will learn new things and well figure out how to make it better. …

Last year Bezos solicited advice from the public via Twitter, asking how he could best use his wealth to help people right now. At the time, he said that he was interested in funding projects to help people at the intersection of urgent need and lasting impact. The missive set off a frenzy of responses from every corner of the world, including pleas to support health care, loan forgiveness and even offbeat appeals to back a leather fetish museum in Chicago.

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And the customer is going to be the child, this is so important because that is the secret sauce of Amazon. There several principles at Amazon, but the number one thing that has made us successful — by far — is obsessive compulsive focus on the customer, as opposed to obsession over the competitor. And I talked so often to other CEOs, some other CEOs, and also founders and entrepreneurs, and I can tell that even though theyre talking about customers, theyre really focusing on competitors and it is a huge advantage to any company if you can stay focused on your customer instead of your competitor.

With a personal fortune of $163.8 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, the chief executive officer had previously been largely invisible in the world of philanthropy. His net worth has risen by $64.7 billion this year alone as Amazon’s shares have surged. Bezos’ relative silence was a stark contrast to peers like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett who have given away tens of billions.

So then you have to identify, who is your customer. So at the Washington Post for example, is the customer the people who buy advertisements from us? No, the customer is the reader, full stop. Then, by the way, where do advertisers want to be? Advertisers want to be where there are readers. So its really not that complicated, you know, it comes around really well. And in the school, who are the customers? Is it the parents? Is that the teachers? No. It is the child, and thats what were going to do. Were going to be obsessive, compulsively focused on the child. Were going to be scientific when we can be, and were going to use heart and intuition when we need to.

Amazon has a history of supporting homeless programs in Seattle. In 2016, it renovated a vacant hotel on land designated for its new headquarters so it could be used temporarily by the nonprofit group Mary’s Place to give shelter to 200 homeless families. Amazon is designating 47,000 square feet of space at its new corporate office for a permanent Mary’s Place shelter.

Rubenstein: When you use your intuition to make decisions, where is the intuition leading you now on your second headquarters?

The Bezos Day One Fund will issue annual awards to organizations that are doing compassionate, needle-moving work to shelter and support the immediate needs of young families, the billionaire announced in a blog post Thursday. Its vision statement comes from Mary’s Place in Seattle: no child sleeps outside.

Bezos: All right. Can we just take a moment to acknowledge that that may be the best segue in the history of interviewing. Seriously, David. That is amazing.

Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos speaks at The DC Economic Club in DC speech sparking additional speculation of where the companys new second headquarters will be located. Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. (ABC7 photo)

Bezos: We will announce a decision before the end of this year. Weve made tremendous progress. The team is working their butts off on it and we will get there. [Jeers from the crowd.] No, no. Hey, be nice. Come on.

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Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos launches $2B fund for homeless, low-income families

Rubenstein: But you know, you already have something in one Washington. And what about another Washington area?

Bezos faced questions about the organizations second headquarters but wouldnt make an announcement.

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Rubenstein: So speaking of Washington, you bought a few years ago, as you mentioned, the Washington Post. Why did you buy the Washington Post? You had no background in that area. What convinced you to do that?

Bezos, and Amazon, have been criticized in Seattle for not doing more to help the needy and have become focal points in the booming regions angry debate about traffic, housing prices and homelessness. When Seattle passed a tax in May on large companies to fight the citys growing homelessness crisis, Amazon balked and even temporarily halted construction planning on a new high-rise building near its headquarters. City leaders quickly rescinded the levy.

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Bezos: OK. First of all, I was not looking for a newspaper. I had no intention of buying a newspaper. Id never thought about the idea. Had never occurred to me. It was never something. It wasnt like a childhood dream. Knew nothing. And my friend Don Graham — who at that time I had known 15 years, I know him 20 years now — he approached me through an intermediary and wanted to know if I would be interested in buying the Washington Post and I sent back word that I would not, because I didnt really know anything about newspapers and Don over a series of conversations convinced me that that was unimportant, because inside the Washington Post, we have so much talent that understands newspapers. That wasnt what the problem was. What they needed was somebody who had an understanding of the internet. Thats kind of how it got started.

Bezos has yet to sign The Giving Pledge, an initiative launched by Gates encouraging billionaires to commit to giving away most of their wealth. The Seattle-based Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as the worlds largest private nonprofit foundation has an endowment worth over $40 billion and has long supported homelessness services for families in the city. This year, Gates also announced it was taking up systemic poverty in the U.S.

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And then I did some soul searching and again, my decision-making process on something like this would definitely be intuition, and not analysis. The financial situation of the Washington Post at that time, this is 2013, was very upside down. It is a fixed cost business, and they had lost a lot of revenue over the previous five or six years, not through any fault of the people working there or of the leadership team. The paper had been managed very, very well. The problem was a secular one. The internet was just eroding. All of the traditional advantages that local newspapers had, all of them, it was just taking away. Every gift that a local newspaper had was kind of systematically removed by the internet.

The fight soured many more locals on Amazon and Bezos, and also overshadowed the growing portfolio of philanthropy they had done in the city. The most notable involving more than $40 million to the local nonprofits FareStart — a hospitality training program and restaurant business that aims to combat homelessness and poverty — and Marys Place, whose mission is to find and provide shelter for every child.

Read Jeff Bezos full statement about his $2 billion Day One fund

And so thats why you see this. Its a profound problem across local newspapers all around the country and in fact the world. So I had to do some soul searching and I said, is this something I want to get involved in? If Im going to do it, Im going to put some heart into it and some work into it. I decided I would only do that if I really believed it was an important institution. I said to myself, if this were an financially upside down salty snack food company, the answer would be no. But as soon as I started thinking about that way, I was like, this is an important institution. It is the newspaper in the capital city of the most important country in the world. The Washington Post has an incredibly important role to play in this democracy. Theres just no doubt in mind about that.

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So as as soon as I had passed through that gate, I only had one more gate that I had to go through before telling Don yes. And that was, I wanted to be really open with myself and look in a mirror and sort of think about the company and be sure that I was optimistic that it could work because if it were hopeless that would also be not something I would get involved in. And I looked at that, and I was super-optimistic and it needed to be transitioned to a national and a global publication.

By choosing to focus his philanthropy on homelessness and early education, Bezos is likely influenced both by his parents Bezos Family Foundation and by his adopted hometown of Seattle, however mixed some natives may feel about the citys growing affordability crisis thats been largely attributed to the success of Amazon.

Theres one gift that the internet brings newspapers — it destroys almost everything — but it brings one gift. And that is free global distribution. In the old days of paper newspapers, you would have to build printing plants everywhere and your logistics operations to have a truly global newspaper or even really a national newspaper, super expensive, heavy CapEx investments. Thats why so few papers actually became national or global. Really no global ones to speak of, depending on what you count. But today with the internet, you get that gift of free distribution. So we had to take advantage of that gift. And that was the basic strategy. We had to switch from a business model where we made a lot of money per reader with a relatively small number of readers to a tiny bit of money per reader on a very large number of readers. And thats the transition that we did with our site.

“The Bezos Family Foundation — and Jeff obviously has a role in that — has been engaged with early learning initiatives for years now,” Burgess said, adding that it could only help the political momentum toward universal pre-K, as Seattles preschool program is also once again on the ballot in November.

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Im pleased to report to you that the Post is profitable today. The newsroom is growing. Its been growing every year since Ive been there. Marty Baron, who leads the newsroom, is killing it. I think hes the best editor in the newspaper business. We have Fred Ryan, who is the publisher. Fred Hiatt, the editorial page. Theyre killing it. Shailesh [Prakash], our head of technology, is a superstar. Its working and Im so proud of that team, and I know for a fact when Im 80 or lets say I was project myself forward to age 80, but as I get older Im starting to do 90, so I know that when Im 90 its going to be one of the things Im most proud of, is that I took on the Washington Post and helped them through a very rough transition.

Rubenstein: So when you agreed to buy it, I think the asking price was $250 million. You didnt negotiate?

Bezos: No. I asked [Don] how much he wanted. He said 250. I said, fine. I didnt negotiate with him and I did no due diligence, and I wouldnt need to with Don.

Bezos pledges $2 billion to help homeless families and launch a network of preschools

Bezos: Don told me every wart and pimple, and he told me all the things that were great, and every single thing he told me on both sides of that ledger turned out to be true.

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Rubenstein: So now that you own the Washington Post, sometimes there are some people who criticize some things that the Washington Post says, and youve been remarkably quiet.

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Bezos: Well, I do defend the Post. I dont feel the need to defend Amazon, but I will say this. It is a mistake for any elected official in my opinion — I dont think this is a very out-there opinion — to attack media and journalists. I believe that it is an essential component of our democracy. There has never been — I was going to say never been an elected official who liked their headlines. I think theres probably no public figure who has ever liked their headlines. Its OK. Its part of the process. If youre the President of United States or a governor of a state or whatever, you dont take that job thinking youre not going to get scrutinized. Youre going to get scrutinized and its healthy. What the president should say is, this is right, this is good. Im glad Im being scrutinized. And that would be so secure and confident. But its really dangerous to demonize the media. Its dangerous to call the media low-lifes. Its dangerous to say that theyre the enemy of the people. We live in a society where its not just the laws of the land that protect us. We do have freedom of press. Its in the Constitution. But its also the social norms that protect us. It works because we believe those words on that piece of paper and every time you attack that, youre it eroding a little bit around the edges.

Now, look, I dont want to be dramatic here. We are so robust in this country. The media is going to be fine. Were going to push through this and by the way, Marty Baron would tell you — this is a super important point — he will always say, when he meets with the newsroom. Ive heard him say many times. I say it myself, when I meet with journalists at the Washington Post. Marty says, the administration may be at war with us. We are not at war with the administration. Just do the work. Just do the work. Thats smart. Thats Martys phrase.

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Rubenstein: So I didnt mention the president, but you mentioned the president. So since you mentioned the president, have you met the president?

Rubenstein: So youve met the president on a couple occasions and talked to him very much. Does he call you in for lunch or dinner … not that much?

Bezos: Well, Ill keep my conversations with the president to myself, but yes, Ive had a couple of frank conversations with him.

Rubenstein: And this doesnt make you think you want the job yourself though, right? Its not a job you would ever aspire to?

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