How Silicon Valley’s venture capitalists are transforming their own backyard.
Four years ago, C.J. Fitzgerald met a man who goes by the name of Mac, who panhandled at a Starbucks near Fitzgerald’s church in Menlo Park. The two began having coffee together, and over the course of several months, Fitzgerald learned about Mac’s life and how he came to be homeless. When he discovered that after their chats Mac would take a long bus ride just to have somewhere to sleep, Fitzgerald and his family took action.
They put Mac up in a hotel for a few weeks, and eventually bought a condo in East Palo Alto where he could live, providing stability so Mac could work on improving his life.
“If people are going to be able to go toward their dreams and accomplish what they want to accomplish in the world,” says Fitzgerald, “it starts with housing.”
As the managing director of Summit Partners, Fitzgerald is part of a new breed of Silicon Valley investors for whom giving back includes caring for people on an individual level. When not reviewing pitch decks and providing corporate guidance in board meetings, these new “angel” investors are giving their time, money and advice to a number of local causes and policy initiatives spanning housing, transportation, education and more.
Fitzgerald is involved in a number of local groups, including Ravenswood Education Foundation, which provides programs for schools in East Palo Alto, the Boys and Girls Club and the Part the Cloud initiative to fund Alzheimer’s research. But helping Mac wasn’t the only time Fitzgerald directly changed someone’s life.
Two years later, he was introduced to a family that was living in temporary housing. The mother was in the late stages of brain cancer, and when Fitzgerald learned that the father and three children were at risk of going back on the street after she died, he and his family bought them a townhouse.
“My wife and I feel very strongly that we want to make sure our kids understand that life around here can be somewhat of a bubble,” he says, “and that not everyone is as fortunate or blessed as we have been, so it’s our job to give back to people.”
That sense of responsibility resonates in the stories of other Silicon Valley venture capitalists.
The Full Circle Fund includes several investors putting their time into shaping the future of the region. The nonprofit has worked with more than 100 groups since it started in 2000, with a focus on education, economic opportunity, health, the environment and energy.
Involvement with Full Circle Fund was part of what led Ted Wang, an investment partner at the venture capital fund Cowboy Ventures, and Ben Spero, managing director at growth equity firm Spectrum Equity, to work on addressing the Bay Area’s homelessness crisis. Spero has been the board chair for the past several years at Destination: Home, a public-private partnership focused on ending homelessness in Santa Clara County. As he bluntly puts it, Silicon Valley “should be able to solve these kinds of issues, given the wealth creation here. The private sector side needs to wake up, as opposed to feeling helpless. There are scalable ways to invest and make a difference.”
Those involved in doing the work say it will take the private sector’s involvement to address many of the region’s most pressing needs.
Housing in particular requires too big of a financial commitment to expect charities to provide enough, says Wang. And while the supply of housing is heavily dependent on government policies, the houses aren’t going to build them-selves. That’s where the private market plays a role, too.
“If you’re just waiting for the government to solve everything, that’s not going to work,” he says. “And if you’re waiting for the not-for-profits to fill in all the blanks, that’s not going to work either. You need a more coordinated approach, and in no area is this more true than housing.”
True to Silicon Valley’s tech spirit, Destination: Home has data to demonstrate the value of its efforts. In 2015, a report underwritten by the group and Santa Clara County put hard numbers on the cost of homelessness by analyzing nearly 25 million public records. The report found that between 2007 and 2012, the county spent an average of $520 million each year on services used by 104,000 homeless people, for a total cost of more than $3.1 billion over the five-year period.
For Wang, working on the report highlighted differences between the business and charitable worlds. The business world, and especially venture capital, revolves around coming up with ideas and not sharing them. But in the world of giving back, “it’s the absolute opposite,” Wang says. “We come up with great ideas and we want to share them as broadly as possible.” Compiling and sharing the data on the costs of homelessness eventually helped catalyze the passage of Measure A in Santa Clara County in 2016, a bond measure that put money toward providing afford-able housing. The county estimated it could create or preserve some 5,000 affordable homes.
Venture capitalists giving back locally often use language that parallels their day jobs when talking about their service, looking for places where they can have “high impact,” as they say. That’s why Venky Ganesan, a partner at the venture capital firm Menlo Ventures, is looking for ways to work on Bay Area issues such as the need for more affordable housing and better public transportation options. “There are many things we have going for us,” he says, “but if we don’t fix this, I would say the best days of the Bay Area are going to be behind us, not ahead of us.”
Ganesan is involved on a number of other fronts locally, serving as president and co-chair of the India Community Center and being active with Keys School and Castilleja School, both in Palo Alto. His service has been inspired in part by a broader civic calling. Ganesan became a U.S. citizen in 2008, and while studying for the citizen-ship exam, it became clear to him that this country is a great one because so many people choose to contribute in different ways. “It inspired me to think about how I could give back to a country that has given me so much,” he says.
The sense of opportunity in the Bay Area — and a desire to ensure access to that opportunity for everyone — fuels the efforts of newcomers and locals alike. Third-generation Bay Area resident Kim Mai-Cutler — a noted tech journalist turned partner at the VC firm Initialized Capital — found it important to help preserve long-term access to the kinds of opportunities that her grandparents found when they moved here.
Mai-Cutler is taking that on as a board member at the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association, known as SPUR, which takes a regional approach to topics such as housing, transportation, community planning and sustainability. She has also been involved with the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition, San Francisco’s Local Homeless Coordinating Board (which oversees federal spending on homelessness in the city), and the TechEquity Collaborative, a group organizing the tech community to take action on local issues.
The dynamo Cal alum doesn’t necessarily characterize what she’s doing as giving back. She believes that anyone involved in the business sector should understand what it means to be involved in civic society.
“These issues are really complicated,” she says. “There’s always more to do.”