Steve Ballmer, the former CEO of Microsoft, may be one of the happiest retirees in tech.
He left Microsoft in 2014 and is now splitting his time between being the owner of the LA Clippers basketball team and helping his wife, Connie, run their charitable foundation, the Ballmer Group.
Business Insider met with Ballmer at the Code Conference in Los Angeles to talk about his favorite philanthropy projects. He was all smiles, relaxed, and happy to talk.
Without the demands of running a public company, he’s clearly happy to be as public or as private as he wants to be. For instance, since he is no longer working for Microsoft, not even as a board member, he no longer has to report his holdings in the company, so he doesn’t, although he’s still widely known to be one of Microsoft’s biggest shareholders. With the stock soaring to recent all-time highs, in the $70 range, Ballmer is worth an estimated $29 billion these days, up $2.85 billion in 2017 alone, Bloomberg reports.
The Ballmer Group doesn’t publicly release its total grant budget either, the amount of money it pledges to give away. Forbes estimates that it’s currently on track to give away at least $500 million based on the multi-million philanthropy pledges his foundation has announced. This includes a $37 million pledge to the University of Washington School of Social work, $11 million for scholarships to Washington residents in STEM fields, a $50 million pledge to the University of Oregon for scholarships and obesity prevention, and about $60 million to Harvard’s computer science facility.
Ballmer bats away the latter donations to his and his wife’s alma maters as being ancillary to his real charitable goal: He’s 100% focused on using his money to help the people struggling here in the US.
That means he’s not trying to solve world poverty, bring fresh water to Africa, bring the internet to the farthest reaches of South America, or save species in the polar regions from going extinct. Though he thinks such efforts are admirable, Ballmer’s goal is to make the American dream available to American kids who are shut out of it today.
“Every kid deserves an opportunity. Not every kid really has it,” Ballmer told Business Insider. “If you have a rich parent, you are going to have a better opportunity than someone who has a very poor parent. But some people’s opportunity, the chance that they will be higher up on the economic rung than their parents, is almost predestined at birth,” he says.
Research shows that kids born to the poorest 20% of the nation have a 50% chance that they will remain that poor their whole lives, he says, citing Raj Chetty’s research at the Equality of Opportunity Project.
Ballmer realizes that he’s not going to singularly solve American poverty, so he’s narrowed his focus to role-model projects in the Seattle area, home of Microsoft; Ballmer’s hometown Detroit area; and LA, home of the Clippers. He’s also a fan of funding not-for-profit agencies that mostly rely on government grants to do community work. He jokingly calls these agencies “government contractors,” in contrast to the military contractors people usually think about when you use the term.
One of Ballmer’s favorite examples of what he’s trying to accomplish is a grant to support a community policing project at Harvard Park, a housing project in south LA. With the grant funding, individual policeman will be embedded in the community doing social work — everything from youth programs to beautifying the area. The idea is forge trust and relationships between residents and particular policemen so when tensions arise, people have someone to turn to.
While the program will ultimately be funded by the police department and tax dollars, the program needed some “startup money” to expand, he said. When the former gang member who is shepherding this project talked to Ballmer, he asked if one of the community projects could be to “bring back midnight basketball to the Harvard gym.” Ballmer loved the idea and even got some of his Clippers players to agree to show up and play.
As to how he and his wife share the responsibility of running the foundation, which was her domain for many years, Ballmer diplomatically calls it a partnership, hinting that she basically told him he wasn’t going to spend his whole time playing golf — he belongs to a long list of exclusive golf clubs, plus travels the world to play — leaving her to continue running it on her own.
“She came to me and said, ‘Come-on dude,’ I was feeling a little lazy at the time,” he laughs. “I have referred to myself as her wing man. And she’s said, ‘No you’re not. You’re in the front seat with me.'”