With a net worth estimated by Forbes at $52.5 billion, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is one of the nation’s wealthiest men, yet compared to fellow tech billionaires Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, his philanthropic profile is sparse.
On the other hand, his parents, Mike and Jackie Bezos, are deep into giving through the Bezos Family Foundation, which is laser-focused on education and has become a bigger, more interesting operation in recent years.
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One area of interest for the foundation is brain development and neuroscience. In 2010, it made a $5 million challenge grant to the Institute of Learning and Brain Science at the University of Washington.
Since 2011, the Bezos Family Foundation has also supported the Harvard Center on the Developing Child's Frontiers of Innovation initiative, which examines the effects of adult caregiving on child brain development.
But the foundation's signature project in this area is Vroom, which aims to "share the science of early brain development in new ways so that all children have the chance to become thriving adults." On the ground, Vroom offers a variety of tools and initiatives, including an app providing "brain-building activities" and hands-on activity kits. The basic idea is to incorporate brain development activities into the daily interactions between parents and their children aged zero to five.
Recently, one of Vroom’s initiatives received a big boost, as Goya, Johnson & Johnson, and Amazon (funnily enough) decided to include Vroom graphics and activities on some of their physical products and packaging.
Although a brain-building exercise on a pack of diapers may not be the most glamorous application of philanthropy, there are several points that stand out in the Bezos Family Foundation’s foray into retail. First, it shows a funder that's in a real hurry to popularize important research and is ready to get hands-on to make that happen, as opposed to just writing checks and hoping for the best.
Interestingly, Vroom combines high-powered expert talent (check out the heavyweights behind it) and activities that appeal directly to the consumer, as in parents and caregivers. This is an elite research enterprise and an empowerment effort all in one. As Vroom says in a promo video on its Youtube channel, in which parents receive a brain building box that contains a mirror along with the words, "you already have what it takes."
Instead of offering programs or curricula, Vroom’s mantra is parental action. There’s also a marked focus on efficiency, in terms of positioning everyday childcare tasks to produce optimal brain development.
Vroom's creative approach is yet another reason to watch the Bezos Family Foundation, which gave out $22 million in a recent year. While spearheaded by Mike and Jackie, the foundation's board includes their children and spouses, including Jeff and his wife MacKenzie. (We've written about MacKenzie here.)
It's hard to say what role, if any, Jeff or MacKenzie have in guiding the Bezos Family Foundation, or whether this operation may be some kind of advanced guard for what will eventually become a giant philanthropic operation powered by a historic tech fortune. (Remember how Bill Gates's father initially took the lead on his son's philanthropy?) But the Bezos clan is said to be very tightly knit, and it's worth noting that Jeff is also quite interested in the brain: In 2011, he and MacKenzie gave $15 million to Princeton to finance the Bezos Center for Neural Circuit Dynamics.