In a Gift for STEM Scholarships, More Hints Where a Tech Philanthropist May Be Headed

We've talked before about the enormous pot of money that former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer is sitting on, and the relatively small scale of his philanthropy so far. Ballmer is worth $21.5 billion as of this writing, and yet we're still wondering when Ballmer will start really ramping up his philanthropy in earnest. 

As we've reported, Ballmer and his wife Connie are said to be exploring where to make their mark as philanthropists. Ballmer has also been busy with some other things, like buying a basketball team. While the Ballmers have given big to their alma maters, they have yet to jump into a specific cause on a large scale. When they do, their grantmaking could be a game changer, given the wealth waiting in the wings here. 

Related - What Will Steve Ballmer's Clipper Deal Mean for His Philanthropy?

In short, this is a couple worth watching like a hawk. Overnight, they could create a foundation that would rank among the biggest in the country. And so we were intrigued to see, as a possible sign of bigger giving to come, that the Ballmers recently contributed $11 million to the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship partnership to fund scholarships for low- and middle-income students pursuing degrees in STEM and health care.

The gift makes sense. A lot of the Ballmers' philanthropy so far revolves around education, including last year's $50 million gift to Connie's alma mater, the University of Oregon, and local work supporting youth in the Seattle community and beyond. As well, youth became a central focus of Microsoft's philanthropy when Ballmer was CEO. 

Related - Big Gifts, But No Grand Plan Yet: A Look at Steve Ballmer's Philanthropy

In fact, the Washington State Opportunity Scholarshipcreated by the Washington State Legislature in 2011was supported with an initial investment from Microsoft and Boeing, which chipped in with $25 million each. A similar alliance is behind this latest influx of support, and apart from the Ballmers' $11 million, $10 million will come from Microsoft. Earlier this year, Seattle-based angel investor Gary Rubens contributed $20 million. In total, $82 million has been raised for the scholarship program this year from private and public sources.

What's got Washington's business and government leaders excited and committed to STEM?

Well, part of it has to do with the unique challenges that poorer students face in pursuing STEM-related degrees. Low- and middle-income students often work while attending school to make ends meet. Not to mention that the rigorous studying time associated with STEM work places an extra burden on the underprivileged.

In addition, let's not forget about the return on investment for producing STEM graduates, especially in a state that's home to Microsoft, Amazon, and other pillars of the technology space. It also explains why Ballmer would be particularly interested in supporting STEM.

Related: Seven Ways Any College Can Get In On the STEM Gold Rush

The broader ambition here is to offer a viable path to the American Dream in the Pacific Northwest. As a Washington Opportunity Scholar from Sunnyside, Washington puts it: "I hope to graduate with a computer science degree from one of the most amazing schools in the country, work for as a developer and be able to financially support my brother when he goes to college.”

Related: Seven Tech Philanthropists to Watch in 2015