Laurene Powell Jobs—who inherited a fortune from her late husband, Steve Jobs, and is doing some very interesting things with it—is a fan of the American Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson. She named her umbrella organization, which both invests and donates money, Emerson Collective, and its new fellowship program is called the Dial Fellowship, named after a journal that Emerson helped to found. Powell Jobs even bought most of Atlantic Media, which publishes The Atlantic magazine, which the philosopher helped launch.
There is some tension to this homage. Emerson, who spent most of his professional life alone, writing, was one of the great American advocates of individualism. His most famous essay is called “Self-Reliance.” The idea of inspiring a collective of anything would probably have thrown him into an intellectual paroxysm.
And that’s not the only apparent contradiction—not, to be fair, that Emerson disapproved of contradiction. Powell Jobs was a political science and economics major at the University of Pennsylvania; she spent her brief premarital professional life (three years) in finance, working at Merrill Lynch and Goldman Sachs, about which it is pretty safe to say Emerson would not have approved.
And through one of the great tragedies in life, the loss of a husband—a truly exceptional husband—she has become one of the wealthiest women on the planet, and she is using her immense fortune to try to reshape the way we live, learn and work, even as she talks about the need for grassroots activism.
Seeking to spread the gospel of her faith, she speaks at conferences around the country, usually interviewing social justice activists onstage. But she’s frequently more famous and, so far, always wealthier than the people she’s interviewing; in more typical journalistic interviews, the power differential goes the other way. When she spoke with Hillary Clinton at New York’s Ozy Fest in July 2018, one young person in the rapturous crowd shouted out, “Please run!” The comment wasn’t directed at Clinton. As if to make up for the awkwardness, Powell Jobs then referred to the politician as an “unbelievably wonderful national treasure of a woman.”
And here’s a final tension: Though Powell Jobs is so visible now, before her husband died, she was a little-known figure who led a private life. A 2013 New York Times story on her was headlined, “Steve Jobs’s Widow Steps Onto Philanthropic Stage.” (If Powell was offended by the subordinating description, she got the last laugh—she hired the story’s cowriter, Peter Lattman, to help run Emerson.) Now what is likely the greatest loss of her life, the death of her husband, has paved the way for Powell Jobs’ greatest liberation: the wealth and the will to do pretty much whatever she wants. As it turns out, she wants quite a lot.
Laurene Powell was born in West Milford, N.J., in 1963, and from an early age she believed that that she would have to work, and work hard, to succeed (Powell Jobs was unavailable to speak for this story as of Worth’s deadline.) Her father, a pilot in the Marine Corps, died in a plane crash when she was 3 years old; her mother was widowed with three children under the age of 6. Powell’s mom would later marry a school guidance counselor, but money was tight—the local paper route was handed down from child to child. “The lesson I learned was clear, that I always wanted to be self-sufficient,” she told her husband’s biographer, Walter Isaacson. “I took pride in that.”
She cobbled together the funds to attend Penn, where she majored in political science and economics—no majoring in English for the self-conscious self-sufficient—and, after graduating in 1985, headed to Wall Street, spending a year at Merrill Lynch and two at Goldman Sachs in that bank’s fixed income division. She quit Goldman—later telling Isaacson that she felt she wasn’t contributing much to the world in that role—and traveled to Florence, where she lived for eight months. Then she headed to Stanford, where she earned an MBA in 1991.
A couple of years before, she met Jobs (pictured together at left) in an encounter that is becoming the stuff of myth, a process that happens when an ambitious and beautiful woman meets and marries one of the world’s most accomplished men. He was giving a lecture at the Stanford business school, and Powell attended with a friend. But when they got kicked out of seats someone else had claimed, Powell led her friend to the front row and they grabbed seats with “reserved” signs on them. A few minutes later, Jobs sat down next to her. “I looked to my right, and there was a beautiful girl there, so we started chatting while I was waiting to be introduced,” he would say later. According to Isaacson’s biography, Steve Jobs, “Laurene joked that she was sitting there because she had won a raffle, and the prize was that he got to take her to dinner.” Jobs had another commitment, but he wisely changed his mind, and the two headed to a local vegetarian cafe, where they spent four hours having dinner. Jobs proposed to her on New Year’s Day 1990.
The story is so meet-cute, there’s a hint of curation to it, and according to Isaacson, it does have some doubters. He quotes Andy Hertzfeld, a longtime friend of Steve Jobs’, as saying, “Laurene is nice, but she can be calculating, and I think she targeted him from the beginning.” When she was in college, Hertzfeld claimed, Powell collected magazine covers with Jobs’ picture on them. Powell Jobs has denied this, saying that before she attended the lecture, she had actually confused Jobs with Bill Gates. In any event, such is the kind of thing that gets said about a woman who marries a brilliant, charismatic, wildly successful man who dies tragically young and leaves her his fortune. If she did in fact hope to meet Jobs at that lecture, her story only becomes more interesting.
Their relationship was intense from the start. “At times,” Isaacson reported, “[Jobs] and Powell would indulge in public displays of affection that were so intense they embarrassed everyone in their presence.” But they were not married until 1991—Jobs struggled to progress from engagement to marriage—and even then, marriage with Steve, who carried his own personal demons, was not always easy. The couple moved into a house in Palo Alto; it was, reportedly, a house that Jobs’ high-school girlfriend, the mother of his daughter Lisa, had asked him to buy for the two of them. He bought it for his new love instead.
But by all accounts, the marriage was strong. Jobs, who wasn’t known for his work-life balance, found that family life soothed him. The two had three children, Reed, Erin and Eve, and he tried to be a good father. Family dinner was sacred, and, Powell Jobs has said, he always made it home in time for the evening meal. She put her career on hold to raise the kids, grew vegetables and herbs in their garden and kept bees. At one point she started a small business, Terravera, which made organic meals to be sold at gourmet shops in northern California. It didn’t last, though, and its imprint was so small that that news articles sometimes confuse it with a German company of the same name.
She did, however, demonstrate an interest in education, which had made such a difference in her own life. In 1997, Powell Jobs and her friend Carlos Watson founded College Track, a nonprofit aimed at helping disadvantaged kids finish high school, get into college and graduate. Public education “needed the type of entrepreneurship and problem-solving that I was doing in the for-profit space and that I thought was a higher and better use of my life to do in the social sector,” Powell Jobs told the Washington Post in 2018. (It wasn’t clear what entrepreneurship she was referring to.)
In 2004 she started laying the groundwork for Emerson Collective. At about the same time, though, Jobs started to get sick. He was diagnosed with a rare form of pancreatic cancer in 2003, and, even as he was transforming the world with the iPhone and iPad, his health was deteriorating. Jobs did his best to conceal his illness, prompting years of speculation and debate about the corporate ethics of such secret-keeping, but he couldn’t hide it forever. In August 2011, chronically fatigued and scarily thin, he stepped down as Apple CEO. He died on October 5.
Jobs’ passing was one of those exits that is both an incalculable loss for the world and an intimate tragedy for the love of his life, a private loss to which the world feels connected. On their 20th anniversary, not long before he died, he had written his wife a note. “We didn’t know much about each other 20 years ago,” he said. “We were guided by our intuition; you swept me off my feet.…Years passed, kids came, good times, hard times, but never bad times.…We now know many of life’s joys, suffering, secrets and wonders, and we’re still here together. My feet have never returned to the ground.”
Powell Jobs, as Isaacson puts it, was the grounded one.
Last fall, Powell Jobs gave a short speech at the annual dinner of the Committee to Protect Journalists, the organization that defends journalists whose rights and safety are threatened. With Emerson Collective’s Peter Lattman, Powell Jobs was cochairing the dinner, and she used that sponsorship to deliver a not-very-thinly-veiled attack on Donald Trump. “That those who cloak themselves in intolerance, nationalism and corruption would attack the press is to be expected,” she said. “This has long been the playbook of despots.” Journalists regularly “endure attacks on their credibility and their patriotism. Epithets such as ‘fake news’ and ‘enemy of the people’ are commonplace.”
It is difficult to describe the breadth of the change in Powell Jobs’ life since October 2011. “Transformation” does not really capture it, because no one who knows her says that Powell Jobs has changed in any fundamental way, shifted course or done things that would previously have been out of character. “Evolution” may be more accurate; Powell Jobs did not want to be liberated from her partnership with Jobs, but she was—and what she has done with that liberation is profound.
She entered her post-marriage period already a woman who had accomplished impressive things, for a young person working her way up in the world before meeting her husband, then forged a successful marriage with a man who probably never expected to have a successful marriage, raised three children and built a network of powerful friends—not just in Silicon Valley, but in Washington. (She was, for example, Michelle Obama’s guest at Barack Obama’s 2012 State of the Union address.)
And then, of course, there was the money—billions of dollars in Apple and Disney stock she inherited from Steve. (Jobs had acquired some 7 percent of Disney when it bought Pixar from him in 2006 for $7.4 billion.) Depending on what source you read, Powell Jobs’ inheritance was worth anywhere from $7 billion to $20 billion. Whatever the figure, she was instantly one of the richest women in the world. Richest people in the world. And she was certainly the richest woman in tech, which, sadly, tells you something about tech: Of course, it would be a widow.
On second thought, it’s fair to say that the money was transformative.
As the New York Times has noted, it took Powell a little while to get up to speed. But once she did, she moved quickly and decisively. It is impossible to know all Powell Jobs has done with those billions in the eight years since the death of her husband—and the reasons for that are significant—but here is a partial list.
- She has transformed Emerson Collective into a powerful engine of philanthropy and social change. In an introductory letter on the organization’s website, Powell Jobs explains that Emerson Collective is “working to renew some of society’s most calcified systems, creating new possibilities for individuals, families and communities.” In practice, that means that she has poured tens of millions of dollars, maybe hundreds, into groups and people working on issues such as education reform, immigration and climate change. Emerson Collective labels the latter issue “elemental” and states, “We support radical remedies of the commons designed to address nature’s tragedies of the commons.” Emerson Collective can be as obtuse as its namesake.
“Our basic belief, as Emerson taught, is that we are doubly obligated; we must rely on ourselves and we must rely on each other,” Powell Jobs says in a letter posted on EmersonCollective.com. This is a somewhat, well, unconventional interpretation of Emerson. If Emerson taught that “we must rely on each other,” such instruction is hard to find in his writing, as is the idea that Emerson ever considered himself a teacher rather than a thinker. But Emerson is little read today, and one of the themes that has emerged in Powell Jobs’ work is her conviction in the power of storytelling.
- To that end, she has become one of the most powerful people in media, part of a wave of tech billionaires who have swept into the economically battered media world and bought iconic properties—people like Jeff Bezos, who snapped up the Washington Post for $250 million in 2013, and Marc Benioff, who bought Time for $190 million in 2018, and Pierre Omidyar, who has pumped almost $100 million into funding the Intercept. In the past several years Powell Jobs has acquired a majority stake in Washington, D.C.-based Atlantic Media, publisher of The Atlantic (Emerson was a founder in 1857); purchased Pop-Up Magazine Productions, which stages what it calls “live magazine” events and publishes the influential California Sunday Magazine; bought a minority stake in Anonymous Content, which is a talent, production and content development firm that produced Spotlight, the Oscar-winning film about the Boston Globe’s investigation of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church; launched a documentary company, Concordia Studio; and invested in or donated to numerous smaller (and often liberal-leaning and/or investigative) media firms such as Axios, Mother Jones, the Texas Observer, ProPublica and more.
It’s all about shaping the narrative, Powell Jobs has explained, sometimes referencing that long-ago paper route in West Milford and the abundance of daily newspapers at the time. She talks about the importance of an informed populace, clearly framing that goal in opposition to Donald Trump and other forces denouncing “fake news.” In this sense, Powell Jobs is building on the work of her late husband, who believed that the point of technology—hardware—was to facilitate human creativity. For the most part, Steve Jobs built devices, and Laurene Powell Jobs is creating content (which also happens to be the path that Apple itself has largely developed since Jobs’ death).
But all these acquisitions, investments and donations have had another impact: Powell Jobs’ pecuniary influence in the revenue-starved media world is so widespread that it is difficult to find a journalist who will do anything but speak reverentially about her. If they don’t already work for Emerson Collective in one way or another, they’d like to. When Powell Jobs bought most of Atlantic Media, she announced that the company would hire 100 more staffers. One hundred! For a monthly magazine with a website.
Steve Jobs—so intense, so passionate—was famous for creating a “reality distortion field” that allowed him to convince others of things they would not previously have believed. In a different way—Powell Jobs is charismatic, but few are as charismatic as her late husband—his widow has done the same thing through the force of her vision and drive, the pace of her activity, her willingness to move quickly and, of course, the money she came into.
- In ways both specific and general, Powell Jobs is investing in and shaping generations of social activists and leaders. One example: Emerson Collective founded the Dial Fellowship, a group of “remarkable leaders”—this year’s class includes an “immigration reform activist,” a “labor force innovator” and a “Polynesian voyager”—whom it hopes to teach innovative ways of storytelling. (The Dial was a short-lived intellectual journal cofounded by Emerson in 1840.) The program provides the fellows with “new tools and resources to tell the stories of their breakthroughs, shape important public conversations, and ultimately, extend the reach and impact of their work.” A video about the Dial Fellowship puts it simply: “Narrative drives everything else.”
- Powell Jobs has become a regular at high-profile thought leadership conferences—South by Southwest, TED, DealBook, etc. She is more often the interviewer than the interviewee, which may be partly due to modesty and genuine intellectual curiosity, but it’s also another way of controlling the story—she’s asking the questions here. She is also, along with Hillary Clinton, Mellody Hobson, Melinda Gates, Michelle Obama and Sheryl Sandberg, one of the best-connected women in the country. In the world of the ultrapowerful, there are few people Powell Jobs cannot IM.
- Powell Jobs has extended her influence in Washington in another way, outside the media realm. In 2017, she spent a reported $500 million to buy about 20 percent of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, the umbrella company that owns the NBA’s Washington Wizards, the WNBA’s Washington Mystics and D.C.’s Capital One Arena. The purchase was both an investment play—the NBA has generated outsized returns for recent sellers—and a way to create yet another platform in another influential community, the sports business world.
All of the above is only a partial list of what Powell Jobs has set in motion in the past decade. A full summation would be impossible, because, despite her ubiquity, she is not a particularly transparent figure. In fact, the magazine Inside Philanthropy named her its “Least Transparent Mega-Giver” of 2019, which is saying something. One way she is able to do this: Powell Jobs established Emerson Collective as an LLC, not a 501(c)3, which means that she can make for-profit investments or philanthropic commitments without having to disclose them. Some argue that this model represents a new, cool, Silicon Valley mode of fueling social change. Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen, a philanthropy expert and friend of Powell Jobs’, explained to the Washington Post that “when philanthropists are engaged in the type of system change that Laurene is, you have to be as nimble as possible because ecosystems are constantly shifting, stakeholders are developing new positions on particular issues, political contexts change, economic forces evolve.” This is the kind of puffery, filled with the balderdash of “system change” and “ecosystems” and “contexts,” that makes longtime philanthropists take a strong pull of their scotch.
A simpler way to put it is that sometimes investing in for-profit companies can both be good for the world and make you money, and Powell Jobs likes to talk about the breadth of her philanthropy more than she likes to talk about her piles of money. (Most people would feel the same, in her position.) In any event, Arrillaga-Andreessen has estimated that Powell Jobs’ publicly known giving constitutes about 1 percent of what she actually does. Even if that estimate is an exaggeration, it suggests the possibility that, powerful and generous as we think Powell Jobs is, we don’t know the half (or more) of it.
What does this remarkable flurry of activity add up to? On one basic level, behind the buzzwords and the mission mantras, the Ted Talk packaging and the earnest Emerson emoting, Powell Jobs is simply a really, really rich woman with left-wing beliefs (she’s a big Howard Zinn fan) intermingled with faith in the power of tech-influenced disruption, all of which she hopes to use to change the world for the better as she sees it. That feels true, but insufficient and probably unfair. (It is also the trope that right-wing trolls, with some sexist and other pejoratives thrown in, promote about her.) Powell Jobs is a woman whose wealth has elevated her to a position of enormous power and influence, one that looks to become ever more expansive. She is a widow, profoundly shaped by her marriage and its end. She is the mother of three adult children. She is the keeper of Steve Jobs’ flame. She is a Jersey girl who reveres Bruce Springsteen (and, of course, knows him). She is a blonde, blue-eyed California girl who drives a Tesla and lives in a $16 million home in San Francisco but could have passed for a hippie at various phases in her life, including, probably, now. She is a media mogul, an investor, an entrepreneur, a social justice warrior. To paraphrase another American philosopher, Laurene Powell Jobs is large, she contains multitudes. This is going to be interesting.