Philanthropic Powerhouse Wendy Schmidt's Quest to Save the Planet

Anh-Minh Le | November 3, 2017 | Story News and Features

On an unseasonably warm fall afternoon, on the patio of The Village Bakery in Woodside, a server has just brought Wendy Schmidt her iced tea. A straw made of stainless steel rests inside the glass, gently clinking as she takes a sip. “Somebody gets it,” she says, noting the departure from the usual plastic straw. For the environmentally minded philanthropist, the small metal tube signifies progress, part of the solution to a global problem: the inordinate amount of waste that results from plastics. Last year, Wendy and her husband, Eric Schmidt—the executive chairman of Alphabet, Google’s parent company—became the lead philanthropic partner for the New Plastics Economy, an initiative led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation that is rethinking the future of the material; for example, changing the design of plastic packaging to dramatically increase its reuse and recycling. “How do we attack the problem of replacing the plastic that never goes away?” Wendy wonders out loud. “Throw it away? Where’s away?”

A recent Science Advances study found that of the 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic produced, 6.3 billion has resulted in plastic waste—waste that winds up in landfills or in our oceans. Troubling scenarios like this have propelled the Schmidts into action. In 2006, they started The Schmidt Family Foundation, of which Wendy is president. The work done by 11th Hour Project, the grant-making arm of the foundation, highlights the interconnectivity between the world’s energy, food and water resources. It also provided the initial funding for—and continues to fund—Climate Central, an independent science and news organization based in Princeton, N.J. The Berkeley Food Institute at UC Berkeley, from which both Eric and Wendy earned degrees, owes its start in large part to the couple as well.

Eight years ago, they merged her growing interest in the ocean with his affinity for technology, purchasing a 272-foot retired German fishery patrol vessel and turning it into a state-of-the-art research vessel. They named it Falkor, after the luck dragon in The Neverending Story, and it now serves as the flagship of the nonprofit Schmidt Ocean Institute, which allows scientists use of the vessel to conduct research, as long as they are transparent with their data and share it with the public in real time. In 2015, the Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE, a global competition with two $1 million awards, challenged teams to create affordable and accurate pH sensor technology to measure ocean chemistry. And just this October, the Schmidt Science Fellows program was announced. The post-doctoral fellowship, to which they have committed at least $25 million for its first three years, is in partnership with the Rhodes Trust, and will welcome an initial class of 10 to 15 scholars next year. Each fellow will receive $100,000 to engage in research in a scientific discipline outside of their regular area of study. “The core idea is to take what we understand as sets of fresh eyes, with high levels of skill, and put them in a new context, and do a project in a different field and see what kind of interesting insights we can develop,” she says. This novel approach, breaking down silos, is meant to encourage greater collaboration among the next generation of scientists and result in new research and discoveries.

It’s not surprising that Silicon Valley’s spirit of innovation and risk-taking is exhibited in the Schmidts’ giving, which to date has exceeded $600 million. “It has always been very important for private philanthropy to lead,” says Wendy. “That’s especially true in an era of declining science funding—that’s been happening since 2010. We’ve had more than a 40 percent drop in funding for basic science research. So while we can’t match that on the private side, we certainly can identify the most important projects and make sure that they’re funded and make sure that science continues. … We believe in science; we believe in knowledge and information and sharing data—and all of that empowers people.”

Wendy is impeccably dressed in a chic cream-colored ensemble, yet she’s not afraid to order the tomato soup. This is one of the things I can’t help but notice when we meet for lunch—another is how down-to-earth she is. Our conversation is dominated by science and the oceans. But these are not subjects that have always been a part of her orbit. In the second grade, she was kicked out of the classroom after proclaiming to the boy seated next to her, “I hate science.” (The teacher deemed her behavior rude; Wendy thought the class was boring.) Her childhood memories of the ocean entailed “going to the beach, Sandy Hook, and getting sunburnt and driving home on the turnpike,” says the Short Hills, N.J., native, the only girl in a family of five children. Philanthropy is also relatively new for her and Eric. “It wasn’t really a thing for us until after Google went public [in 2004],” says Wendy. “If anybody had told me when I met Eric in Berkeley what our lives would be like now, I couldn’t have believed it.”

The pair, both 62, met in 1978, on the third day of class that fall semester at UC Berkeley, where they lived three doors from each other in the same student housing. She had arrived on campus as a sociology fellow, but after a year, shifted to the journalism school, from which she earned a master’s degree in 1981. By the time he completed his Ph.D. in electric engineering and computer sciences in 1982, the couple had been married for two years. In the early days, money was tight. Eric was a research assistant at Xerox PARC, a job that had an unexpected perk, thanks to Wendy’s ingenuity: “We had all these Xerox boxes—12 by 18 by 24 inches—in our first apartment,” she recalls. “I put them together to make furniture. That will be a sideboard; we’d wrap it in wallpaper. That will be a bedside table.”

After a brief foray into print journalism, Wendy worked as a marketing/communications writer, first at Plexus Computers and later at Sun Microsystems. She convinced Eric to join her at Sun, where she was employee No. 42 and he was No. 92 or so, as she remembers it. “I retired the day they went public in the spring of 1986,” she jokes. She actually ended up taking interior design classes part time at CaƱada College and subsequently ran her eponymous practice for 16 years. By the time she left Sun, the first of their two daughters was already born. In 1990, Wendy and Eric settled in Atherton, where they continue to reside.

Eric was the CEO of Google from 2001 to 2011. He then became the executive chairman of the company, which was reorganized two years ago and now operates under the Alphabet umbrella. Google’s 2004 initial public offering made Wendy and Eric billionaires. (Forbes estimates his net worth is $13 billion, putting him on its current lists of Billionaires, No. 119, and Richest In Tech, No. 22.) With their newfound wealth came responsibility, the couple reasoned. “We have a different platform here, a different opportunity, and what a shame if we don’t use it,” Wendy recalls thinking. The wheels were set in motion for The Schmidt Family Foundation, which is currently based in Palo Alto and moving next year to headquarters that are under construction in Menlo Park. “What you’re really doing is directing velocity—that’s what money is,” she continues. “What do you want to give energy to? What do you think the issues are, and what are your opportunities? That’s how we had to think about it.”

In 2005, she was having lunch in Palo Alto with her friend Amy Rao, the founder and CEO of Integrated Archive Systems. Rao had just returned from Berkeley, where she had seen a slideshow by Al Gore about climate change. They knew right away that the message needed to be brought to Silicon Valley, so they organized a presentation at Stanford University, followed by a dinner for about 350 people. “We’re all about solutions in the Valley,” says Wendy. “Let’s discuss this—what are we going to do? What’s our response?” That evening was the genesis for 11th Hour Project, which initially focused on energy and climate programs. For instance: How do we transition from a fossil fuel economy to a clean energy economy? “We worked on those issues for a year or two and realized that you couldn’t solve that transition if you didn’t look at our food system,” says Wendy. “How is our food grown? That’s a very large contributor to greenhouse gases.”

Their thinking around ecological agriculture led to the founding in 2013 of the Berkeley Food Institute, which seeks to transform the world’s food systems—making nutritious and affordable food available to everyone, as well as ensuring that what we consume is fairly and sustainably produced. On the UC Berkeley campus, the College of Natural Resources, Berkeley Law, Goldman School of Public Policy, Graduate School of Journalism and School of Public Health were all interested in food issues at the time. “The idea of the institute was to pull us together, to see if the whole could be more than the sum of its parts by getting us to collaborate,” says author and professor Michael Pollan, who is on the BFI executive board, and also runs the UC Berkeley 11th Hour Food and Farming journalism fellowship.

“The 11th Hour is way ahead of the curve,” he notes. “They realized that if you’re going to deal with the climate, you’ve got to deal with agriculture. You’ve got to deal with the meat industry; you’ve got to deal with soil—and they got it, earlier than just about anybody in the funding area. I think one of Wendy’s greatest accomplishments has been to seed this idea in the culture. There’s still a long way to go, but it’s starting to take hold.” Since the food system involves myriad human rights concerns, The Schmidt Family Foundation has further broadened its scope to social justice. “The people who are growing our food and slaughtering our animals are some of the most abused workers in the system,” says Pollan. “And access—we can’t have a system where we know how to produce sustainable food, but it’s expensive and the poor can’t afford it. So how do you make the benefits of sustainable food available to everybody? These are really important and very difficult issues. … As people evolve and educate themselves about the system, they realize it is a system and all of these things are connected.” To its credit, he observes, the foundation has been able to recognize this and respond accordingly. Paraphrasing John Muir, Pollan adds: “You pull on one thread and the whole world eventually comes along with it.”

The Schmidt Family Foundation’s mission-investment arm focuses on businesses that are coming up with innovative solutions to climate change and human rights problems. There’s Aclima, which developed sensors that measure air quality. The San Francisco outfit used Google Street View cars to collect samples and determine the level of pollutants. Nebia, also headquartered in San Francisco, devised a shower system that atomizes water to release millions of droplets at a high velocity and reportedly uses up to 70 percent less water than its standard counterparts. The product was initially conceived for developing countries with limited access to water. (Think of it as a hybrid steam and shower experience.) Another company in the portfolio, Richmond, Calif.-based Lotus Foods, whose motto is “healthier rice for a healthier life,” works with small family farmers to produce organic, heirloom and fair-trade specialty rice. The cultivation process “yields greater amounts of rice using half the amount of water,” says Wendy. “They brought a technology into a place that had a traditional practice, improved the practice and created a livelihood for these farmers.”

While the majority of the foundation’s funding has global implications, the Schmidts are attuned to matters on the local level as well. In 1999, they bought an old whaling captain’s house on Nantucket, Mass. Wendy, who typically spends July and August there, established an organization called ReMain Nantucket, which has a charitable and an investment component. Its goal is to make the island vital year-round, not just during the summer months, when the population skyrockets from approximately 12,000 to 60,000. Wendy believed that transforming the downtown area into a hub for residents was key: “Can we as philanthropists play a role in making that better for the people who live here all year?” They became “benevolent landlords,” she says, buying a bookstore that was on the verge of closing and keeping it in business; purchasing a building and turning it into a bakery. Another acquisition now houses a music school and adult education center. They were involved in the $34 million renovation of the Dreamland Theater, which is now a performing arts center. The latest project is a culinary center on the corner of Federal and Broad streets that boasts a cafe downstairs and classrooms upstairs.

Closer to home, one of The Schmidt Family Foundation’s grantees is Ada’s Cafe, whose name references the Americans with Disabilities Act. Owner Kathleen Foley-Hughes, inspired by her 28-year-old son, Charlie, wanted to open a nonprofit cafe that would train and employ individuals with disabilities. Prior to her first meeting with Wendy, Foley-Hughes was understandably nervous. “The fear in me said, ‘Gosh, why would they want to help this little program here? Why would they want to do that?’ I wasn’t certain that they would be excited about it,” she tells me, adding: “Because she’s a mom, she understood wanting to do the best for your kids, and I felt like I had all these families and all these kids that I knew needed an opportunity. … Wendy really does care, and she’s extraordinarily warm. I’ve been so touched by her graciousness and her goodness.”

In 2014, Foley-Hughes launched Ada’s in Palo Alto. Over the years, the cafe has applied for and received additional funding from the foundation, and this past spring, a second location bowed in San Francisco. Of the 43 employees at the cafes, as well as its commercial kitchen in Mountain View, 32 have disabilities. The workers include three who are deaf and four who have cerebral palsy. There’s a Kurdish Syrian refugee who lost an arm in a bomb explosion and had unsuccessfully applied for 50 jobs before landing at Ada’s. There are also staffers with Down syndrome, PTSD and autism spectrum disorders. Today, Charlie performs multiple tasks at Ada’s. Despite having acalculia, which makes basic math extremely difficult, he operates the cash register. Foley-Hughes’ pride is palpable as she describes his ability to make change for customers. “It’s amazing when you give someone an opportunity to go beyond the thing that challenges them. If you believe in them, most often, people rise to the occasion,” she says. “That’s our founding belief.”

Carol Sacks, Wendy’s chief of staff and longtime friend—they met in the 1980s at Sun, where they shared an office—is recounting a sailing excursion in the San Francisco Bay. “It was so frightening,” she says of a day characterized by particularly large swells. “Wendy was at the helm, as calm as could be, and the rest of us were holding onto the rail, white knuckles.” Wendy notes that the helm is the best place to be: “It’s a little bit like driving the car yourself as opposed to being the passenger.” She was introduced to sailing only a decade ago and is now an avid and accomplished sailor. Among the boats she owns is a 1935 yawl that once belonged to Humphrey Bogart that she had meticulously restored. (While Wendy enjoys spending time on the water, Eric, a licensed pilot, favors the sky.)

In addition to her personal interest in sailing—she participates in seven or eight regattas a year—Wendy’s philanthropy extends to the sport. In May, she was in Bermuda for the America’s Cup. Her 11th Hour Racing, which works with the sailing community to promote ocean stewardship, was the sustainability partner for Land Rover BAR. “We provided the funds for the team to make the better choices,” she says. By helping BAR implement and measure various dimensions of sustainability—like rainwater collection and reuse, recyclable materials, renewable electricity, VOC-compliant paints and carpets, local food procurement—Wendy hopes to set an example for other teams.

It is sailing that led to Wendy meeting Richard Jenkins. After breaking the wind-powered land speed record in 2009, he was helping a friend with a sailboat project. The Schmidts had recently purchased Falkor and enlisted his expertise in converting it into a research vessel. Upon arriving in Germany, where the ship was docked, Jenkins’ immediate reaction was: “This was an amazing project, but this seems like a very expensive way to collect data,” he recalls. At that time, he had already started work on an unmanned, autonomous sailing drone, aptly dubbed Saildrone, which employed the same technology used in his record-breaking achievement. Jenkins wondered if his drones could be utilized for oceanic research. “The response to that was: If you can do it, it’s a game changer, but it’s impossible,” he says. “And that was really the start—to prove that it wasn’t, that it was possible.”

According to Jenkins, the undertaking especially struck a chord with Wendy. So the Schmidts backed his efforts, allowing him to take the three years necessary to design, make and test a prototype. His wind-powered drone can cost-effectively cover a vast area of the ocean, sending information back in real time via satellite. “We charge $2,500 per day to operate the drones and deliver the data to the end user,” he notes. “A typical large research vessel costs between $40,000 and $100,000 per day.” In 2016, Jenkins raised $14 million from Social Capital, Capricorn Investment Group and Lux Capital in a Series A round of funding. The Schmidts’ early support “is probably the sole reason that Saildrone exists today,” he says of his Alameda-based company.

“If we don’t take the risk, who does?” asks Wendy. “There are technologies that can advance the larger goals that we’re talking about—of a more sustainable world—that might not get venture funding when they’re new ideas, but they might have tremendous promise. As a philanthropic agent, you can apply energy to those projects, see where they go and let them prove the concept.” This is a change from traditional philanthropy, such as the charities devoted to disaster relief, health care, medical research and the arts. “I see us having a slightly different opportunity because of our background and connections, and because we can think outside the box,” she says.

At times, Wendy’s passions for sailing and philanthropy overlap, and there appear to be similarities in her strategies for both. “Sailing enhances your sensitivity to the environment that you’re in because you have to pay attention to a lot of things when you’re on the water,” she explains. “You have to adjust your sails to what happens to you because you can’t direct the wind. All you can direct is your reaction to it. And you’re looking far away. You’re looking at the horizon, you’re not looking right in front of you. If you’re racing, you’re always correcting your course one degree at a time, or even half a degree at a time. Over distance, a half a degree is going to get you there faster than this person over here.” Speaking about the organizations she and Eric founded, as well as the initiatives they champion, she acknowledges that “we’re not going to do it overnight. None of these projects are going to be achieved maybe in my lifetime, but I’d like to think we’re moving one degree at a time. And over time, that will prove out to get you somewhere. You need to be incredibly persistent. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

Originally published in the November issue of Silicon Valley

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