At Inside Philanthropy, we've been watching billionaire Jeff Bezos carefully, and for good reason. The Amazon CEO and founder is worth $52.6 billion as of this writing, but so far has been fairly modest with his philanthropy relative to his wealth. Of course, Bezos is only 52 and has plenty of time to give. One area of Bezos's emerging giving is health, where funding has included a $15 million donation to Princeton to create the Bezos Center for Neural Circuit Dynamics. Who knew? A tech pioneer with an interest in applying pioneering technology to medical research.
As we've reported, however, the biggest philanthropists tapping Amazon wealth to power their giving so far are Jeff Bezos' parents, Jackie and Mike Bezos, who run a very active foundation focused on education.
Nick Hanauer, who invested early in Amazon, is another philanthropist who is putting his gains to good use through recent giving, as we've reported.
Still, this is a company that has created lots of wealth for anyone lucky enough to get a bunch of shares early on, and so we're on the lookout for other Amazon winners who are turning to philanthropy.
One person on our radar is Jeffrey A. Wilke, who joined Amazon in 1999 and since 2012 has been senior vice president of consumer business. In a recent year, Wilke earned a modest $165,000, according to Business Insider, though according to the outlet, he also owned some 80,000 Amazon shares. Fortune, meanwhile, claimed Wilke owned $20 million in stock in a recent year. Bezos, by the way, pays himself a modest salary, too. Another thing to know about Wilke is that according to at least one source, he's a prospect for next Amazon CEO when Bezos hands over the reins.
Wilke, now only in his late 40s, is a Princeton graduate who earned his MBA and an M.S. in chemical engineering from MIT. His wife, Liesl, a writer and novelist, is also a Princeton graduate. The Wilkes are based in the Seattle area and in 2007, established the Wilke Family Foundation, which held a little over $15 million in assets recently. Another thing worth noting is that grantmaking is on the rise at the foundation; around $450,000 went out of the door in the 2012 fiscal year, while that number increased to $1.3 million in grantmaking in the 2014 fiscal year. That sum may well be higher now.
I've already mentioned how Jeff and Mackenzie Bezos have shown an interest in leveraging technology towards medical research. Well, last year, the Wilkes, along with Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos, and the Bay Area Lyme Foundation gave $2.13 million to launch of the Wilke Lyme Disease Project at Seattle-based Institute for Systems Biology. These funds initiated the first stage of a three-year study that "will leverage the tools and technologies of systems biology to understand the fundamentals of Lyme, identify biomarkers, and gain insights about the genomics and proteomics of the infecting Borrelia organism."
As Liesl puts it: "it became clear to us as we learned more about Borrelia and other tick-borne diseases that in order to really see the culprits, we have to zoom in, into blood, into cells, into microbiology so complex we ordinary mortals can’t grasp it, but computers can and the creative and brilliant minds at ISB can." If you're guessing that there are personal elements here, you'd be right. Liesl has struggled with Lyme for a decade and writes about it on her blog. Apart from their work with lyme, the couple through their Wilke Family Foundation have also supported health outfits such as American Diabetes Association, and International Planned Parenthood Federation.
The couple's education philanthropy so far is highlighted by their support of STEM and scholarships. Recent grantees include computer science education outfit Code.org, which received a $100,000 grant in the most recent fiscal year, MIT, Harvey Mudd College—a liberal arts school in suburban Los Angeles which focuses in on mathematics and engineering—a science center at Eastside Preparatory School, and Rainier Scholars, which "cultivates the academic potential of young students of color by offering access to educational opportunities & comprehensive support." Liesl also plays a role here as a self-described advocate for Native American rights. She sits on the board of the board of trustees for the American Indian College Fund, which has been supported steadily. The Wilkes have also supported their mutual alma mater, Princeton.
The couple also makes grants to outfits that operate on a global level, especially those that work for literacy. They've given to outfits such as Ethiopia Reads, which "collaborates with "communities to build schools, plant libraries, train educators, boost literacy, and provide youth and families with the tools to improve their lives," and Worldreader.org, whose "mission is to bring digital books to every child and her family, so that they can improve their lives."
This young couple's philanthropy is just getting started and they should be watched for greater giving down the line.
Related: Jeffrey A. Wilke