Rarely does a nearly 7,000-word-long piece give so much away in its header image as the Washington Post’s profile of the fantastically wealthy Laurene Powell Jobs. Who do you see in this visual introduction to the woman “inventing a new brand of philanthropic power”? Someone who is both clear-eyed and resolute. More strikingly, someone who is angelic.
And so continues the thesis of this divine portrait of Powell Jobs, the $20 billion woman attempting to reshape the world through her nonprofit organization, Emerson Collective. She’s “assembling a kind of Justice League of practical progressives,” the Post gushes, pushing social change as reflected through “center-left politics with a dash of techie libertarianism.”
Maybe you agree with that worldview. Maybe you don’t. The undercurrent carrying it all forward, though, is that the widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs has more money than god—a supreme being with whom Powell Jobs seems to compare quite favorably.
The profile reads like a coming-out party for the philanthropist and her organization—both of which, we are reminded in paragraph four of a massive newspaper article, prefer obscurity (emphasis mine throughout):
Powell Jobs, now 54, wanted it that way, and she wished she could stay out of the spotlight. She wrote a short essay on the sublimity of anonymous giving that she handed out to employees. One of her staff recently gave it to me to read but not to quote: Her policy on anonymity is anonymous.
Such Emerson Collective sublimity has likewise trickled down to a few lucky disciples. Think of it as philanthropic rapture:
For the crew Powell Jobs has assembled, being tapped to join the collective was like being called to a mission. In early 2016, shortly after he had left the Obama administration, Arne Duncan mentioned to Powell Jobs his idea for a novel experiment to confront the gun carnage in his home town of Chicago. “I said that I can’t guarantee you that I’ll be successful — I may fail,” Duncan recalled to me. “She said basically, ‘I want to take on some of society’s most intractable problems for the next 25 years and then pass the torch to someone else. So why don’t I support you in that work?’ … I think she was actually attracted to the level of difficulty.”
We need people to take on the big problems, after all. Take the question of how to sustain journalism. Emerson Collective’s purchase of and reinvestment in The Atlantic is one of the more exciting projects in media today. It also gets you anecdotes like this, from Atlantic Media Chairman David Bradley:
Bradley told me about the time not long ago when Powell Jobs took him and some others from the Atlantic to see Springsteen’s Broadway show. They sat close to the stage, then went backstage to chat for 20 minutes with Springsteen and his wife, who both seemed well acquainted with Powell Jobs. “What I observed was these two kids out of New Jersey for whom life turned out so much differently than they ever could have thought, but who still have that about them,” Bradley said. “Still preoccupied with the people left behind.”
And Powell Jobs is getting people to join her in this preoccupation, including Miami Dade College students to whom she recently evangelized the power of “tools” for grassroots organizing:
She didn’t say it, but I couldn’t help thinking what those tools consisted of: smartphones pioneered by her late husband and the apps and networks that Silicon Valley start-ups created to run on them. And I recalled the number of times I’d heard her use that same word — “tools” — in reference to the work of Emerson Collective. Just as Steve Jobs gave us tools to change our lives, Laurene Powell Jobs is, in her own way, trying to do the same. She is convinced that her tools and the immeasurable transformations they might bring will prove to be good for society.
Those who don’t align themselves with a center-left vision of political and social reform—like the Post tacitly does here—may disagree. And for that matter: What about the idea that one of the world’s richest people is attempting to throw around cash to reorder the world as she sees fit?
The paradox is obvious. She is using her money and power to try to make sure the money and power of people like her will matter a little bit less, because those who don’t have it now will have access to a little bit more. There is something undemocratic about her mission to democratize the ability to pursue one’s potential. And yet, it has ever been so for liberal reformers. Ralph Waldo Emerson and his fellow New England transcendentalists weren’t rich at this scale, but they were privileged white men, for the most part. Through their abolitionism, their pacifism and their recognition of genius in every soul, they advocated for a world of more broad-based privilege.
“It is a paradox,” Powell Jobs says. “Martin Luther King spoke about that paradox himself, absolutely, where he said philanthropy is a very useful and good tool, but it should not ignore the conditions that created the philanthropy, that the philanthropy is trying to address....As a philanthropist, I think the most important thing is to be awake and cognizant of that, and honest about how that wealth accumulation happened, and to be smart about how you’re trying to go about changing things.”
That kicker may as well feature Powell Jobs—hand over her heart—gazing upward into the heavens.