The Givers

UPDATED 10/27/1997 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 10/27/1997 at 01:00 AM EST

There is a saying among the very rich: Make your money when you are young; give it away when you are old. It is an axiom warmly endorsed by 41-year-old Microsoft CEO Bill Gates, who, with a net worth of $40 billion, is America's richest man. Though he has made donations of $290 million over the years, he has given notice that he will run his company another 10 years before he gives his attention more fully to charity.

Yet many of Gates's employees—beneficiaries of a generous stock-option policy that has created several thousand millionaires since Microsoft went public in 1986—don't want to wait. Nouveaux riches with a difference, an astonishing number of them, still young and idealistic, are opting out of the mouse race and dedicating themselves to a cause. And they aren't just writing checks; they are getting involved. "I never in a zillion years thought we'd end up as fortunate as we are, "says Laurie Bellio Oki, wife of a Microsoft sales exec turned philanthropist. "Why wouldn't you give back? How could you not?" Here are the Okis' story and the stories of four others who are making a difference.

The road to charity is paved with all-cotton baby blankets

In 1991, Scott Oki, then 42, figured he was ready to retire. A senior vice president of sales marketing, Oki had worked at Microsoft for 9½ years—"dog years," he calls them, maintaining that people work so hard under Gates you have to multiply each year by seven. "I thought I had contributed in a pretty significant way," he says. "And I was really caught up in the golf craze. My intention was to play golf Monday through Friday and be retired in the traditional sense."

So how long did this last?

"About an hour," says Scott's wife, Laurie.

In the spring of 1993, the Okis started Nanny & Webster, a baby-blanket company named after their sons' stuffed animals, that gives all its profits—$175,000 to date—to Seattle-area children's charities. Companies including Microsoft, Starbucks, Bear Stearns and Nintendo give the 36-inch by 45-inch blankets, which sell for $24 to $30, as gifts whenever an employee has a baby. "It's been phenomenal," says Laurie, 40, who together with Scott also endows the Oki Foundation, which has donated $2.3 million since 1988. Microsoft gives out on average 21 blankets a week.

The idea for the new business originated in a way with a friend who had five all-cotton blankets made for Laurie when her first child, Alexander, was born in 1989. "Eighteen months later, when I was pregnant with Nicholas," says Laurie, "I didn't want to take Alexander's blankets." Laurie searched the stores but could find only skimpy substitutes.

That's when Scott jumped in, proposing that they make the blankets themselves pro bono. "I read an article about Paul Newman," says Oki, "which said that he contributed an unbelievable amount to charity. I said, 'Gosh, Laurie, what if we were to do this?' It's not as if we needed more money."

For Scott, that wasn't always the case. "I was born into a very low-income kind of family," says Oki, a Seattle native whose father was a postal worker and mother a secretary. To supplement their income, the family would sit around the dinner table tying fishing flies, which they sold for five cents apiece. After getting his M.B.A. at the University of Colorado in 1975, Scott became involved with a software start-up in San Francisco before joining Microsoft in 1982, when the company had fewer than 200 employees.

The Okis started their foundation, which supports child-related causes in the King County area, with "a couple thousand" shares of company stock acquired shortly after Microsoft went public—a stake that turned out to be a "pot of gold," says Scott. Explains Laurie: "We wanted to focus on one area and make an impact." Little did the Okis realize they were on their way to becoming big-time philanthropists. In 1994, Seattle's Children's Hospital asked them to donate $1 million to match 100 gifts of $10,000 each. "That was huge in terms of our relative net worth," says Laurie. Adds Scott: "The first time you do it, it's like jumping in cold water. But you get used to it."

Oki, who is building a golf course in nearby Newcastle, spends 80 percent of his time working with his charities and thinks philanthropy is going to become a growth industry in the Seattle area, as those thirty-somethings running the Microsoft show turn off their computers and retire. "A lot of people are watching what we do about giving back to the community," says Oki. "We have yet to see the tidal wave of what these Microsoft people will do 10, 20, 30 years from now. It's going to be huge."

Turning low-income kids loose on the frontier of cyberspace

Trish Millines, a former program manager for a group that designs database systems, is one of the more improbable Microsoft millionaires. Her mother, Patricia, cleaned floors for a living in Belmar, N.J., and died when Trish was 17. Her father, she says, was "nonexistent." After high school, Millines landed a basketball scholarship at nearby Monmouth University, where she intended to take up electrical engineering. "I liked math and tearing things apart," she says, "but I changed to computer science because the engineering classes were held at the same time as basketball practice. No basketball, no school."

The glitch in her schedule, plus a lot of spunk, changed Trish Millines' life. Now 40, she's determined to work a similar change in the lives of children from low-income families in the Seattle area. In 1996, shortly before retiring from Microsoft with "enough money to live comfortably," Millines, with social worker Jill Hull, founded Technology Access Foundation, which introduces kids to cyberspace. "This is the best job I've ever had," she says of her position as the foundation's executive director. "I love it."

This year some 40 teenagers are learning about computer hardware, as well as Windows 95, Word, Excel, Internet surfing and Web-page development. Millines funded the first year of the program with a donation of $150,000 and is depending on grants to keep it going. The plan is to expand the project in 1999 to kids between the ages of 2 and 12.

"I've always known I wanted to do something like this," says Millines. "All one has to do is take a look at corporate America and see it pretty much has only one color. And in high tech, it's even more evident. People of color need to get on the technology kick before it's too late. The kids need us."

Ready for a cause, she found a theater in need of a savior

Ida Cole got into philanthropy more or less by accident. In 1990, after six years at Microsoft, she retired at 43 from her job as head of international products and marketing and set out to do things she'd dreamed of. "I did an archaeological dig in Tunisia," she says, "took Italian cooking lessons in Italy, learned French in France." Back in Seattle, with her wanderlust sated and her motor still running, she looked up one day, she says, and saw "there were tons of things that needed to be done. But what presented itself was the Paramount Theatre."

In June 1993, the Paramount, a gorgeous Beaux Arts-style theater built in 1928, was about to be sacrificed to an expansion of Seattle's convention center. Rallying both old and new money, Cole raised $35 million to purchase and restore the theater, which reopened in May 1995. Since then it has been a showcase for the likes of David Bowie, "Sesame Street Live" and the musicals Miss Saigon and Hello, Dolly! "Bette Midler said it was the prettiest house she had ever been in," a friend reported to Cole.

"The traditional way to do philanthropy," says Cole, "was to wait until you die. But all these young people are saying, 'Why should I wait until I die?' This way you can give not just your financial resources, but your energy, time and talent."

Making a contribution, not just a donation

"Ask me for my brains first and then ask me for my money," says Tina Podlodowski, 37, a Seattle city council-woman and former director of Microsoft University, a group that trains customers in the use of the company's products. "Nobody wants to be a passive donor. The reason we have the money we do is, we're hands-on, active and want to be known for our ideas."

Podlodowski's idea, when she retired five years ago, was to create the Podlodowski/Mileur Fund for Gay and Lesbian Families with Children. "I was working 14-hour days, seven days a week—one of the reasons I left Microsoft was to have a life," says Podlodowski, who has two children with her partner, Chelle Mileur, 35. Another, she says, was to be "more active and visible as a lesbian in the community"—a goal she definitely achieved when her fund found itself embroiled in a political firefight after its recent donation of books on gay and lesbian families to Seattle public school libraries.

Podlodowski, who grew up in New Britain, Conn., and whose parents were Polish immigrant factory workers, still seems astonished that she has become a philanthropist. "Microsoft was like the best M.B.A. program on the planet," says Podlodowski, who after just seven years left the company with more than $1 million in stock. But then she got the urge to use her skills for social and political purposes. "I didn't think, for me, that selling software had a soul anymore," she says. "We want to take our business skills and make nonprofits successful. It's all about how to combine the head and the heart."

Boom beats gloom: Microsoft stock pays off in Micrsoift

A year ago, Aaron Contorer, who is still employed as general manager of a Microsoft group that makes tools that let programmers build software, was looking at a computer spreadsheet of his company stock holdings when he got his Big Idea. He wanted to see how the stock's value would increase if the price, 82 at the time, went to 100. The change in his net worth, "without doing any extra work," was impressive. "We've always supported charity," Contorer, 30, remarked to his wife, Rachael. "Why not take a big chunk of this and give it to someone who really needs it?"

Thus was born the Big Gift Club—the idea being that club members would pledge to give at least $1,000 every time Microsoft stock went up 10 points. After consulting with Rachael, Contorer, who grew up in the Chicago suburbs and graduated from the University of Illinois, advertised his club on a low-key Web site within Microsoft. The response was immediate and dramatic. "A few people pledged $10,000 or $25,000 per time," he says. Microsoft matches those gifts—to groups such as MEXFAM, a Mexico-based family planning foundation, and the Millionair Club, which helps the homeless find work—up to $12,000 per employee per year. In its first year the club has raised some $430,000 for the favorite charities of its members.

"People in Microsoft and other high-tech companies are focused on results," says Contorer, who looks long and hard at charity organizations before handing over his money. "The obligation is to make a difference in society. Writing a check is part of it, but making sure it is spent wisely is even more important."

WILLIAM PLUMMER
TINA KELLEY in Seattle

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