Good Works

The Sobrato Family: Community Minded

By Anh-Minh Le

Students participate in the Sobrato Family Foundation’s 10-year-old SEAL model, which serves English learners from preschool through third grade across California.

They might not be a household name beyond the Bay Area, and the family’s story — a spectacular Silicon Valley success story that started with a marriage in Italy, migration to San Francisco, and now a net worth in the billions — hasn’t received the Hollywood treatment. But for decades, the Sobratos have been among the most influential folks in the Valley, not to mention an integral part of its very creation.

After Ann Sobrato’s husband, John Massimo, died in 1952, she sold their North Beach restaurant for $75,000 and used the proceeds to invest in properties on the Peninsula — ultimately transitioning from restaurateur to real estate developer. She joined forces with her son, John Albert, who later founded the Sobrato Organization in 1979.

Today, the family-run company owns 7.5 million square feet of commercial space as well as 6,500 apartments on the West Coast. Its portfolio includes projects for firms like Apple, Sony, Google, Netflix and the Palo Alto Medical Foundation. A report recently released by The Center for Investigative Reporting lists Mountain View-based TSO as the ninth-largest landowner in Santa Clara County, with $2.51 billion of taxable real estate. Forbes puts the family’s net worth at about $7 billion.

Perhaps an even more impressive number, though? The Sobratos have invested more than $412 million into various philanthropic efforts in the Valley. As John A. took the helm of the real estate business in the 1960s, his mother focused on volunteerism and charitable endeavors. In 1996, the family — including John’s wife, Sue, and their three children: John Michael Sobrato, Lisa Sobrato Sonsini and Sheri Sobrato Brisson — formally organized its philanthropy with the launch of the Sobrato Family Foundation, whose mission revolves around education and economic opportunity. According to its 2018 Annual Impact Report, SFF bestowed $42.6 million in grants and programs, and its real estate holdings resulted in $5.8 million in rent savings across 73 tenant organizations.

Indeed, the Sobrato heirs have carried on Ann’s humanitarian legacy. John M., who led TSO from 1997 to 2013, is now focusing on philanthropy. Like his parents, he and his wife, Timi, signed Warren Buffett’s Giving Pledge to commit at least half of their fortune to charity. Lisa is SFF’s board president and an advocate for the rights of disadvantaged youth. (Her husband, Matthew Sonsini, is the current CEO of TSO.) Sheri concentrates on causes related to children facing serious illnesses and their families.

One longtime beneficiary of the family’s generosity is Santa Clara University, from which John A., John M. and Sheri hold degrees; as do John M.’s sons, John Matthew and Jeffrey (and, yes, the philanthropic flame has been passed on to this fourth generation, too). In fact, the Sobratos are the private Jesuit university’s largest single family donor, and John M. is presently the chairman of its board of trustees. Says SCU President Fr. Kevin O’Brien: “Their faith is really important to them, and their philanthropy is one way for them to put their faith into action, to make this world a more just and gentle and sustainable place.”

O’Brien observes that the family’s wide-ranging contributions to the school over the years are evidence of their belief in “the transformative power of education — transforming students who will then transform the world.” In 2017, SCU announced a record-breaking $100 million gift from John A. and Sue to establish the Sobrato Campus for Discovery and Innovation. The 270,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art STEM facility is expected to be completed in fall 2021.

The Sobratos have also invested significant sums in primary and secondary education. In 2009, the Sobrato Early Academic Language model officially debuted, serving English learners from preschool through third grade. Initially reaching 1,600 kids in three local schools, SEAL has grown to 50,000 students at 106 sites statewide, and this past July it became an independent nonprofit.

Moving forward, SFF is eyeing more game-changing areas. In the latest issue of Top of Mind, which provides updates on the foundation, Lisa notes that as of 2020, the Sobratos will “begin funding initiatives that help local low-income students complete college and ultimately transition into a good first job — where they can realize the economic opportunity that has always been our family’s long-term philanthropic focus.”

During a speech that John A. delivered at last month’s Bay Area Business Hall of Fame induction dinner — where he was one of three honorees — he signaled that SFF is planning to “expand our horizons,” lifting its grant-making to the international level. For instance, exploring programs that aim to eliminate plastic pollution in the oceans and address human suffering in developing nations.

Given SFF’s altruistic ambitions, the Sobrato name could soon enough become increasingly recognized outside the Valley that the family played a major role in building.

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