Fellow tech donor Marc Andreessen once called him “the human router.” Others call him the Godfather of Silicon Valley. Ron Conway, 70, has invested in hundreds of internet companies since the early 1990s, including PayPal, Google, Twitter and Airbnb. He founded SV Angel, the San Francisco-based seed fund, in 2009. But his Silicon Valley bona fides go way back to early positions at National Semiconductor Corporation and Altos Computer Systems in the 1970s and 1980s. Along the way, Conway has amassed a rolodex of allies in technology, politics and Hollywood. And he’s advised a number of celebrity figures—Kevin Durant, will.i.am and Ashton Kutcher among them.
Through the years, Conway has been a major donor to the University of California, San Francisco, including via a $40 million donation to the new 207,500-square-foot UCSF Ron Conway Family Gateway Medical Building at the UCSF Medical Center at Mission Bay. More recently, Conway helped organize an all-volunteer COVID Tech Task Force to increase coordination between technology companies and policymakers. And amid new calls for social justice and racial equity, he backs Slauson & Co, which aims to democratize access to entrepreneurship.
At the end of 2020, Conway and his wife Gayle signed the Giving Pledge. A driving force behind their decision to sign, he writes in the pledge letter, is to “encourage more tech founders to join and become role models for their generation.” He goes on, “I encourage founders to see the tipping point when they donate meaningful amounts of their net worth and begin the process of becoming ‘never-billionaires’ by donating their worth now and not later. And advise them not to let their money sit in a donor-advised fund. It’s much better to put it to work in philanthropy and see the good it does.”
I caught up with Conway by phone to ask him about his philanthropic approach and his thoughts on the broader philanthropic landscape in Silicon Valley. This conversation has been edited for clarity.
Tell me about the 1 % pledge and signing the Giving Pledge. Why have you chosen multiple ways to catalyze giving?
I spend vast amounts of time encouraging founders to begin thinking about philanthropy and to give back from the very beginning. The catalyst that I use for that is getting their company to sign up for Pledge 1%, which Marc Benioff of Salesforce started. It’s an effort to invite technology entrepreneurs and their companies to commit 1% of their time, product and pre-IPO equity to develop philanthropic programs at their companies. Each employee also uses 1% of their time on volunteer causes in their community. It’s a public pledge. (Inside Philanthropy covered the launch of Pledge 1% here.)
As the company gets bigger and the founder gets wealthy, or if they become a billionaire, then I pitch them on signing the Giving Pledge. That also places a marker in the ground that this founder is philanthropic. I later introduce them to the [confidential] “Conway philanthropy chart” to show founders how to pick philanthropic sectors they want to donate to and focus on.
By the way, the founders of these companies are not the only wealthy ones. Overall, there’s hundreds of people who become very wealthy from these IPOs. So when a founder says, ‘I’m going to give away 50% of my wealth,’ that sends a message to everyone else on their team who also made lots of money on the IPO that they should be generous and they should start donating money, too.
What do you find are some of the most attractive giving interests for Silicon Valley donors these days? And I’m seeing you using this “Never Billionaire” slogan.
Well, the Airbnb founders, because it’s synergistic with Airbnb, are donating millions for refugees. Many founders are very interested in aspects of healthcare and healthcare research. Others are interested in the education space. Really, it’s whatever floats their boat. I just encourage them.
As for the second part, part of what’s made Silicon Valley great, is that we’ve created all these philanthropists. But you can’t do it on your own. You need a mentor, you need somebody suggesting this to you. They just need a path, and I provide them a philanthropic path. And then they become role models themselves. It just feeds on itself and becomes an ecosystem.
What was the tipping point for you getting involved with social justice causes?
Oh, George Floyd, for sure. It was a huge wake-up call for me. I think racial equality, the only way to solve it is through economic prosperity. The only way to do that is to have more founders of color. Well, the only way to get more founders of color is to have venture capital firms invest in founders of color. So I interviewed 20 Black-led VC firms. I could only partner with one, but I’m helping them all, and make sure they become the next Andreessen Horowitz or Sequoia. I partnered with Slauson & Co in Los Angeles. I’ve helped them raise over $60 million. And they’re already actively investing in founders of color. We need to create, through venture capital funding, the next Google or Facebook-sized company, and we will do that with Slauson & Co. And those founders of color will build a diverse management team naturally.
When those companies go public, then the employees in that company will go out and start their own shops. Just like all the people who left Google and Facebook started companies. That’s how you build an ecosystem of racial equality and racial equity. It’s going to take time, but it’s about time we start. I talk to Ajay and Austin (Ajay Relan and Austin Clements, the managing partners of Slauson & Co) every single day.
You signed the Giving Pledge in the winter of 2020. I saw that interesting line about not really wanting to set up a personal foundation. What do you think are the advantages of this?
I like to give big and give fast. And I encourage that in all the founders that I work with. Once you get going, give big and give fast. The more you give and the faster you give it, the more you’re going to enjoy it. It feeds on itself with a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. It’s hard to pull the trigger for the first time. What I’ve been doing lately is to get them to pull the trigger in a certain area. I just say, ‘You’re really interested in this, aren’t you? Let me make it easier. I’ll write a check for a million and you write a check for a million.’ I said, ‘Yes, I want to encourage you to get started. So I’m happy to invest a million of my philanthropic dollars to kickstart your philanthropic journey.’ I’ve done that three times in the last few weeks and it works every time. It just gives the founder confidence.
Is there any reason why you’ve conducted a lot of this giving under the radar?
Yeah, I don’t want to take the limelight from the founder. The founder will decide if they want to disclose the gift. If they disclose the gift, I’ll say I’m happy to disclose mine too, or I’ll keep quiet. I just want them to get used to donating and if they want to do it quietly, I’ll do mine quietly. I’ll follow the founders’ lead.
There’s a component of your work that involves connecting with athletes and celebrities and empowering some of their work. When did that start? And why?
That goes all the way back to the very early days of Google. will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas visited Google. He talked about his goal of helping inner city youth and was just so passionate about it. I went up and introduced myself to him and told him he had a special calling to help inner city youth. I introduced him to Laurene Powell Jobs, who is the founder of College Track, which has a number of branches around the country that help inner city youth with college preparedness. Ten years ago, he started the College Track branch in Boyle Heights, where he grew up. Now, they’ve helped 1,400 kids get placed in college and they do another 400 every year.
And then Ashton Kutcher and I were doing some investing together. He said he wanted to find a charity that would be on his tombstone. Something that he would support for the rest of his life. We did some research and he said that human trafficking and child pornography are what he wants to solve. He went on to start Thorn: Digital Defenders of Children, which is is now a huge charity, stopping online child trafficking and pornography.
Kevin Durant—same type of story. He wanted to help his community in Washington, D.C. I introduced him to Laurene Powell Jobs, too. He’s in his second year into College Track in the D.C. area where he grew up. I [also] helped Goldie Hawn with her mental wellness cause.
So if a celebrity wants to do good, I want to be a facilitator of that. I want to make sure that they’re successful. So I introduce them to the right people who give them infrastructure.
What first got you involved with UCSF and why have you continued to support the school steadily through the years?
First philanthropy I ever did was at Ronald McDonald House at Stanford. We lived down there at the time. I was thankful my young kids were healthy. So I managed the first three capital campaigns for the Ronald McDonald House. When we became empty nesters, we moved to San Francisco and there were some folks in San Francisco I connected with. I was born in San Francisco. I was kind of moving back home, so to speak, and they said, ‘why don’t you get involved in UCSF?’ The largest donation we’ve ever made is at UCSF—$40 million.
Who was someone who helped you when you were coming up?
Well, Laurene Powell Jobs has been a real inspiration. will.i.am has been an inspiration. The people that I collaborate with, we all inspire each other. Chuck Feeney. He is a huge inspiration and he’s in the venture capital business. He came out of venture capital with Atlantic Philanthropies. Marc Benioff, massive inspiration. Benioff’s probably the first person that I had deep conversations with about the importance of philanthropy. We hosted founders at his home, evangelizing. You have to put a stake in the ground that your company’s going to be community-minded.