TWO SIGMA COFOUNDER DAVID SIEGEL
We’ve written about Two Sigma Investments cofounder John Overdeck, a mathematician turned hedge funder who along with his wife Laura—holding a Princeton astrophysics degree—move philanthropy through the Overdeck Family Foundation. STEM education is one area the billionaire couple prioritizes. Not unlike another Wall Street couple, James and Marilyn Simons, the Overdecks have leveraged their lifelong passions for science and math to also engage in philanthropy focused on pushing forward the frontiers of these fields.
Headquartered in SoHo, Two Sigma Investments uses a variety of technological methods, including artificial intelligence and machine learning for its trading strategies. The hedge fund holds some $60 billion in assets as of this writing.
But what about another one of Two Sigma’s founders, David Siegel, who is worth a cool $6.1 billion?
Born in the Bronx, Siegel graduated from Princeton University and received his Ph.D. in computer science from MIT. He married Dana Matsushita, a longtime musician, who is particularly active in their Westchester County community. David, like his Two Sigma partner also keys in on STEM issues through his foundations. I recently connected with Siegel by email and spoke with Katy Knight, Siegel Family Endowment executive director, to find out more about this giving.
A Natural Focus
In 2011, Siegel launched the Siegel Family Endowment (SFE) to support organizations and leaders that will understand and shape the impact of technology on society. He also co-founded the Scratch Foundation to support Scratch, a block-based programming language and online community for kids.
“As someone who’s been right in the middle of this technological and digital revolution, I’m naturally very interested in the interaction between technology and philanthropy. I’m a scientist at heart, and when it comes to my philanthropic work, I want to apply the scientific method to figuring out what works and what doesn’t,” Siegel explains.
We write often about timing when it comes to a deep-pocketed family deciding to turn to significant philanthropy. As couples in the later stages of their careers have more bandwidth for other things, they often ramp up their giving. But precisely where a family decides to focus their philanthropy is also worth thinking about, and for the self-described “computer scientist and entrepreneur,” Siegel’s giving strongly tracks with lifelong interests.
Katy Knight, who worked at Google and Two Sigma before coming to SFE, tells me that she and Siegel are on the hunt for areas where SFE can dig in with research and programmatic support and better understand technology’s impact. “How can we really make innovation and technology drivers of equity and opportunity rather than exacerbates of division and inequality?” she asks.
To start to answer this question, SFE works across three verticals—learning, workforce, and infrastructure. The oldest of the three, learning, is strongly rooted in Scratch, a programming language for kids. Siegel tells me that he first got involved with Scratch after his son started using it when he was six. “He loved it, and so did I,” Siegel says.
Ultimately, Siegel ended up visiting a Scratch Day event at MIT, where he reconnected with Scratch’s creator, Mitch Resnick, who was a doctoral student at the same time Siegel was. “Mitch and I agree that learning to code shouldn’t just be about training kids to become computer engineers. It’s much more than that—we really believe that coding is a new literacy. Learning to code is actually a terrifically effective way to help kids organize, express, and share their ideas,” Siegel explains.
Scaling Up Scratch
Siegel and Resnick decided to work together on an effort to keep Scratch free and help it reach more kids all over the world. They created the Scratch Foundation, which is now the official home of Scratch since the project launched out of MIT. Siegel says that the programming language’s impact has already been large and is continuing to grow. There are users in 196 countries around the world, and 200 million unique visitors to the website each year. And 400,000 new projects get created on Scratch every day.
Knight adds that she really hopes that Scratch will make kids be creators of technology and not just consumers: “In order to be a productive citizen, you have to be able to understand tech.”
Within its learning vertical, SFE also has partners like MIT, CUNY, and CSforALL, which aims to increase access to high-quality computational thinking and computer science education for all students in the U.S. SFE brought CSforALL in house and helped them expand their reach nationally.
“I see SFE as both a hub for research that helps us understand emerging changes in our society through inquiry, and for experiments that offer solutions to the problems those changes create,” Siegel tells me.
On workforce front, Knight says they’ve invested in a variety of different of training programs including longtime grantee Per Scholas, which provides free IT job training to Americans in cities where it is needed most, and Pursuit (formally Coalition for Queens), a four-year intensive program which trains adults with the most need and potential to get their first tech jobs, advance in their careers, and become the next generation of leaders in tech.
An Expanding Agenda
Knight says that SFE is just starting to dip its toes into its newest vertical—infrastructure. “We really take a broad view of what that means… physical, digital, social.” So far, SFE has supported places like the Mozilla Foundation, a global nonprofit dedicated to keeping the Internet a global public resource that is open and accessible to all.
Knight explains that rather than having program officers responsible for a single content area, SFE’s team works collaboratively and cross-functionally to really go out as relationship managers and meet organizations. While this means that they are largely proactive in finding partners, SFE has an accessible website with public staff email addresses, too.
Away from SFE and Scratch, David Siegel and Dana Matsushita support Carnegie Hall through individual donations. She’s also on the board of Hoff-Barthelson Music School.
When I asked Siegel what his biggest hope was for SFE, he told me that: “Technology is capable of amazing things. It’s underpinned my entire career, and it’s enabled massive improvements in humans’ quality of life. That said, some aspects of new technologies are major causes for concern on a societal level. I want SFE to help society keep pace with the changes that technology is accelerating—to embrace and spread the positive effects while mitigating the harmful ones.”