Before I could interview Laurene Powell Jobs, she wanted to interview me.
It was an unusual request, but not a particularly surprising one coming from Ms. Powell Jobs. Nearly a decade after the death of her husband, the Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, she remains an intensely private person.
When Mr. Jobs was alive, Ms. Powell Jobs stayed out of the public eye. She ran a natural food company, worked on education and immigration reform, and cared for their family. And while Ms. Powell Jobs has in recent years become increasingly ambitious with her business and philanthropy, she keeps a low profile, granting relatively few interviews and eschewing the spotlight. If she was going to agree to a sit-down, she wanted some sense of who would be asking the questions.
So on a cold morning late last year, we settled onto plush couches in the dimly lit drawing room of the Greenwich Hotel in New York, warmed by a raging fireplace. As she sipped green juice, we spoke about climate change, a shared interest in Buddhism and more. That conversation wasn’t on the record. But two months later we settled onto the same couches, by the same fire, and this time my recorder was on.
It soon became clear why Ms. Powell Jobs is careful with her public appearances. In an era of tweets, she speaks in long, discursive paragraphs that weave together personal narrative, politics and her views on social change. She invokes Dante, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Ross Perot without irony. Her ideas are nuanced, and she doesn’t pretend to have easy solutions to complex problems.
Ms. Powell Jobs also believes that, at least in some ways, her husband was misunderstood. The popular interpretation of one of his most popular quotes — “We’re here to put a dent in the universe” — is, she contends, all wrong.
They met in 1989 when Mr. Jobs gave a lecture at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, where Ms. Powell Jobs was studying after a stint at Goldman Sachs. They married two years later in Yosemite National Park, hiking in the snow after the ceremony. Mr. Jobs was running NeXT at the time, having resigned from Apple years earlier. Over the next two decades, he returned to Apple, introducing the iMac, iPod, iPhone and iPad.
As Mr. Jobs was busy upending the personal technology industry, Ms. Powell Jobs founded College Track, which helps underprivileged youths get into college, and Emerson Collective, an umbrella organization for her philanthropic and business interests.
After Mr. Jobs died from cancer, in 2011, she spent several years out of public view. But more recently, Ms. Powell Jobs — the 35th-richest person in the world, worth some $27.5 billion — has begun to exert her influence.
She acquired Pop-Up Magazine and major stakes in the Atlantic magazine and in Monumental Sports, which owns the Washington Wizards and Mystics basketball teams and the Washington Capitals hockey team. She is working with the former education secretary Arne Duncan to reduce gun violence in Chicago. At the Sundance Film Festival this year, a new documentary studio backed by Ms. Powell Jobs made a splash.
It’s a diverse set of concerns, and reflects her belief that issues like poverty, education, personal health and environmental justice are all interconnected.
“When you pull one thread, you get the whole tapestry,” she said. “When you’re working in the social sector, you actually cannot make any lasting forward movement if you’re only focused on one thing.”
Ms. Powell Jobs, 56, is acting with a sense of urgency these days. She believes that President Trump’s statements and policies have unleashed dark forces that are tearing apart the very fabric of society.
“There’s been a significant breakdown in Americans’ ability to speak to one another and to hear one another,” she said. “That’s become much worse in the last three years, where there’s been full license given to the otherization of our neighbor.”
Her conviction has brought Ms. Powell Jobs off the sidelines and into some of the most contentious political fights of the day. A longtime supporter of people brought into the United States as children, known as Dreamers, she bought television ads opposing Mr. Trump’s decision to end a program that gave the group temporary protection from deportation. Last year, she said Mr. Trump’s attacks on the media were “right out of a dictator’s playbook,” and went on to give a speech defending independent journalism.
Laurene Powell Jobs has come off the sidelines to enter some of the most contentious political fights of the day.Credit…Craig McDean for The New York Times
As someone attuned to society’s structural inequalities, Ms. Powell Jobs grasps the immensity of her privilege. She is a Silicon Valley billionaire, pushing back against the wealthy occupant of the White House. The very fact that such fortunes exist while others struggle to get by strikes her as unjust.
“It’s not right for individuals to accumulate a massive amount of wealth that’s equivalent to millions and millions of other people combined,” she said. “There’s nothing fair about that.”
And yet Ms. Powell Jobs is hardly apologetic. “I inherited my wealth from my husband, who didn’t care about the accumulation of wealth,” she said. “I am doing this in honor of his work, and I’ve dedicated my life to doing the very best I can to distribute it effectively, in ways that lift up individuals and communities in a sustainable way.
“I’m not interested in legacy wealth buildings, and my children know that,” she added. “Steve wasn’t interested in that. If I live long enough, it ends with me.”
This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.
What was your childhood like?
I grew up in northwestern New Jersey, on a small lake. Behind my house were five miles of watershed property, all wooded with some large boulders. The lake was frozen in the winter, when we ice skated, and was swimmable and navigable by boat. We had a canoe and this little Sunfish, so I learned the basics of sailing.
The physical environment was a huge influence for me. My mother felt very strongly that kids needed to be outside in the fresh air. If I would try to sneak inside and read a book, she would catch me and lock away my books and force me outside. Just being outside and being surrounded by nature was a big, formative part of me.
How did you spend your time when you weren’t outside?
I was an early reader. In the first grade, my teacher brought me to the library, and that was my key to the wonderment of the written word. I took adventures everywhere outside of my little town in New Jersey through books, and it gave me a whole sense of the world and what was going on, and also what was possible for me.
School was a happy place for me. I ended up going to a good college, even though my high school wasn’t particularly outstanding. But there was a library, and everywhere I’ve gone in my life, the library was the place where I felt most happy.
I know your father was a military pilot and died in a plane collision. How did losing him so early affect the family?
My father died the day before his 31st birthday, when I was 3. My mom remarried, so we had a blended family growing up. My stepfather was a high school guidance counselor, and my mother was a substitute teacher for a long time.
It’s quite a world-shaping event when you lose a parent in a tragic accident. All of us, my siblings and I, grew up knowing the impermanence of this existence. And while that’s very difficult for a child to make sense of, it’s the greatest blessing of my life, that I understand the temporal nature of our existence deeply, and the fragility of everything that we witness. To have the gift of the day is a very real and profound thing.
What was your first job?
If we wanted money for anything, we had to earn it. My brothers all had paper routes, and I inherited one of them when I was really young. And then I tried everything that a child can do and get paid for it. On snow days, we’d shovel people’s driveways. I was a babysitter. I was a lifeguard. I was a swim instructor. When I turned 16, I first was a bus girl and then a waitress. And then for college, I had to use every source of revenue I could find: loans, scholarships, work-study and more waitressing.
How did you first get involved with social welfare issues?
When I moved to California from New York, I lived in Palo Alto, which is right next door to East Palo Alto. It was a situation where there was one side of the community that was low income, and it has entirely different human outcomes than the other side of the town that might as well be hundreds of miles away. We know about this kind of dichotomy that exists in American cities, and Palo Alto and East Palo Alto are as divided and separated as any of these.
The air quality in East Palo Alto is worse than anywhere around. The land is poisoned. A lot of the Silicon Valley fabricators have used it as their dumping ground over the years. There’s arsenic in the water table.
I was completely taken with this notion that there were communities two miles away from my house that, by bad design and bad information flows, had no chance. It was a structural deficit, and structural deficits actually need to be restructured. Ross Perot had a saying that went something like “Never forget there is a child on the streets in Calcutta today who’s dying and who was way smarter than you.”
This is your story, but how did Steve influence your thinking on these issues?
I can talk about him for hours. I met Steve when I was 25 years old. And from the day we met, we were together for 22 years. So he influenced everything. I grew up with him. Just like anyone that you share your life with, there’s an exchange and a robustness. We had a very, very beautiful and rich connection. We talked a lot, for hours every day. To pull out any one way in which he affected my worldview is impossible, because I have integrated so much of him.
One profound learning I took from him was that we don’t have to accept the world that we’re born into as something that is fixed and impermeable. When you zoom in, it’s just atoms just like us. And they move all the time. And through energy and force of will and intention and focus, we can actually change it. Move it.
People love to quote him saying, “Put a dent in the universe.” But that’s too flippant. It’s too cavalier. He was thinking of it as “We are able, each of us, to manipulate the circumstances.” I think about it as looking at the design of the structures and systems that govern our society, and changing those structures. Because those structures, when they’re elegantly designed, should be frictionless for people. They shouldn’t require you to make huge course corrections that impede your ability to live a productive and fulfilling life. It took me a while to understand that was truly possible. But that’s at the core of everything we do at Emerson Collective. We all believe that it’s truly possible.
“We don’t have to accept the world that we’re born into as something that is fixed and impermeable.” — Laurene Powell Jobs
How did College Track, which was very narrowly focused on education, lead to Emerson Collective, which is working on a much broader set of issues?
I came in through the education door, looking at equity and access of quality education. And of course that was connected to immigration and health and well-being, and clean air, water and soil, and access to opportunity, and also other obstacles that are thrown in the way of impoverished communities, like lack of access to financial services and health services. All of that has to be addressed in a holistic way, and that’s why we started building a matrix organization. I wanted our organization to be just as connected as all the issues that we’re working on.
Our very first graduating class of seniors at College Track included students who were undocumented. They only found out when they were applying to college that they didn’t have a Social Security number. They had come when they were toddlers. And then we all realized that means that they had to apply as international students. They couldn’t access any state or federal funding for education, even though they had grown up here. I thought, this is an obvious glitch in our immigration system. It was obviously a federal law that needed to be changed.
It’s been almost 20 years that you’ve been working on legislation for Dreamers, and yet not much has changed.
Students and I collected signatures and wrote a whole petition in 2002. We brought it to Washington, D.C., and Jon Corzine in the Senate and Anna Eshoo in the House brought the petition to the nascent Dream Act legislation. I thought that it would shortly pass and that this wouldn’t be an issue that our amazingly talented, promising students would have to be dealing with, and they still are, 18 painful years later. We have, as a country, failed every single time. We have failed to be generous and generative and smart about including all people in America as active citizens or even active residents. It’s maddening. Really, it hurts to contemplate. But I am resolved to never give up as long as I live.
Sometimes it seems like Americans with different political views can barely talk to one another these days. How do you think about repairing that?
One conversation at a time. And it often starts with our own families. In my own family, there are Trump supporters. I knew I was going to be with them over Christmas, and I actually want to engage, and want to understand and I want to be able to disagree without being disagreeable. I want to be able to find the areas where we can agree.
How did that go?
We’re finding lots of areas of agreement. We can agree on core American values of liberty and dignity and freedom and justice. We can talk about what it means when we’re demonizing people who immigrated from their dysfunctional countries, just like everyone we’re related to did. What does it mean that we want to shut the door on them? Can we examine that in ourselves, that desire to shut the door? It’s not the first time that the demonization of others has been used as a political tactic. And once people remember that, then you can start looking at what Trump is saying a little bit differently.
Something that I find really deeply disturbing is the level of hate speech and hate crimes that are happening in elementary and middle school. And it started three years ago, right away. It’s so painful. Children are listening to things that adults are saying, and it’s given them permission to repeat. We have this in our own nature. We know this. This is no mystery. So giving airtime to the dark side of our nature is a painful, painful moment.
To what extent does the growing backlash against big philanthropy and billionaires inform your work?
I think about it a lot. It’s not right for individuals to accumulate a massive amount of wealth that’s equivalent to millions and millions of other people combined. There’s nothing fair about that. We saw that at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries with the Rockefellers and Carnegies and Mellons and Fords of the world. That kind of accumulation of wealth is dangerous for a society. It shouldn’t be this way.
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