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Jeff Bezos could be the first ‘woke’ billionaire philanthropist



Jeff Bezos
Jeff Bezos
N. Chinnappa

  • Anand Giridharadas, author of Winners
    Take All
    , shares his thoughts on Bezos’ latest charity
  • In light of the recent tech backlash, he said, Bezos has
    an opportunity to become the first “woke” billionaire
  • To establish a new paradigm of corporate giving, the CEO
    must be willing to acknowledge his shortcomings.

In June 2017, Jeff Bezos issued a vague
 to his followers on Twitter: “I’m thinking
about a philanthropy strategy that is the opposite of how I
mostly spend my time 
working on the long term,” he wrote. “If you have ideas, just
reply to this tweet.”

More than a year went by
Bezos finally
revealed his plan
for a $2 billion charity fund
led by him and his wife, MacKenzie Bezos. Once he did, the
Bezos Day One Fund was hounded by critics as a strategic move to
distract from a recent string of bad press.

Shortly before the announcement, Business Insider published

an article
exposing the poor working conditions of the
company’s delivery drivers, who recounted a number of alleged
abuses, from missing wages and lack of overtime pay to urinating
in bottles in order to keep to their delivery schedules.

“Jeff Bezos can tout himself as a great philanthropist, yet
it will not absolve him of responsibility if Amazon workers
continue to be afraid to take toilet breaks and days off sick
because they fear disciplinary action at work,” writer James
Bloodworth told the

This distraction method is part of what Anand
Giridharadas, a former consultant turned author, calls the
” of tech companies. In his recent book,
Winners Take All
, Giridharadas argues that many wealthy
tech firms use philanthropy as a sheen to cover the depth of
their influence — or the extent of their abuses. 

With his new fund, Bezos has a chance to avoid this trap.

In the wake of the CEO’s announcement, Giridharadas
to Twitter
to share his thoughts about the billionaire’s
philanthropic endeavor. “Givers often ask what they can do,”
Giridharadas said. “But imagine if Jeff Bezos set an example
of asking what is rarely asked: What am I already doing? How am I
involved in the problems? What could I do to solve them for

It’s a question worth considering as billionaires like Mark
Zuckerberg and David Rubenstein garner
 for setting near-impossible goals for their
philanthropies, or hindering
from solving public issues. 

For now, Bezos’ two main goals seem innocent of both
offenses: He plans to develop a support network for homeless
families and establish free preschools in low-income

According to Giridharadas, this gives him a chance to
pioneer a new model of philanthropy — one that helps solve the
problems he’s been instrumental in

That starts not with scaling
education programs or homeless initiatives, but with addressing
the root of these issues, such as zoning, taxation, or
unfair pay practices.

Giridharadas cites the Supreme Court case San Antonio Independent
School District v. Rodriquez
, which allowed Texas schools to
be partially funded by property taxes, creating disparities in
the quality of public education. 

By challenging
these policies, he said, 

Bezos could have a
meaningful impact on local communities.

That’s a tall order, given the CEO’s
history of hoarding
his personal fortune. But in an age of
increasing skepticism of powerful institutions, Bezos must
contend with a new adversary: a growing sense of public

According to Giridharadas, 
Bezos is the first mega-giver to enter the
arena of big philanthropy in the wake of a
national backlash
against tech
companies — one that likely contributed to
the rise of populist figures like Donald Trump. As such, Bezos is
probably aware of the fact that the eyes of the world are upon
him, and citizens are eager to hold him accountable. 

“I just hope he would bring to
his giving the same daring and irreverence and weirdness that he
brought to building Amazon,” said Giridharadas.
What would be disappointing is if his giving was one of
conventions and cliques, while his money-making was done with
such imagination.”

If Bezos breaks from the standard
of corporate philanthropy, he could ignite a paradigm shift in
the industry. Giridharadas refers to this new type of
billionaire as the “

woke giver,” or someone who recognizes their
complicity in the world’s problems and makes an effort to
right these wrongs, even if it comes at his or her

One prime example is Darren Walker, the president of the
Ford Foundation, whom Giridharadas interviewed for Winners Take
All. As a black, gay man born into poverty, Walker remains keenly
aware of the issues he’s attempting to solve, as well as the the
ability of large corporations to exacerbate inequality.

“I think Darren is able to have that double consciousness of
being in that [board] room and thinking, ‘This room really
could make a difference, and this
is the kind of room that throughout history has used the idea of
making a difference to screw
 Giridharadas said.

While he isn’t certain that Bezos
can strike the same balance, Giridharadas is cautiously
optimistic. It will boil down to whether Bezos recognizes that
there’s more to charity than self-image and improving the bottom
line. And it

mean looking inward before looking outward. 

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