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Entrepreneurs / Philanthropy

Why Haven't We Seen a Clear Philanthropic Vision From Jeff Bezos Yet?

Bezos is more or less the wealthiest person in the world but, so far at least, far stingier than his billionaire peers.
Why Haven't We Seen a Clear Philanthropic Vision From Jeff Bezos Yet?
Image credit: Drew Angerer | Getty Images
- VIP Contributor
Journalist, Digital Media Consultant and Investor
6 min read
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Recent paparazzi photos of Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos show him sporting enviable biceps in a form-fitting polo shirt, trendy vest and cool sunglasses somewhere around Seattle. Bezos looks fit and trim, very healthy for a 53-year-old Albuquerque, New Mexico, native and, at least for a minute there, the wealthiest man in the world.

It wasn’t always this way.

Bezos was born Jeffrey Preston Jorgenson in 1964 to teenagers Jacklyn and Ted Jorgenson, who divorced shortly thereafter. His mother later married Miguel Bezos, a Cuban immigrant. By the 1980s, the Bezos family was living in Miami, where his stepfather worked engineering jobs. The teenaged Bezos worked at a McDonald’s where he learned “responsibility and being serious.”

As a child, Bezos spent time at his mother’s family’s extensive land holdings. He later bought his own 165,000-acre property called Corn Ranch in Texas. That’s where Blue Origin now does rocket tests. He graduated high school as valedictorian and attended Princeton as a National Merit Scholar. He told the Miami Herald he wanted to build space hotels. He found positions on Wall Street at computer-related hedge funds.

Related: Jeff Bezos, Philanthropy and How Entrepreneurs Can Do Their Part

With him since the start

Back in the '90s, Bezos was a doughy nerd with a receding hairline, not the cool, imposing billionaire we see today. He married MacKenzie Tuttle with whom he had worked at D. E. Shaw.

Another Princeton grad, Tuttle is four years Bezos’s junior, the mother of his four children and a published author. The chic and socially active Tuttle may be responsible for most the Bezos’s increasing philanthropic interests and for Jeff’s apparently newly discovered fashion sense.

Looks, of course, do not make or break the billionaire, but the public appearance of the Bezos empire is mixed and may need some reworking.

  • In 2014, Sharan Burrow, General Secretary International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) reviewed the service of the world’s "worst" business leaders, including the CEOs of Wal-Mart and Goldman Sachs. Topping the list was Bezos. Burrow criticized Amazon as “A rich American corporation operating globally with disdain for dignity, for rights for working people. Jeff Bezos represents the inhumanity of employers who are promoting the American corporate model.” On the other hand, in 2017 LinkedIn ranked Amazon No. 2 on its list of "Top Companies: Where the World Wants to Work Now" based on interest in jobs at the tech giant and employee retention. 
  • A 2015 story in The New York Times summarized input from 1,000 present and former Amazon employees. The article concluded being good was never enough for Bezos. It thoroughly criticized this “bruising workplace” where employment is a step towards becoming an “Amabot.” However, the company countered this narrative, and Bezos’s reply to the article followed quickly as he addressed his 180,000 employees saying, “I don’t recognize this Amazon [as described in the article], and I very much hope you don’t, either.”
  • Bezos has not contributed to philathropic causes to the same extent as some of his billionaire peers, including Bill and Melinda Gates, Warren Buffett and other billionaire signers of Buffett’s commitment to surrender the bulk of his estate to charity. To be fair though, Bezos and Tuttle have funded the Bezos Center for Innovation at the Seattle Museum of History and Industry, the Bezos Center for Neural Circuit Dynamics at Princeton, the Bezos Family Foundation and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. MacKenzie has also contributed heavily to found an anti-bullying campaign.

Related: Why It Pays to Be a Jerk Like Jeff Bezos

We just don't know yet how Bezos wants to give back.

No offense, but these gifts don't knock my socks off like the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative does. I mean really, show us the money. While we've recently seen praiseworthy examples of corporate philanthropy from Amazon -- including the donation of half of its new building to a homeless shelter -- the company has faced criticism in the past on the scope and nature of its efforts. 

Overall, I think we’ve yet to see the best Bezos has to offer philanthropically. We’re watching someone who hasn’t finished arranging his pieces on the chessboard yet. His vision seems unclear or unaligned. And it shows in his businesses.

He continues to spread and innovate Amazon’s capabilities and reach, driving massive changes in retail. So, he creates jobs while destroying others (although some argue the situation is more nuanced).

The agreement to sell Kenmore appliances with Sears doing the delivery and installation seems a stroke of genius. His pursuit of Amazon drone delivery seems like it may be more trouble than it's worth. 

Right now Bezos’s growth seems more like growth for growth’s sake. Sure he wants to extend humanity’s reach to the stars, but he’s an acquirer and aggrandizer as much as an innovator. That doesn’t make him a bad person, but it does suggest perhaps he’s not looking to give to the world as much as some of his contemporaries, at least not yet.

Depending on how his stock does, he’s roughly as rich as Gates or Buffett. But, as CNBC points out, the most astounding part about Bezos is that his wealth surge has been so recent: “His net worth has grown by $70 billion over the past five years, surging by $45 billion in the last two years alone -- possibly the largest wealth-creation surge in history.”

So there it is. We’re actually looking at a man who may just be getting started (and he may start soon -- in June, Bezo publicly started asking questions about what his philanthropy should look like). He hasn’t even picked where Amazon’s second headquarters will be yet. Maybe once he gets a bit more settled, we’ll get a better feel for how he he plans to help people on this planet. He still better build a space hotel though.

Editor's Note: This article has been updated to remove speculation on why Bezos started Amazon and why he purchased the Washington Post, as well as certain outdated and extraneous information. Further context was added regarding the perception of Amazon as an employer and its corporate philanthropy efforts.

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