Wendy Schmidt Gives Big to Protect the Ocean and Fight Climate Change
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“People commonly encounter the ocean from the shore, the deck of a ferry boat, or from an airplane. It’s historically been a place of mythology, sea creatures, and scary stuff. In some ways, you could say it’s your worst nightmare, and yet, ironically, it’s also the source of all life. It’s 71 percent of the earth’s surface,” Schmidt says. “Suddenly you see that’s a different planet than you thought you lived in. It’s mostly ocean and the life in the ocean, and we’re just a small player here with a really outsized footprint.”
Schmidt leads a collection of philanthropies through which she and her husband, former Google CEO and executive chairman Eric Schmidt, work to help protect the planet. They give to support clean energy, marine science and ocean conservation, and efforts to address climate change, plastic pollution, and food insecurity. The couple have also built programs that support and connect young leaders, scientists, and others working to solve an array of global problems.
The Schmidts have poured nearly $2.2 billion into their philanthropies since 2019 and during that time have pledged and given away more than $1.4 billion — all with an eye toward solving big problems and building a network of interconnected future leaders.
Supporting ocean health and marine science is Wendy Schmidt’s particular focus. She leads the couple’s $2 billion Schmidt Family Foundation, which they launched in 2006. It supports the Schmidts’ ocean-focused grant maker, 11th Hour Racing, which backs the development of environmentally sound boat building and other practices in the maritime industry. The family foundation also houses Schmidt Marine Technology Partners, a nonprofit venture-philanthropy fund the Schmidts use to invest in promising new technologies aimed at improving ocean health.
Wendy Schmidt is also heavily involved in the work of the Schmidt Ocean Institute, which the couple established in 2009 to advance oceanographic research and to develop new marine-science-related technologies. The institute operates a research ship that it makes available free to scientists worldwide. It also helped develop SuBastian, an underwater robotic vehicle capable of diving nearly 15,000 feet to help scientists collect water and marine-life samples and data, map the sea floor, and conduct dozens of deep-sea research experiments.
Schmidt says some of the most important aspects of the institute’s work include sharing scientists’ findings with the broader scientific world and its public-awareness programs, such as the video chats scientists aboard the research ship hold with school and community groups. The institute also livestreams deep-sea dives, provides free lesson plans to help teachers connect their students with oceanographic research, and offers interactive online exhibits, lectures, and other public programs.
I don’t have the same kinds of conversations with other funders. She emails me regularly. I know her family and friends.
The Schmidts have given more than $360 million to the institute. While they are not the largest contributors to ocean conservation and marine science, their insistence that the institute share its findings with scientists and the broader public is important in generating and disseminating information about the field, says Ashley Enrici, an assistant professor of Philanthropic Studies at Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, who studies philanthropy’s role in marine conservation.
“That knowledge can be used for policy decisions by the government and to support public awareness and education campaigns,” Enrici says. “It has the potential to fill lots of different gaps.”
While ocean health and marine science are important parts of Wendy Schmidt’s philanthropic focus, they’re not all of it. A third grant-making program under the Schmidt Family Foundation umbrella, the 11th Hour Project, supports another set of long-term goals: fighting further development of fossil fuels and backing efforts to create renewable energy, clean air and water systems, and expanding sustainable food programs. The project grew out of Wendy Schmidt’s yearslong support of efforts to oppose fossil-fuel extraction in California and New York.
‘Everything Just Opened Up’
Environmentalism and a global outlook weren’t a feature of Schmidt’s formative years. She grew up in a big Irish Catholic family in Short Hills, N.J., the second oldest of five children and the only girl. Her parents owned an interior-design company. Her extended family all lived within 50 miles of one another, and she didn’t travel outside of that perimeter much as a child. Curiosity and adventure were not encouraged, but she was endlessly inquisitive.
“I was the little one who was always annoying everybody by asking, ‘How come? How come?’ about everything,” Schmidt recalls.
After earning a dual degree in sociology and anthropology from Smith College in 1977, Schmidt went on to the University of California at Berkeley, where she earned a master’s degree in journalism in 1981. On her third day, she met her future husband, who was working on a Ph.D. in computer science.
She says her worldview expanded at Berkeley, where she was exposed to people from other cultures, to new information, and even to new cuisines.
“Suddenly everything just opened up. Chinese food wasn’t Chun King from a can anymore,” she says. “It was real Chinese food.”
The couple married in 1980, and after she graduated, she took a job in the marketing department of a start-up called Plexus Computers. She was recruited by Sun Microsystems, a burgeoning Silicon Valley computer company, in 1982. (Eric joined Sun in 1983 as its lead software engineer and later became its chief technology officer.) She left Sun in 1985 when the company went public and several years later started an interior-design firm, which she ran for 16 years. The couple had two daughters: Sophie, the founder of Rest of World, a nonprofit news site that covers the global technology sector, and Alison, who died in 2017.
Wendy Schmidt’s focus on environmentalism started to take hold in the early 2000s.
“I’m not sure exactly what led to that interest, but it may have been the things I was reading and the time I was spending thinking about design and looking outside and beginning to see the designs that were out there in nature,” she says.
It wasn’t until Google went public in 2004 and the Schmidts’ fortune skyrocketed that she was able to devote significant sums to environmental conservation.
“When Google went public, suddenly there were lots of bigger questions to ask about what should we work on and what do we care about,” she says.
In 2005, she joined the National Resources Defense Council’s Board of Trustees and helped the nonprofit with its communications efforts. Around that time, the Schmidts underwrote a Stanford University benefit that featured former Vice President Al Gore, who gave a talk about saving the planet from the ravages of global warming.
“We live in this place where people are working on transformational change, and no one’s talking about stopping global warming,” she says. “They’re all about solving problems. They’re all about changing the world. All right, let’s get them in on this one.”
Schmidt says it soon became clear to her that no one was going to solve global warming without examining agricultural practices, land use, and human rights. She started to focus on building connections among nonprofit leaders working in those areas, especially those from underfunded and overlooked backgrounds, including leaders of Indigenous groups.
“I knew nothing at all about Indigenous communities in the United States,” Schmidt says. “I’m absolutely amazed that I could reach this stage in my life and not have realized all along that every inch of land that we occupy here in the United States was occupied by someone else who doesn’t have it now.”
A-dae Romero-Briones, director of programs in Native Agriculture and Food Systems at First Nations Development Institute, is a lawyer with expertise in food and agriculture law. She first met Schmidt in January 2018 when she and documentary film director Sanjay Rawal spoke at the Schmidt Family Foundation’s staff book club.
Romero-Briones says she was struck by Schmidt’s curiosity. She remembers Schmidt asking her a lot of very direct questions about what Indigenous communities need. Schmidt also asked Romero-Briones if she would be willing to spend several days with 11th Hour Project staff so they could learn more. Romero-Briones, in turn, suggested that they visit tribal communities in central California so they could hear from Native American people directly.
“Wendy made no hesitation. Not about finances, not about logistics, not about time crunch,” Romero-Briones says. “That doesn’t happen in the philanthropic world. It was one of the funnest things I’ve ever done in my job is take all of these people to see all the people I wanted them to meet. It was very affirming.”
That June, Romero-Briones and about a dozen 11th Hour Project program staff members spent nearly four days visiting the Northern Chumash tribes. They ate Indigenous food, listened to Indigenous scholars, and spent time with tribe members hearing about their lives and asking a lot of questions.
Those visits and the program team’s discussions about diversity, equity, and inclusion helped inform Schmidt and her team’s decision to expand Schmidt’s support for Indigenous groups, to which the foundation had been giving since 2016, but at a lower level. Since then, the 11th Hour Project’s Indigenous program has awarded grants to a number of organizations, including the First Nations Institute and some of the tribes the team had visited.
The Schmidt Family Foundation also became a supporter, and Wendy an executive producer, of Gather, a documentary film Rawal was making about the growing movement among Native Americans to reclaim their identities through food sovereignty, the practice of controlling their own ecologically sound sustainable food and agricultural systems. Romero-Briones also served as an executive producer of the film.
Getting to know Romero-Briones — who, like Eric Schmidt, was a Princeton graduate — led the Schmidts to give $5 million to endow an Indigenous studies professorship at the university. Romero-Briones says Wendy Schmidt’s support goes beyond grant making.
“I don’t have the same kinds of conversations with other funders,” Romero-Briones says. “She emails me regularly. I know her family and friends, and she kind of welcomed me into her life, and I welcomed her into mine.”
Shaped by Silicon Valley
Schmidt says she and her husband were shaped by their early years working in Silicon Valley and the technological developments that took place there — but she says it was a very different place then.
“People today will look at Silicon Valley and think these companies are too powerful and it’s all about money and greed. That’s not what it started out as,” she says. “It started out as people trying to solve problems and trying to use new tools as they came along to build better connections between people.”
Today, Schmidt sees strong networks as the key to building a better world. She’s using the couple’s considerable wealth — which Forbes pegs at about $20 billion — to build long-term connections between people and organizations that are working to find new ways to fight climate change and solve some of the world’s other pressing problems.
“I really do believe in the power of the network,” she says. “It’s not about how big you are but how well connected you are.”
The couple started Schmidt Futures to back the development of new technologies and to help support young leaders in science and public service. Two Futures programs that seek to connect tomorrow’s leaders are RISE and the Schmidt Science Fellows, both run jointly with the Rhodes Trust.
RISE aims to identify and connect people ages 15 to 17 who want to dedicate their careers to public service and could do more to help others if they had access to more educational opportunities and to networks of like-minded people.
Schmidt Science Fellows places Ph.D. science graduates in labs that are in a different scientific field than their core area of study for a year. The idea is to give them a chance to work collaboratively across disciplines and build long-term connections with other scientists.
Over the past two years, many of the fellows focused their work on fighting Covid and developed new inventions, including a shared ventilator and new Covid-tracking practices. Some Schmidt Science Fellows also developed ways to study the spread of Covid and what underreporting in low- and middle-income countries has meant for interventions and testing worldwide.
Through Futures, the Schmidts recently pledged $125 million to create AI2050, a fellowship program that will support researchers studying how to ensure that society benefits from artificial-intelligence tools, despite the technology’s many dangers, including personal-privacy and national-security concerns and the inadvertent discrimination found in many algorithms. They also gave $150 million last year to the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard to launch and endow a research center focused on merging biology and computer science into a new scientific discipline that aims to improve human health.
Schmidt Futures, and especially Eric Schmidt, faced criticism in March when Politico reported on Schmidt Futures’s involvement with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and wrote that the nonprofit “indirectly paid” the salaries of two White House science staffers and influenced the office’s work. In response to the story, Eric Schmidt told CNBC that the report was “largely false.” A statement released by Schmidt Futures denied that it had “undue influence over the department.”
No Five-Year Plans
While the couple’s focus is on the environment, science, and technology, Wendy Schmidt says they still feel compelled to step up and give to other causes when they see a need.
After the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan last August, the Schmidts partnered with the Yalda Hakim Foundation to create the Afghan Future Fund to help evacuate Afghan civil-society leaders, women’s advocates, university students, and others and support them in their new countries. As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has intensified, the couple has looked at ways to help Ukrainians still in the country and those who have fled.
“This is a human-rights issue, front and center,” Schmidt says.
The Schmidts partnered with several other wealthy donors to start the Ukraine Relief Fund to provide medical supplies, and they’ve directed $5 million to Open Society Foundations’ Ukraine Democracy Fund.
Schmidt says she and her husband do not spend a lot of time thinking about precise plans for their future philanthropic work. Instead, the Schmidts prefer to stay focused on the work they are currently doing and let their philanthropy develop organically as the years pass and new challenges arise here and globally.
The only definite plan, she says, is to spend down their giving vehicles during their lifetimes. But both are in their mid-60s, so they have a lot of years of giving ahead.
“I’m not a person who makes five- or 10-year plans,” she says. “I’m very much in the mind-set that I’m in when I’m sailing or diving. Your attention is on everything around you at that moment — where the wind is, the conditions of the water, adjusting the sails, how you’re making progress towards the goals.”