NET WORTH: $850 million
SOURCE OF WEALTH: Microsoft Corporation, former lead attorney and head of community affairs
FUNDING AREAS: Computer Science, Higher Education, Social Justice
OVERVIEW: There aren’t many corporate lawyers with the enormous wealth of William “Bill” Neukom, or the level of philanthropy he and his family have taken on. But getting on board with a tiny company called Microsoft back in the late 1970s, and sticking with them through 25 years and a public offering will do the trick. Neukom’s tenure landed him a somewhat legendary reputation in both the legal community and the tech world, as well as a stint as the CEO of the San Francisco Giants.
The bowtie-clad, white-haired attorney is fairly left-leaning, and not big on accumulating wealth. He’s giving much of his fortune away to a combination of higher education, science and human rights issues, both through his own donating and through a family foundation he runs with his children.
BACKGROUND: Bill Neukom was an upstart lawyer living in Seattle in the late 1970s, and with only a small amount of experience first as a clerk and then with a small firm that supported liberal causes, his boss at a new firm had a job for him. He wanted him to act as counsel for his son’s small computer programming company.
The son was Bill Gates, Jr., and his company had only 12 employees and just moved from Albuquerque to Seattle. With little fanfare, Neukom took the job. It was the start of a 25-year tenure during which he would become head of the legal department and later community affairs for Microsoft Corporation. During that time he would build up a staff of hundreds of attorneys, advise the company as it became the tech force it is today, and grow wealthy after the company went public in 1986.
In 2002, he left to become a partner at his old firm, now K&L Gates. He also served as president of the American Bar Association, trustee at his alma mater Dartmouth College, and has been a longtime investor and one-time CEO of the San Francisco Giants.
He currently devotes most of his energy toward philanthropic pursuits, including an organization he founded called the World Justice Project.
PHILOSOPHY: Neukom has always been highly devoted to his educational background, citing the experiences he had at Dartmouth and Stanford as key to his success, but also to a life of well-rounded intellectual pursuits. He also believes strongly in service and justice, and believes attorneys have a responsibility to use their unique skills to better their communities. He considers his accumulation of wealth to be mostly circumstantial. From the New York Times:
'I believe I was overcompensated for my work,' said Neukom, whose political outlook puts him somewhat at odds with many of his fellow [Giants] owners, several of whom are Republicans. 'I was in a fortunate position, but my worth to the company is not equal to the amount of money I received. I don’t see it as money I earned. I see myself as the steward of the money, and that is why I give much of it away.'
'Some people who worked for Microsoft don’t see it the way I do,' he added. 'But I believe it’s my job to give the money back and to other causes. But I’m no saint and I have guilty pleasures, and the Giants are one of them.'
HIGHER EDUCATION: Neukom is perhaps most active in philanthropy as an alumni donor. He recently made a donation of $10 million to Dartmouth College’s computer science program, to create a cluster of study around the use of big data for applications across academic fields. In 2004, he gave $22 million to establish a computer science institute at the school in his name. He’s also given large amounts as a donor to Stanford, where he earned his law degree. Neukom gave $20 million as the lead investment for a new law school building, also in his name. Aside from newsmaking gifts, Neukom and his family foundation donate sizable chunks of money in general support to both universities.
The Neukom Family Foundation has also given to the University of Puget Sound, the Ashesi University Foundation, and Columbia University, for example.
SCIENCE: As mentioned above, Neukom has been a big supporter of Dartmouth’s computer science education and research. It’s motivated mainly by the belief that a liberal arts education and faculty should use computation and data, and that large data sets show the potential to make transformative changes in other academic fields, such as neuroscience, but also social and behavioral sciences.
JUSTICE: The primary conduit for this funding is the World Justice Project, an organization that is devoted to promoting the “rule of law” throughout the world, including study of government accountability, open government, regulatory enforcement, and basic human rights. Neukom founded the organization, which has offices in D.C. And Seattle, and he’s still the CEO and a main funder.
But the Neukom Family Foundation also supports groups like the Rural Development Institute, the Plymouth Housing Group, the National Womens Law Center, and the National Center for Children and Families. The foundation also gives to some environmental causes, primarily on the West Coast.