MacKenzie Bezos is an author, an early Amazon employee, a billionaire — and isn’t talking.
MacKenzie Bezos was not fussy, which was helpful, as there was no time for fussiness at Amazon headquarters in early 1996. She shared her office with a junior employee in a space that doubled as the company kitchen. For 12 hours a day, as workers squeezed by to use the microwave, she presided over the accounting. At night she headed to the warehouse to pack orders. She “was a huge contributor,” says Mike Hanlon, Amazon’s seventh employee. “She really is a talented person in a way that I think gets lost when you’re the billionaire’s wife.”
The mystery around MacKenzie, 49, seems carefully cultivated. She largely slipped into anonymity after Amazon’s early years and has granted no interviews since January 2019, when her split from husband Jeff became public.
The couple finalized their divorce in July, with MacKenzie getting 25% of his Amazon stock. That stake is currently worth $36.1 billion, enough to put her 15th on 2019’s Forbes 400. “She should have gotten 50% of the company,” says Nick Hanauer, one of Amazon’s first investors. “MacKenzie was an equal partner to Jeff in the early days.”
In keeping with character, MacKenzie wouldn’t talk for this story. To shed some light on her, we spent weeks contacting more than 100 friends and former classmates and coworkers; even that yielded only a hazy picture, one of an intensely private but talented woman who has, quietly, excelled at every stage of her life.
MacKenzie grew up in San Francisco, a middle child with two siblings. At six, she wrote a 142-page book called The Book Worm. Her parents, a homemaker and a financial planner, sent her to Hotchkiss, the Connecticut boarding school, where she graduated a year early. She studied at Cambridge, then Princeton, where she majored in English; Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison was her thesis advisor. “She was generally a very poised and a quiet and brilliant presence,” says Jeff Nunokawa, one of her English professors.
After graduating, she took a job at the hedge fund D.E. Shaw, where she began dating Jeff Bezos, who left to found Amazon in 1994. From the outset, MacKenzie was heavily involved. “No one really had job titles . . . so she did just about everything,” says Tod Nelson, another early employee.
MacKenzie pulled back around the time Amazon went public, in 1997, to focus on fiction writing. She kept a low profile until 2005, when HarperCollins published her first novel, The Testing of Luther Albright.
Morrison deemed it “a rarity.” MacKenzie followed it in 2013 with Traps. The more recent chapters of her life are largely unknown. In 2018 she and Jeff committed $2 billion to fight homelessness and support nonprofit preschools. In May, as their divorce neared completion, she signed the Giving Pledge, promising to donate at least half her wealth. True to form, she hasn’t said a word about where those billions will go.
–Noah Kirsch, Forbes Staff, Media
How The Billionaire Behind The Movie ‘Contagion’ Is Working To Stop This Pandemic—And The Next One
Jeff Skoll has been funding pandemic preparedness for more than a decade, even longer than Bill Gates. In recent months, he’s increased his philanthropic giving to help combat Covid-19.
Nine years ago, Jeff Skoll’s film company Participant Media partnered with Warner Brothers to put out Contagion, a movie about a global pandemic that started with a virus from a bat. An American businesswoman (played by Gwyneth Paltrow) came home from a trip to China and unknowingly spread a novel, and at times, deadly disease. While many viewed the film as pure science fiction, Skoll had ulterior motives. He hoped the movie would help build support for funding the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and also warn the world about the potential dangers of a global pandemic.
Skoll, 55, became a billionaire just over two decades ago as a result of stock he received as eBay’s first president. He left eBay in 2001 and has since co-produced more than 100 films and TV programs, all with socially relevant themes including the climate change documentary An Inconvenient Truth featuring Al Gore, factory farming documentary Food Inc., the miniseries When They See Us and the 2016 Academy Award best picture winner Spotlight, about The Boston Globe’s investigations into child sexual abuse by Catholic priests.
While his impassioned film-making pretty much ground to a halt temporarily with California’s shelter-in-place orders, his 2011 movie Contagion has become the must watch-at-home hit of the pandemic—it’s the number one selling title to date this year, according to Warner Brothers, the distributor. (It won’t disclose the number of times it’s been rented or sold.) In late March, Participant, Contagion screenwriter Scott Z. Burns and director Steven Soderbergh worked with Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne and other cast members to produce public service announcements about washing your hands and staying home.
Beyond backing a movie about a pandemic, Skoll has been funding pandemic preparedness and prevention since 2009 — six years before Bill Gates’ now well known TED talk warning about them — through the Skoll Global Threats Fund, to which he pledged $100 million. (The other threats: climate change, water scarcity, nuclear weapons and conflict in the Middle East.)
Since the start of this year, Skoll has contributed an additional $200 million to his charitable foundation—$100 million of which was announced in late April and will go toward fighting Covid-19. He put the other $100 million in earlier this year, he tells Forbes, adding that he hadn’t bothered to publicize it. “I don’t see this as a money squirt,” Skoll explains. “This is a resource allocation to an area we know well. And this is an emergency.”
Newly bulked up, the Skoll Foundation promised to quadruple its grantmaking this year to $200 million. New beneficiaries in 2020 include some of the poorest folks in Los Angeles and the contact tracing program being launched across California.“This is the rainy day we’ve all been saving for,” Skoll says of his charitable giving. “If not now, when?”
He’s been working up to 20 hours a day in his kitchen in Beverly Hills — on a call in early June, he jokes that it’s his “command center,” equipped with a couple of iPads, a MacBook and some bluetooth devices — talking to people around the globe, taking the pulse of the pandemic and searching out individuals, organizations and companies with new ideas. “Just the science, the learnings of the virus — almost every day there’s some revelation that we didn’t know,” says Skoll.
The pandemics research that Skoll started funding through the Skoll Global Threats Fund spun off into a nonprofit called Ending Pandemics in January 2018, with a seed grant from Skoll. “It’s all about early detection and rapid response,” says Ending Pandemics President Dr. Mark Smolinski.
Skoll has been funding pandemic preparedness and prevention since 2009 — six years before Bill Gates’ TED talk warning about them — through the Skoll Global Threats Fund, which he spun off into Ending Pandemics in 2018.
Skoll got wind of the novel coronavirus early on, back in December —where it started. “We had colleagues on the ground in Wuhan. We had an idea that a zoonotic disease had jumped to humans,” he says. By January he and his team began to be concerned about countries with trade ties to China — particularly in Africa, where some of the social entrepreneurs that the Skoll Foundation has supported are operating.
In early February, the Skoll Foundation made its first Covid-19 related grant: $3 million to the African Field Epidemiology Network, a group working with the African Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (the Africa CDC) to help coordinate African countries’ response and to boost surveillance and detection. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation donated to the same group around the same time. Beginning with those two grants, says Africa CDC Director Dr. John Nkengasong, “we were able to rally rapid responders to Addis Ababa [for training] and send them to Nigeria and Cameroon. We were able to scale up diagnostics.” Funding from others then followed, including the MasterCard foundation, Germany, Sweden, the U.K. and the U.S.
In March it made a grant to the Southern African Center for Infectious Disease Surveillance Foundation (SACIDS) and a similar group in East Africa. One outcome: Mozambique, which had the infrastructure to test for Covid-19 but limited money to buy tests, got the needed funds and ramped up testing four-fold, according to Smolinski.
The Skoll foundation’s next move was to quickly create a fund for both its current and past grantees — mostly social entrepreneurs. Sixty-four organizations were given $50,000 grants. “We figured they would need emergency funding,” Skoll explains.
Though the Skoll Foundation has traditionally supported social entrepreneurs who work in lower income countries, in the past few months it has made some donations closer to home. Because Los Angeles County has been particularly hard hit by the pandemic, Skoll reached out to Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti to offer assistance. In late April, his foundation made a $2 million gift to the Mayor’s Fund for Los Angeles, which is providing cash assistance to families hit hardest by Covid-19.
Skoll also connected with California Governor Gavin Newsom and his senior advisor on social innovation, Kathleen Kelly Janus. The Skoll Foundation is donating $8 million to support California’s response to Covid-19, starting with $4.1 million for the public awareness campaign around contact tracing, which Janus says “will be really critical to preventing a second wave of Covid-19.”
Smolinski’s team, which had already partnered with Harvard and Boston Children’s Hospital to build a crowdsourced symptom reporting tracker called Flu Near You in 2012 to show flu trends in neighborhoods and cities, rolled out Covid Near You in early March. The app lets people anonymously report if they’re feeling healthy or not, with zip code info, as a way to track current and potential hotspots.
Skoll’s Ending Pandemics has partnered with governments and public health authorities in 36 countries — 11 of which have surveillance systems tracking Covid-19 and other infectious diseases.
Ending Pandemics has partnered with governments and public health authorities in 36 countries — 11 of which have surveillance systems that Smolinski says are “up to speed.” One is Cambodia, a country of 14 million people, where all four telecom companies support a free mobile app that both receives info about disease and provides information. Calls have gone from 600 a day before the pandemic to 15,000, and the vast majority of the Covid-19 cases in the country were first identified through the hotline, Smolinski says. Cambodia, the country that took in a cruise ship no one else wanted, so far has just 129 cases and no deaths, he adds.
Through the Audacious Project, a philanthropic group with about 30 members launched by TED conference curator Chris Anderson with Jeff Skoll and Richard Branson, Skoll and others are supporting Boston-based Partners in Health, which responded to the Ebola crisis in 2014. The multi-million dollar grant from the Audacious Project enables Partners in Health to share its contact tracing expertise over the coming year with roughly 19 public health departments across the U.S. “We started by helping the state of Massachusetts put together a contact tracing system, and everyone else wanted to know what we were doing,” says Joia Mukherjee, Chief Medical Officer of Partners In Health. “This funding has allowed us to expand our team. What we are hoping is that state and federal money will be forthcoming.”
Mukherjee applauds Skoll’s approach to philanthropy. “Jeff has always been a systems thinker, and that has been transformative for Partners In Health,” she says.
Skoll also contributed funding to an ambitious global project called the Global Infectious Disease Epidemiology Network — GIDEoN for short —being spearheaded by Columbia University epidemiologist Ian Lipkin, who directs the university’s Center for Infection and Immunity. Lipkin has lined up the equivalent of the National Institutes of Health in 12 countries including India, Brazil and China and together they’ll share information about outbreaks and disease samples. With GIDEoN, Lipkin explains, “we’re trying to upgrade the capacity for detecting infectious agents and toxins, particularly in the developing world.”
While Skoll has been involved in global philanthropy for nearly two decades, he now has an even more personal reason for being involved in the fight against deadly diseases. While working on Ebola in 2014, he contracted a rare tropical disease that took two years to diagnose. He took an 18 month medical leave of absence and is feeling better now.
Despite many challenges, Skoll is an optimist, even about pandemics. Yes, the number of cases will likely increase as U.S. states open back up, he says. But he’s hopeful that a treatment for Covid-19-an existing drug—can work and be scaled up for distribution sometime this summer. “I hope we can get the solutions in place in the next few months. I see a path to it,” he says.
As for future pandemics, Skoll sees a silver lining. “There are so many zoonotic viruses that jump over from animals to humans. Most of them peter out and turn into something less lethal. I don’t think it’s likely that we’ll see any terrible new pandemic any time soon, says Skoll. “If anything, the world is on watch now.”
5 Big Numbers That Show Amazon’s Explosive Growth During The Coronavirus Pandemic
That’s how much Amazon’s market capitalization has gained so far in 2020. At the start of the year, the e-commerce giant sported a valuation of around $920 billion. After the stock bounced back from the coronavirus market sell-off in March and hit new record highs, the company is now worth $1.49 trillion. That makes Amazon one of the largest companies in the world, trailing only Microsoft MSFT -4.3%, worth $1.54 trillion, and Apple AAPL -4.6%, worth $1.61 trillion.
Amazon’s stock has increased by more than 60% this year and now trading at around $3,000 per share. It bottomed out at around $1,600 in mid-March as the stock market plunged amid widespread business shutdowns due to the coronavirus pandemic. The stock has since roared back from its March low, closing above $3,000 per share for the first time on July 6. There are several reasons to explain the stock’s “meteoric rise,” according to Morningstar MORN +0.5% analyst R. J. Hottovy. “Heightened Prime member engagement (especially for online grocery services)” and strong usage rates for its cloud business, Amazon Web Services (AWS). Morningstar assigns the stock a fair value estimate of $2,750 per share.
Bezos, who currently owns an 11.1% stake in Amazon, has seen his net worth surge by more than 50% so far in 2020. He is the world’s richest person: Forbes estimates his net worth at $178.5 billion, up from $114.7 billion at the end of 2019. The second richest person is Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, with a net worth of $113 billion.
That’s at least how much revenue analysts are expecting from Amazon when it reports second quarter earnings next week on July 30. But Morningstar says (as is the case with many big tech stocks today), the market has moved back to a “growth-over-profitability” mindset when it comes to Amazon. The company is expected to report at least $4 billion in coronavirus-related expenses, which could pressure the company’s operating profits, according to Hottovy. Since April, Amazon and Bezos have faced backlash over inadequate safety and working conditions amid the coronavirus which had led to worker protests. The company has since pledged to spend more money on revamping health and safety protocols in the workplace.
$3,800 per share
Analysts at investment firms Jefferies and Goldman GS -1.4% Sachs have both raised their Amazon price targets to $3,800 per share. That’s the highest estimate on the Street. Both firms cited Amazon’s booming e-commerce business—including sustained online sales growth in North America—and large potential upside from its growth in its cloud segment, AWS. According to Goldman analysts, data from Mastercard MA -1.1% indicates that Amazon’s e-commerce segment grew by 93% year-over-year in May.
How Buffett’s $10 Billion Pipeline Deal Is Doing Environmental Double Duty Helping Dominion Energy Turn Acres Of Manure Into Clean Power
From pig-manure power to wind farms, Virginia’s Dominion Energy is transforming itself into a renewable energy powerhouse—and Berkshire Hathaway’s cash will only accelerate the process.
“Pigs are extremely efficient,” says Kraig Westerbeek, who oversees renewable energy production for Smithfield Foods, the world’s biggest pork producer. For what farmers put into them, they get a lot out. “They eat 2.4 pounds of feed per pound of gain,” he says. “And they produce more gas per pound of live weight.”
Westerbeek is talking about greenhouse gases emitted by the millions of pigs his industrial farms produce each year. Inside his giant barns, manure and urine ooze through holes in a concrete floor before getting piped to open-air ponds called lagoons—some the size of four football fields. In these lakes of livestock waste naturally occurring bacteria—called methanogens—continue to feed and fart out more gas. All this methane ends up in the atmosphere, and that is bad news for the planet. Pound for pound, methane packs 25 times the greenhouse effect as the standard environmental villain, carbon dioxide. To make matters worse, it’s long been standard practice for farmers to spray the odoriferous lagoon waste on croplands as rich fertilizer—subjecting Smithfield and its former hog-producing subsidiary, Murphy-Brown, to environmental litigation and scathing publicity as local communities cope with the stench and health risks.
But today, Westerbeek has a better story to tell. In recent years Smithfield has been working to perfect methods of capping lagoons with heavy plastic covers that trap the methane (and much of the reek). The gas inflates the plastic domes in amounts sufficient for people to walk on—like an extremely gross air mattress. Smithfield has partnered with Richmond, Virginia-based utility giant Dominion Energy to market the gas. Under the plan, Dominion will siphon the pig gas out of these anaerobic digesters, inject it into interstate pipelines and sell it to green-minded customers looking to cut their carbon footprints. The end result is arguably the cleanest electricity in the nation, says Dominion Chief Operating Officer Diane Leopold. “It’s a win-win-win.” With renewable energy projects, she says, “it’s about how many boxes you can check. This one has an extra box.”
Over the next decade, Dominion aims to invest $650 million into agriculture-derived gas projects. Smithfield will contribute another $250 million. The expected result: 8 billion cubic feet per year of livestock gas—thus preventing the emissions equivalent of 3.5 million tons per year of carbon dioxide. That’s like taking 750,000 cars permanently off the road, or planting 60 million new trees every year. It may sound gimmicky, but replacing just 12% of fossil fuel gas with methane captured from pigs, dairy cows or landfills “can make everything net zero” on an emissions basis, says Leopold.
Helping to underwrite those investments will be the $10 billion ($4 billion cash; $6 billion assumed debt) that Berkshire Hathaway said Monday it will pay for Dominion’s 7,700 miles of long-haul gas pipelines. Dominion had to sell its pipelines to fund investment into renewables, says Hugh Wynne at SSR. And that gave Warren Buffett the opportunity to double down on Berkshire’s pipeline holdings, at a good price. “Buffett is taking advantage of their situation,” says Wynne.
For Buffett, the deal complements Berkshire Hathaway’s existing 16,000-mile pipeline network, thus supporting his bet that natural gas will put the final bullet into coal and be a mainstay of U.S. power generation for decades to come. Berkshire already owns massive wind farms that generate 6,600 megawatts across the West—so it is also knee-deep in renewable energy. And Berkshire’s money will do double environmental duty, as Dominion will use some of the cash to help build its green future. All told, Dominion expects to make some $55 billion of investments by 2035 into low-carbon energy sources—spurred on by Virginia’s aggressive new mandate for 100% carbon-free electricity by 2045.
What a departure this is from the old Dominion Energy. The utility was founded as Virginia Railway & Power Co. in 1909 by Frank Jay Gould, son of robber baron Jay Gould. Its roots are firmly planted in Appalachian coal. Even as late as 1995, when its current CEO Tom Farrell came on board as general counsel, more than half of its power came from burning coal.
Over the past 15 years, Dominion has slashed its carbon dioxide emissions by 52%, first by replacing coal-fired power plants with cheap and plentiful natural gas, and more recently by investing in solar and other renewables. In a decade the carbon intensity of Dominion’s power generation has fallen from more than 1,200 lbs. of CO2 per megawatt-hour to less than 600 pounds. This is in the lowest quartile of American electric utilities, according to consultancy MJ Bradley Group.
A big contributing factor: the changing economics of renewable power. “Solar was not affordable; five years ago we didn’t have a single panel,” Farrell says. Now Dominion, which had profits of $1.4 billion on revenues of $16.5 billion in 2019 (and whose dividend yields 5%), is the fourth-largest solar operator in the country.
Dominion is far from alone in its rush into renewables. Since 2003—when coal provided 51% of America’s electricity—the nation’s power utilities have dramatically cut back their combustion of coal in favor of renewables and cleaner-burning natural gas. Currently, coal fuels just 17% of electricity, and renewables have surpassed it for the first time ever. This trend is just getting started. With its new 2045 mandate for zero-carbon electricity, Virginia joins California, New Mexico, New York, Washington and Hawaii.
After $40 million in R&D write-offs they settled on perfecting the systems being deployed today, whereby each farm’s manure lagoons have been turned into anaerobic digesters that capture its gas and sends it via pipeline to a centralized processing plant. After about three weeks in the digester, what’s left of the manure comes out the other end as sterile, nutrient-rich organic matter used as fertilizer or even livestock bedding. The now less odoriferous water is sprayed on crop fields. The Dominion/Smithfield joint venture will deploy systems at hog operations in North Carolina, Virginia and Utah.
Dominion is also working with startup Vanguard Renewables, which deploys similar systems at dairy farms. Vanguard is backed by the foundation of eBay billionaire Jeff Skoll, among others. It already has 42 diary farms signed up. Vanguard’s president, Kevin Chase, says that even though so-called dairy digesters had been perfected in heavily subsidized Europe over the past decade, owners of natural gas pipelines were initially skeptical at letting in bovine gas. “It was guilty until proven innocent,” says Chase, whose Wellesley, Massachusetts-based company has since landed long-term contracts with Vermont Gas, Middlebury College and Polar Beverages.
Though plenty of municipal sewage systems utilize similar digesters to process human waste, these aren’t as cost-effective because of the plethora of other stuff people put down the drain. “Animal waste is cleaner and more homogenous,” says Chase, because we know that the hogs and cows are eating and what’s coming out. A solution for chicken waste remains an elusive “Holy Grail” because its high ammonia content makes it extremely caustic and tough to process.
Renewable fuels are a priority at the EPA. To ensure that refineries and utilities use the mandated volumes of green fuels, the EPA requires that they either generate or trade for compliance credits (called Renewable Identification Numbers). Thanks to its negative-carbon attributes, livestock gas qualifies for the highest-value credits—meaning that customers could pay Dominion ten times more for hog gas than for the same quantity of gas fracked out of shale formations. That could be enough to generate an additional $100 million a year in revenue.
Not everyone is impressed by the potential for renewable natural gas. “Putting it into a pipeline is better than letting it go loose,” says William McDonough, visionary architect and author of Cradle To Cradle, about the need for a circular carbon economy. “But it’s still a fugitive carbon. To say it’s the cleanest energy is not correct, if you’re considering climate change.”
McDonough favors using ever-cheaper solar and wind power to electrolyze water into hydrogen. “Green hydrogen” and other climate-friendly efforts are already in the works at Dominion. COO Leopold says they’ve successfully blended 10% hydrogen into their gas-fired power plants; “It’s expensive at the moment, but solar was expensive, too.”
In the years ahead, Dominion could well become Virginia’s biggest private landowner due to all the solar panels it expects to install. And it’s begun replacing diesel-powered school buses with electric ones statewide. Offshore in the Atlantic Ocean, Dominion this summer has installed the first two of what could be hundreds of 800-feet-tall offshore wind turbines generating 2,600 megawatts. (Reflecting its renewable energy efforts, Dominion has been named to Forbes’ annual Just 100 list of socially responsible companies.)
Even after Dominion has transitioned from nearly all-coal to zero-carbon in a generation, it will still be looking for the next best thing. Maybe nuclear fusion? “I don’t doubt it,” says Farrell. “A sustainable company is one that adapts to challenges and weathers the storm.”
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