MacKenzie Bezos’ $18B Pledge: Righteous Endeavor or PR Stunt?

Jeff and Mackenzie Bezos attends the 2018 Vanity Fair Oscar Party hosted by Radhika Jones at Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, California.

Source Tony Barson/Getty

Why you should care

The ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos just pledged to give half of her $36 billion fortune to charity.

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When MacKenzie Bezos was just 6 years old, she wrote a 142-page book called The Book Worm. It was later destroyed in a flood, but she never gave up on her writing dreams. At Princeton, she studied under Toni Morrison, earning high praise from the literary legend, who once told Vogue that Bezos was “one of the best students I’ve ever had in my creative writing classes.”

MacKenzie went on to publish two novels, but we don’t know her as a novelist; we know her as the ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. And since their split earlier this year, we know she’s one of the richest women in the world, with an estimated $36 billion net worth thanks to a 25 percent stake in Amazon. Mostly a private figure during the company’s meteoric rise, the Bezoses’ divorce has flung MacKenzie, 49, into the spotlight. This week, she added another credential to her résumé: tech philanthropist.

On Tuesday, Bezos announced she had signed the Giving Pledge, committing half of her assets — $18 billion — to charity in her lifetime or in her will. Her ex-husband, the world’s richest person, infamously declined to sign the pledge in the nine years since it was founded by acclaimed philanthropic billionaires Bill Gates, Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett. But less than two months into controlling her own fortune, Bezos signed on the dotted line.

MacKenzie was not only Amazon’s first accountant, but she also helped come up with the name.

This year’s Giving Pledge class includes, among others, venture capitalist Chris Sacca and his wife, Crystal, and WhatsApp founder Brian Acton and his wife, Tegan, bringing the total number on the tech-dominated list to 200 — or about 7 percent of the world’s billionaires. The Giving Pledge has come under scrutiny for being a noncommittal form of charity as there’s no accountability involved, while nonetheless netting some extremely friendly PR.

“It’s important to remember that philanthropy is a choice,” says Emily Scott, a philanthropy and financial navigator in San Francisco. “People could choose to not donate anything.” Scott says Bezos’ letter came off as genuine. “She has chosen to really speak from a place of recognizing her privilege.”

In her letter — which also drew a friendly tweet from her ex-husband — Bezos writes: “We each come by the gifts we have to offer by an infinite series of influences and lucky breaks we can never fully understand” and vows a steady philanthropic process to “keep at it until the safe is empty.”

 

Born MacKenzie Tuttle in San Francisco and attending high school in Connecticut, it’s unlikely the future billionaire could’ve imagined such a life. After earning her bachelor’s in English at Princeton, she aspired to be a writer but got a job as an administrative assistant at New York hedge fund D.E. Shaw to pay the bills. It was there she met 30-year-old Jeff Bezos, a trained computer engineer serving as the fund’s senior vice president. MacKenzie told Charlie Rose in a 2013 interview that she fell in love with Jeff’s laugh.

The couple married in West Palm Beach, Florida, in 1994 and then headed to Seattle, where Jeff incorporated Amazon that year. MacKenzie was not only the first accountant for the e-commerce startup, but she also shipped some of the first orders via UPS and helped come up with the name, according to The Everything Store by Brad Stone. As Amazon began to grow, she stepped back to focus on family and her writing career. In an attempt to maintain some normalcy as their personal wealth skyrocketed, she would occasionally drive her husband to work and their four children to school — three sons and one daughter adopted from China — in the family Honda, Stone writes.

In 2005, Bezos published her debut novel, The Testing of Luther Albright, to critical acclaim. Her second novel, Traps, was also well received in 2013. Her books have sold a few thousand copies. (Yes, they are still available on Amazon.) Bezos chose a traditional publisher for her own books, Harper and then Knopf, despite the fact that Amazon has a publishing arm.

An ardent supporter of Amazon over the years, Bezos once wrote a one-star review of The Everything Store on (where else?) Amazon, declaring it contained “numerous factual inaccuracies.” But perhaps her choice to stick with smaller publishers for her own work hinted at a larger desire for democratization. The book industry, of course, was the first victim of Amazon’s disruptive powers. She hasn’t revealed how she’ll donate her billions, though Bezos has been involved in anti-bullying efforts, founding a nonprofit called Bystander Revolution in 2014, where she still serves as executive director.

Scott says that if she were advising Bezos, she’d ask her the same questions she asks all her clients: “What are your values, what are your principles and what do you want to see happen?”

When they were married, the Bezoses pledged $2 billion to fight homelessness and gave millions to a nonprofit that gives college scholarships to undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children. But on her own, we don’t yet have a clear picture of what Bezos wants to see happen. She now has 18 billion ways to let the world know. 

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