Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, affordable housing, labor, and technology.
Amazon’s CEO wanted to talk about his new philanthropic initiatives at a high-profile dinner Thursday night. Attendees had other topics on their minds.
Hours after announcing a $2 billion Day 1 Fund to support homelessness initiatives and a preschool education program, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos took the stage at the Washington Hilton for an event with the Economic Club of Washington. In a sweeping conversation with the club’s President David Rubenstein, Bezos touched on high school (he “loved it”), his communication with Trump (“I keep my conversations with the President to myself”), and his own potential political aspirations (“You know what, I’ll be your VP”).
He did not address the crowd of protesters that swarmed the Hilton’s entrance, chanting “Hey hey, ho ho, Jeff Bezos has got to go!” And he did not reveal the answer to the question most of the thousand gathered there were hoping he’d address: Where will he put Amazon’s second headquarters?
In the year since Amazon first announced its search for an HQ2, Washington, D.C. has emerged as a favorite to host it, joined on the shortlist of 20 by its neighbors Northern Virginia and Montgomery County, Maryland. The clues have been mounting: Bezos owns a huge home in the District and the city’s newspaper, The Washington Post. And settling near the data farms of Loudoun County, Virginia, and the halls of Congress could be strategically savvy.
Speculators had identified the Economic Club talk as a prime opportunity for Bezos to make such an announcement: D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and Maryland Governer Larry Hogan were both in attendance. (Virginia Governor Ralph Northam originally planned to join, but had to stay home in preparation for Hurricane Florence’s impending landing.)
But after accidentally walking himself into the question, Bezos deflected. He’d been lauding the guts and intuition that he credits with helping him become the richest man in the world this year, with a personal net worth of $164 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaire Index. “Where is your intuition leading you now on your second headquarters?” Rubenstein pivoted.
“We’ll announce a decision before the end of this year,” laughed Bezos, the timeline Amazon has been reiterating for months. The crowd erupted in a few scattered “Boos.”
“Be nice,” Bezos demurred. Later, he mentioned that the reason he chose to locate Amazon in Seattle originally was for its proximity to Microsoft, and the booming tech-force therein. He wouldn’t say whether he would consider another Washington as a second home base.
The CEO was much more keen to talk about his plans for the Day 1 Fund, the $2 billion philanthropic entity he launched earlier that day with his wife. After asking his Twitter followers for suggestions as to what causes he should support with his money last summer, Bezos received more than 47,000 responses, he said. From them, early childhood education and homelessness resonated.
Part of the fund—the Day 1 Academies Fund—will go to starting a “network of new, non-profit, tier-one, pre-schools in low-income communities,” all full-scholarship and Montessori-inspired. Bezos himself went to Montessori schools as a child, and his mother has become an expert in early childhood education. “We know for a fact that if a kid falls behind it’s really really hard to catch up,” he said on Thursday. “If you can give somebody a leg up by the time they’re in kindergarten or first grade, it can still happen, but you’ve improved their odds.”
The preschools will be run by an organization, for which he says he will hire a leadership team soon. “The customer is going to be the child,” he said, implying he’d lead the schools like he leads Amazon. “The number one thing that has made us successful so far is obsessive compulsive focus on the customer as opposed to obsession over the competitor.”
The rest will go to the Day 1 Families Fund, which will support existing non-profits that do work in the homeless sector, and which he says will be inspired by the ethos of Mary’s Place, a network of shelters in Seattle: “No child sleeps outside.”
Amazon has supported Seattle’s homeless population before, providing Mary’s Place with a temporary space and free food (though some employees there have counted the attention as a mixed blessing), and promising them a new 200-bed shelter by 2020.
But the company also used its money to help quash a Seattle tax on the city’s largest businesses to fund affordable housing and homelessness initiatives. Amazon, which is worth almost $1 trillion, would have paid $12.5 million of the $47 million-a-year tax. Instead, Amazon mounted a fierce opposition, and donated $26,000 towards a successful effort to repeal the tax after it was passed unanimously by the city council. Seattle has the third-largest homeless population in the U.S., even though it is the 18th-largest city, according to Department of Housing and Urban Development data from 2017.
With the Day 1 Fund, Bezos has solidified his preference for philanthropy over policy. “If you have a mission you can do it with government, you can do it with nonprofit or for-profit,” he said. “If you can figure out how to do it with for-profit that has a lot of advantages: It’s self-sustaining.”
This isn’t Bezos’ first philanthropic donation, but it is his biggest. And, as The Seattle Times points out, the $2 billion still only accounts for about 1.2 percent of his current wealth, far less than the giving of other billionaires like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. Few details on the timeline or the structure of these programs have been made public. When asked by Rubenstein whether he’d invest more in the fund later, he said yes: It’s only Day 1.
“Everything I’ve done has started small,” Bezos said to the crowd. “I believe in the power of wandering… As we go about building this network of nonprofit schools, we’ll all learn new things, we’ll figure out how to make it better.”
Before he left the stage, Bezos was presented with a gift: A map depicting the plan for the city of Washington, designed by Pierre L’Enfant. It’s an image that has evolved a lot since the 1700s—and one that, with the potential entrance of an HQ2, could soon change a lot more.