Microsoft opens windows of hope Charity: By granting stock to his employees, Bill Gates has created a new class of millionaires, many of whom leave the company before age 40 to focus on philanthropy.

August 06, 1998|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

SEATTLE -- Steve Albertson has dedicated his nest egg, and time, to the environment. Tina Podlodowski put her considerable resources into gay issues and the city council. Trish Millines spent more than $100,000 of her own money to teach technology to minority children.

All three consider themselves retirees. All three are philanthropists. And all three were under 40 when they left Microsoft, graduates of an employee shareholder plan that has made them winners of the biggest lottery in the digital age.

The financial success of the software giant, whose stock has increased nearly 5,000 percent in a decade, has heralded a new era in philanthropy in Washington state, fueled by geographically concentrated group of young donors with few precedents in U.S. history.

"The only thing that may compare are the young people making big bonuses in Wall Street, and even that is spread out, money from different companies," says Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy in Bethesda, Md. "I can't think of any situation like the new philanthropy in Seattle."

By granting thousands of shares to each of his employees, Bill Gates has created a new class of millionaires: programmers, analysts and marketers still in their 30s who love computers, grew up middle class and never imagined having so much money so young. Together, these estimated 4,000 "Microsoft millionaires" give the Seattle area more millionaires per capita than any other U.S. city.

While about 30 percent of these use their Microsoft money to launch high-tech companies, most of the rest have decided to give up their high-intensity, 100-hour-a-week jobs and "retire," starting families and devoting themselves to philanthropy.

"My 10 years at Microsoft is like 40 years at any other company," says Richard Tait, who retired in May 1997 at 34 and now has his own foundation. "The money you make gives you a unique opportunity, at an age where you have plenty of energy to make a difference on issues that interest you."

Indeed, there is nothing retiring about these donors, who have attacked the nonprofit world with the ferocity they once saved for a new version of Windows.

Hundreds have started their own foundations. Most insist on a management role in the charities they support. Nearly all of them bring a hard-headed, bottom-line attitude that has rankled some nonprofit officials who have never before been ordered to produce detailed business plans and update their software.

A substantial number of the ex-Microsofties have focused their charities on making computers and software accessible to children and the disadvantaged. But the reach of the Microsoft millionaires can be seen throughout the Seattle area: baby blankets in Bellevue, a restored Beaux Arts theater downtown and children's books about gay-headed households that have begun appearing in local libraries.

More than tax shelters

"The real culture of Microsoft expresses itself after people leave," says Scott Oki, 49, who was the company's senior vice president for sales and services. "When you're working there, you have no time for your family, much less to do philanthropy. Now, I do nonprofit work from a venture capitalist's perspective."

Oki, once considered a candidate for Microsoft top management, is often cited as the model Microsoft millionaire by other retirees. A Seattle native born into a working-class, Japanese-American family, he quit Microsoft in 1991 to play golf and spend time with his family. His foundation was, at first, "just a tax shelter."

But soon he grew bored. Oki joined the University of Washington Board of Regents, unnerving administrators there with detailed financial questions. He helped found Social Venture Partners, a group for philanthropists who donate at least $5,000 each and pool their money to make "investments" in education and children's programs.

In the suburb of Bellevue, Oki and his wife started businesses, with profits going to their foundation, which funds human services nonprofits. Among these firms are a baby blanket maker, the Seattle Sounders professional soccer team, a golf course and a Japanese restaurant -- "Whatever strikes my fancy," he says.

"Having a plan for giving is a necessity. Microsoft people are such targets [for charities seeking donations] that if you're just sitting there, holding onto your cash, you become a sitting duck."

Commitment to nonprofits

Oki's philosophy, while often repeated in elite circles here, has only recently become conventional wisdom. Many current Microsoft workers, and retirees who continue to toil in the high-tech world, have long been reluctant to give too much money while they are young. Gates, 42, has been heavily criticized for saying he will run his company for another 10 years before turning to charity.

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