It’s September 2018, and a well-known businessman is about to make an important announcement to his more than one million followers on Twitter. The person in question is Jeff Bezos – the wealthiest man on planet Earth. And what he is about to reveal is an extraordinary plan which will transform human lives.
Bezos rose to prominence as the CEO of the online retail giant Amazon. The company he founded went on became one of the biggest and most profitable enterprises in the world. Alongside that company, the American entrepreneur also owns The Washington Post newspaper and space exploration enterprise Blue Origin. However, despite his astonishing wealth and success, he hasn’t exactly been known for his philanthropy.
In fact, Bezos has been criticized in the past for his alleged lack of charitable giving. With his extraordinary wealth, why wasn’t he doing more? Indeed, perhaps that’s why his tweet that September took a lot of people by surprise.
So, what was it that Bezos was proposing to do? Well, we’ll get to all that a little bit later on. Firstly, though, we should rewind right to the beginning and take a detailed look at the life of this astonishingly successful businessman.
Jeff Bezos was born Jeffrey Preston Jorgensen in January 1964 in the city of Albuquerque, New Mexico. His place of birth is perhaps most famous for its balloon festival and more recently as the setting of the mega-hit AMC series Breaking Bad.
Bezos’ parents were high-school sweethearts Ted and Jacklyn Gise Jorgensen. His mother became pregnant and gave birth to him when she was just 16 years old. She and Ted – a retail store worker who interestingly was part of a unicycle troupe – used their parents cash to get hitched in Mexico.
However, the Jorgensens’ union didn’t last – within a year of marriage the young pair had divorced. And Bezos was only 17 months old when his parents split. According to Brad Stone’s The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos in the Age of Amazon, his father had harboured a drinking problem. But his mother Jacklyn would find love again not too long after.
Jacklyn began dating Miguel Bezos – a Cuban immigrant who had arrived in the United States in 1962. He reportedly didn’t speak a word of English when he made it to Miami, but he and Jacklyn fell in love and they married in 1968. Later, Bezos’ biological father allowed the Cuban to adopt the future businessman and take on his surname.
Soon after, the family of three upped sticks and relocated from Albuquerque to Houston. Bezos’ stepfather Miguel had landed a job working for Exxon – as it was then known – after graduating from the University of New Mexico. From the fourth to the sixth grade, the young Bezos then went on to study at River Oaks Elementary School in Texas’ most populous city.
Bezos spent numerous childhood summers at his grandfather Lawrence Preston Gise’s Texas ranch near Cotulla. And the former must have really enjoyed those times, as he later purchased the ranch and expanded its size by more than ten times. Elsewhere, the young Bezos showed an aptitude for technology from a tender age, and he reportedly once even set up an electric alarm aimed at keeping his siblings out of his room.
The Bezos family later moved again – this time to Miami, Florida. And here, the future Amazon supremo attended Miami Palmetto Senior High School. Bezos’ extraordinary intelligence really shined through at this time; he achieved National Merit Scholar and Silver Knight Awards as well as the valediction for his year at the high school. And his lofty ambitions were revealed during his graduation acceptance speech when he spoke of his desire to colonize space.
During this time of his life Bezos briefly worked at McDonald’s, and he also set up his first business venture. That company – called the Dream Institute – provided an education-based summer camp for young students. Furthermore, Bezos’ love of science and computers really came to the fore in this period, and he earned a place at the University of Florida’s Student Science Training Program.
After leaving High School, Bezos was on the move again. This time he would head out east to New Jersey’s prestigious Princeton University, where he studied electrical engineering and computer science – graduating with highest honors in 1986. He was also elected to the revered Tau Beta Pi and was appointed president of the Princeton chapter of the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space during his time there.
Bezos got his first exposure to the internet while taking an astrophysics class in 1985. However, the internet and e-commerce world were not yet on the horizon, so after leaving university he moved to New York City and began working on Wall Street. Initially, he took a job at the fintech telecommunications company Fitel – where he worked on fostering and growing an international trade network.
Bezos’ success in the role saw him elevated to the position of head of development and director of customer service at the firm. However, in 1988 he took a job as a product manager at Bankers Trust and then two years later joined the hedge fund D. E. Shaw & Co. And in what would prove to be a highly lucrative career move, Bezos rose to serving as the company’s fourth senior vice-president.
Bezos unexpectedly also found love during his time at D. E. Shaw & Co. in New York City. A young San Franciscan woman named MacKenzie Tuttle had begun there in 1992 after being interviewed for the role of research assistant by Bezos. As she later revealed to Vogue in 2013, it was Mackenzie who did all the chasing. She recalled, “My office was next door to his, and all day long I listened to that fabulous laugh. How could you not fall in love with that laugh?”
Mackenzie’s persistence paid off very quickly; the pair began dating after hitting it off over lunch, and they were engaged after just three months of dating. The lovestruck pair then tied the knot in September 1993. Bezos had a well-paid job in New York City and a bride, but a year after the wedding with his wife’s support, he would opt to completely give up the former when a business idea he had just wouldn’t leave his mind.
Yes, Bezos had an idea that he just couldn’t shake. That idea was, of course, in the emerging field of e-commerce. He surmised that the most rational item to sell on the emergent world wide web was books – as two of America’s biggest distributors kept comprehensive electronic lists. With his idea, there would be no more frustration for avid readers going into a bookstore and not finding what they wanted.
Bezos and his wife Mackenzie later set off on a road trip from the east to the west coast of America. On the exceptionally long drive from New York to Seattle, Bezos reportedly refined his business blueprint on his laptop. He had already travelled to California to recruit programmer Shel Kaphan – his very first hire. MacKenzie, who supported her husband’s risky venture and acted as an accountant in those early days, recalled the trip to Vogue in 2013. She said, “I have no business sense whatsoever. But I saw how excited he was.”
Bezos, along with contractor Paul Barton Davis and Kaphan, began to build the prototype for the new business in a converted garage in the Bellevue district of Seattle. Ironically, they would go to soon-to-be rival Barnes & Noble for business meetings and contract signings. Eventually, after they had secured outside investment and through rigorous testing and planning, Amazon.com – named after the famous river in South America – began trading in July 1995.
And it didn’t take long at all for the company to become a huge success. Even without a major advertising campaign, the nascent company had begun to flog books all around the United States and in 45 other countries within 30 days. Incredibly, they were soon raking in $80,000 per month, according to Wired magazine. Bezos and Kaphan had apparently set up a bell sound to ring out whenever a sale was recorded. But it became too frequent and had to be disabled when it began to drive them up all the wall.
By 1997 Bezos had listed Amazon publicly. He then began to buy out potential competitors and expanded the business model a year later by selling videos and CDs. Electronics, toys and clothes would follow as the company struck up new partnerships with sellers. Despite a downturn in the early 2000s, Bezos’ company ultimately survived. And he defied critics who believed that Amazon would bomb when Barnes & Noble and other major bookstores went online.
Amazon had one million customers with accounts by October 1997, and its revenue had hit $610 million the year after, according to Encyclopaedia Britanica. Bezos’ business success was so unprecedented that he was crowned Time magazine’s Person of The Year in 1999. The mogul even had the foresight to invest $250,000 in the embryonic Google, which would pay off to the tune of millions further down the line. Furthermore, with his by now considerable wealth, he founded the space exploration company Blue Origin in the year 2000.
Barring that aforementioned blip in the early 2000s – in which the company was remarkably close to going bankrupt – Amazon’s growth continued largely unabated. The company’s success was at least in part to the many innovations that it has made. In 2006 it introduced an on-demand online video service that ultimately became known as Amazon Instant Video. Then a year later, Bezos’ company released the Amazon Kindle – which allowed readers to download books and read them on the device.
Furthermore, in 2011 Bezos dived into the potentially lucrative tablet market by launching the Kindle Fire. The company and Bezos made a rare slip-up with the disastrous Fire Phone in 2014, but Alexa – Amazon’s cybernetic assistant – and the Echo smart speaker have been roaring successes. Then there is Amazon Prime, the company’s member subscription and delivery service launched in 2005 that has created a loyal customer base and helped rake in the dollars.
So with all of the aforementioned innovations, Amazon has been one of the biggest American business success stories since the 1990s. By 2018 the company’s market capitalization hit the scarcely believable sum of $1 trillion, and Bezos properly overtook Microsoft’s Bill Gates as the world’s richest man. However, in more recent years the former began to gain a more widely negative reputation in the public. He was often derided as a ruthless and demanding corporate behemoth with little interest in the wellbeing of his workers or his company’s impact on the world.
Bezos was perceived to be so callous to his own workers that in 2014 he was crowned the “World’s Worst Boss” at the International Trade Union Confederation World Congress in Berlin, Germany. Bezos has also been attacked from both sides of the political spectrum in recent years, with both President Donald Trump and the left-wing Vermont senator Bernie Sanders taking aim at his business practises. Indeed, the Amazon supremo’s reputation was in danger of being tarnished for good.
Something had to be done, and firstly Bezos decided to take Sanders and others’ criticisms on board, and he increased wages for all U.S. employees to $15 an hour. Furthermore, Bezos also threw his weight behind efforts to try and raise the national minimum wage. But it was what he announced in September 2018 that really got people talking.
Just over two years after taking to Twitter to request for ideas for a “philanthropy strategy,” Bezos announced a remarkable new venture. The Blue Origin chief pledged a cool $2 billion to tackle homelessness. What’s more, as he revealed his “Bezos Day One Fund,” he vowed to construct new schools in poorer neighbourhoods and to support “night shelters and day care centers for homeless families.”
“We’ll use the same set of principles that have driven Amazon,” Bezos wrote on Twitter. “Most important among those will be genuine, intense customer obsession. The child will be the customer.” Furthermore, in the first round of funding from the fund, 24 organizations to combat homelessness were given nearly $200 million to split between them. Indeed, it was quite a shift in the Amazon CEO’s allegedly frugal philanthropy up to that date.
Interestingly, Bezos decided to take a hands-off approach to the whole thing. Rather than putting in place a number of restrictions or personal demands on how the money was spent, he chose to leave it up to the people with experience in those fields. Bezos only requested that he was kept posted on what’s being done on an annual basis. It was an impressive gesture, and the chosen charities, according to Business Insider, were “both baffled and delighted” by his generosity.
More was to come though, when Bezos announced the second round of funding in November 2019. This time, the business mogul – who paid his wife MacKenzie $38 billion in a divorce settlement that July – announced that he would provide 32 organizations with close to $100 million again to battle the problem of homelessness. He wrote on Twitter, “Excited to announce this year’s Bezos Day One grants. Thank you to these 32 organizations in 23 states working to end homelessness.”
Beneficiaries included the not-for-profit Homeless Services Network of Central Florida – which was handed over $5 million. Still, the critics circled and claimed that the whole $2 billion vow he’d made to tackle homelessness was only around 1.3% of his real wealth. They also lamented the fact that he hadn’t signed up to the Giving Pledge begun by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates.
But in February 2020 Bezos made another major announcement. The world’s richest man took to his Instagram account to put forward a remarkable new philanthropic initiative called the “Bezos Earth Fund.” And its mission was to address the urgent crisis of climate change.
“Today, I’m thrilled to announce [that] I am launching the Bezos Earth Fund,” the businessman wrote. “Climate change is the biggest threat to our planet. I want to work alongside others both to amplify known ways and to explore new [methods] of fighting the devastating impact of climate change on this planet we all share.”
“This global initiative will fund scientists, activists, NGOs – any effort that offers a real possibility to help preserve and protect the natural world. We can save [the] Earth,” Bezos said. “It’s going to take collective action from big companies, small companies, nation states, global organizations, and individuals.” So how much was he pledging to the cause that was passionately advocated by over 7,000 of his own employees back in May 2019?
“I’m committing $10 billion to start and will begin issuing grants this summer,” Bezos declared to his 1.6 million followers on Instagram. “Earth is the one thing we all have in common – let’s protect it together.” Indeed, it was quite the announcement from the entrepreneur.
So, what had brought on Bezos’ major climate change tackling initiative? Well, it’s hard to say exactly. But there was a clear suggestion that Bezos was taking the climate emergency seriously in September 2019. That month, he announced Amazon’s “Climate Pledge” – declaring the corporate giant would meet the Paris Climate Agreement’s targets ten years in advance.
Bezos also boasted that by 2040 Amazon would be completely carbon neutral. Furthermore, he added that the e-commerce company would be purchasing 100,000 electric trucks to be used for deliveries. He acknowledged that the earth’s climate was altering at a more rapid rate than the scientific community had previously thought. The New York Times reported him as saying, “Those predictions were bad but what is actually happening is dire.” Amazon – which admitted that it had pumped out 44.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2018 – clearly had to do something.
Whether the two aforementioned initiatives will silence some of Bezos’ more vociferous critics remains to be seen. Nonetheless, in recent years at least, the Amazon supremo has shown a refreshing willingness to change tack and eventually listen to and act on the words of his critics. We will wait in eager anticipation to find out what human crisis Bezos will look to use his unmatched wealth to tackle next.