Laurene Powell Jobs

Joyful justice

Laurene Powell Jobs

Laurene Powell Jobs, Founder of the Emerson Collective, shares what brings her joy as a philanthropist and sheds light on a new class harnessing policy, advocacy and technology to change philanthropy.

More in her excerpt From Generosity to Justice with Ford Foundation President Darren Walker:

Laurene Powell Jobs sits laughing next to Darren Walker.
Laurene Powell Jobs (right), Founder of the Emerson Collective, in conversation with Ford Foundation President Darren Walker

DARREN: … From a philanthropist’s perspective, what does justice look like for you?

LAURENE: Actually, justice in philanthropy looks like philanthropy to me—I don’t separate the two.

To explain what I mean, we have to back up to how I first became involved in the social sector, because I’m an accidental social justice activist.

I was invited, when I was perhaps 29 years old, to speak to a class of seniors at a local high school. Their teacher asked me to talk about college, education, and my experiences—she often tried to have guests come on Fridays.

It was the first time that I had ever been in a high school in California, because I didn’t grow up there. I had a notion that the education system in California was excellent, a model that other schools followed. And that was indeed true back in the ’70s.

But in 1978, when Proposition 13 went through, it changed the equation for how often property taxes are assessed, which had the effect of attending funding for public schools. The “smoothing formula” the state gave to low-income communities was totally insufficient—so by the time I was in that classroom at Carlmont High School in 1994, they hadn’t had any escalation in funding for 13 years.

So, the school I walked into was one where there were literally broken windows. There were doors off hinges. There were kids in massive parkas and 4XL pants, and I had this sense that these kids were so frightened they had to make themselves larger, as one does when one encounters a bear in the woods. You want to claim more space than you have. That’s what was going through my mind.

When I went into the class and sat with the students, they were so sweet and gentle and open and curious, just like high school students are everywhere. They were full of promise and questions. I started talking to them, but then I told them, “Just ask me questions.” And it was unconventional for them because usually they just sat there and listened.

And they started asking me, “What is college like?” and “What kind of classes did you get?”

I responded with a question of my own: “How many of you have been on a college campus?

Maybe one or two.

“How many of you have siblings who are in college?”

Again, maybe one or two.

Eventually I asked, “How many of you have taken the SAT?” None.

So I asked the teacher, “Who’s advising all of these amazing students?”

And she said, “Well, this high school of 1,600 full-time students has one advisor in a small office, and one part-time person who writes to colleges and collects pamphlets, but the answer is, basically, no one. Nobody has stepped up.”

So, I said to them, “Okay, I’m going to be your college counselor for the next month. I’m coming back every Friday, and I’m going to work with each of you.”

DARREN: So, you came back on Fridays to be their counselor?

LAURENE: Yes, for the next 12 weeks. And I learned that, of the 35 students, only three had the classes that they needed to apply to a four-year college.

DARREN: And that was a turning point for you?

LAURENE: Yes. At the time I was running a natural foods company. I had 50 people working for me. But I’m still angry about it. I’m still horrified. I’m still offended. When you see injustice like that, in person, you don’t stay the same. They lacked one year of English, or one year of math, or a life science or a foreign language, and nobody told them they needed it. I was the first one to tell them all of these things.

DARREN: It sounds like rather than getting sad, you got enraged.

LAURENE: I was so many things. I was enraged. I was affected. I was, in a way, ashamed that a public education that had served me so well, that was truly my portal to opportunity—an education that I held dear and that I believed was a core value of America and a necessary structure for a well-functioning democracy—was not being delivered to students in an equal and just way. This experience made that absolutely, abundantly clear.

That insight became the cornerstone of my work for the rest of my life.

Keep Reading: From Generosity to Justice

“Justice in philanthropy looks like philanthropy to me—I don’t separate the two.”

Laurene Powell Jobs


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The Privilege of Perspective

President of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Elizabeth Alexander discusses why foundations need to empower communities.


Generosity to Justice

Purchase a copy of A New Gospel of Wealth: From Generosity to Justice.