lawyer nicole shanahan, president and director of Bia Echo Foundation
Raised in Oakland in a low-income Chinese-immigrant household, Nicole Shanahan graduated from University of Puget Sound in 2007 and went on to get her J.D. from Santa Clara University School of Law. She worked as an intellectual property paralegal and patent specialist before launching the Palo Alto-based ClearAccessIP, a patent management and valuation company.
Shanahan, 34, also recently launched Bia-Echo Foundation, committing to invest $100 million over the next five years in three areas of focus—criminal justice reform, reproductive longevity, and a livable and healthy planet.
We often write about how a portion of the mega rich are turning to philanthropy earlier than ever, and Shanahan is another example from Silicon Valley. And while Shanahan has been a relatively quiet donor up until recently, her turn towards significant giving should be watched very carefully. Indeed, there are not just millions but billions in play.
In 2018, Shanahan married Google cofounder Sergey Brin. The tech billionaire’s net worth stands at some $54 billion as of this writing. Inside Philanthropy readers might recall my rundown of Anne Wojcicki and her sisters’ giving. Anne was once married to Sergey but when the two separated earlier in the decade, they both established their own foundations. Shanahan has engaged in philanthropy alongside her husband through the Sergey Brin Family Foundation, with grantmaking touching areas like education, women and girls, and Parkinson’s research. In a recent year, the foundation gave away approximately $42.6 million. Meanwhile, the couple launched Bia-Echo Foundation with about $20 million.
In an another post, I’ll dig into the larger story of Brin’s giving, which has been rising in recent years. But for now I’ll focus on Bia-Echo and Shanahan, with whom I recently connected via email.
Personal Roots of Giving
In Oakland, Shanahan’s immigrant single mother was able to pay for groceries with food stamps and access healthcare through medicaid. At one point growing up, Shanahan only had two t-shirts that fit. Through these experiences, though, Shanahan explains she learned at a very early age the value of strong social policy and charitable giving.
Shanahan’s interest in criminal justice reform stems in part from her ongoing work with Stanford CodeX as a faculty fellow beginning in 2014. She worked on the San Francisco DA’s blue ribbon panel project on bias in policing, using computational methods to review police reports. “I realized the enormity of the failures of the criminal justice system and growing up low income in Oakland, this injustice hit home for me. I immediately knew I wanted to contribute to a solution,” she says.
On the heels of this, Shanahan founded the Stanford Smart Prosecution program and in 2016 seeded the creation of the Stanford Computational Policy Lab, which continues the work on Smart Prosecution as well as the work of Professor Sharad Goel. Working in the emerging discipline of computational social science, Goel heads up the Lab, bringing together computer science, statistics, and the social sciences. One project aims to foster more equitable algorithms for bail, better understanding how these tools can reduce jail populations without adversely affecting public safety.
Shanahan’s work in the criminal justice reform space is a good example of escalating philanthropy; she began by exploring an interest area, gaining knowledge and a deeper interest over time. And now, Shanahan is backing the cause with significant cash. I should note that normally this trajectory would happen much later on—when a donor is mid to late career.
However, Shanahan sees power in turning to philanthropy sooner rather than later: “The value of giving while you are early or mid-career is that you and your contemporaries are oftentimes already working at the cusp of innovation. There is also a sense of accountability when you are still in the workforce. When the people who are receiving funds from you see you getting stuff done as an operator, they are more likely to want to engage your advice and help beyond dollars. I think that exchange is key to successful giving.”
Shanahan says she’s particularly keen on the venture philanthropy model and equity is a unifying theme across her three focus areas.
Another focus area, Reproductive Longevity and Equity, also has a story behind it. Shanahan says she was first introduced to the longevity space through Dr. Joon Yun, who enlisted ClearAccessIP to do a report on longevity related intellectual property for the National Academy of Medicine. Around the same time, Shanahan discovered that she was not able to bank embryos because of a medical condition, and had other indicators of waning fertility even though she was only 31 at the time. (Shanahan and Brin now have a child together).
What’s key for Shanahan is that these two fields—longevity and fertility—merge. Indeed, she considers it an important part of the equity puzzle. “Healthy female reproductive years are so limited. Just even the dismal amount of funding into fundamental research into female fertility presents a bias,” she tells me. Animated by these forces, in 2018, Shanahan made $6 million gift through the foundation to the Buck Institute for Research on Aging, establishing the Center for Female Reproductive Longevity and Equality to study and help women become pregnant later in life.
Shanahan says that she wants to take a “narrative changing approach” for the foundation’s newest focus area—Healthy Planet. “We hope to raise consciousness about the fragility of our planet and believe that a healthy and livable planet promotes global equality and strong communities for future generations,” says Bia-Echo’s website. This part of its work is still in development.
Building a Foundation
To help Bia-Echo achieve its aims, Shanahan has tapped Christine Gulbranson and Wendy Lim, who serve as CEO and COO respectively of the foundation. Gulbranson was the first Chief Innovation Officer for the UC System and Lim worked for Yelp for a decade. They tell me that their core investment approach is to understand how best they can support the ecosystems in each of their grantmaking categories. They add that they know that no single organization is going to affect systemic change. Rather, they hope to foster strategic partnerships across multiple sectors and create new and innovative solutions.
Gulbranson and Lim are hitting the ground running and hope to begin to see early results from their investments. Through their funding of the Global Consortium for Reproductive Longevity and Equality at the Buck Institute, they aim to galvanize scientists, researchers and investors and philanthropists in an area of historic underinvestment. And while Bia-Echo Foundation has committed to investing $100 million over the next five years, they expect the foundation to continue beyond this period.