The Washington Post published a long story about Laurene Powell Jobs. She is of course the widow of Steve Jobs and has a net worth of $20 billion or so. The article is probably behind a paywall, though I’m not sure.

To say it is an admiring portrait would be an understatement. It is the story of St. Laurene. She went to public school in New Jersey. School saved her life. Her children went to public school. Yet one of her first hires for her Emerson Collective was Arne Duncan. She was probably impressed because he was Secretary of Education but those of us who have followed his career wonder what she saw in him other than a title. His Race to the Top was one of the worst federal programs ever to be imposed on the nation’s schools. It was a massive failure, a waste of billions of federal and state dollars. It was NCLB 2.0, and its major legacy is privatization, standardization, teacher shortages, underinvestment in teachers and schools, and demoralization.

Here are a few quotes from this hagiography.

Laurene Powell Jobs — like the inventors and disrupters who were all around her — was thinking big. It was 2004, and she was an East Coast transplant — sprung from a cage in West Milford, N.J., as her musical idol Bruce Springsteen might put it — acclimating to the audacious sense of possibility suffusing the laboratories, garages and office parks of Silicon Valley. She could often be found at a desk in a rented office in Palo Alto, Calif., working a phone and an Apple computer. There, her own creation was beginning to take shape. It would involve philanthropy … technology … social change — she was charting the destination as she made the journey.
She eventually named the project Emerson Collective after Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of her favorite writers. In time it would become perhaps the most influential product of Silicon Valley that you’ve never heard of.

Yet at first, growth was slow. The work took a back seat to raising her three children and managing the care of her husband, Steve Jobs, as he battled the cancer that killed him in 2011 at age 56, followed by a period of working through family grief.
She inherited his fortune, now worth something like $20 billion, and became the sixth-richest woman on the planet. By 2014, Emerson Collective was up to 10 employees. “For the first few years I worked here, there would be people who would say, ‘Who?’ ” says the eighth hire, Anne Marie Burgoyne, director of grants. “ ‘Is there someone in the Valley who’s famous whose last name is Emerson?’ That seemed like a fair question. The Valley is a place of reputation, so it’s logical to ask whose last name is Emerson. Nobody knew who we were.”

Powell Jobs, now 54, wanted it that way, and she wished she could stay out of the spotlight. She wrote a short essay on the sublimity of anonymous giving that she handed out to employees. One of her staff recently gave it to me to read but not to quote: Her policy on anonymity is anonymous. She was frequently seen but not heard — seated with Michelle Obama during the State of the Union address in 2012, vacationing with former D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty, whom she dated a few years ago after he moved to California. When she did speak, she seemed most comfortable having wonkishly impersonal conversations at forums with, say, a Stanford entre­pre­neur­ship professor on the subject of “Injecting Innovation Into Intractable Systems,” or with musician Will.I.Am on “Art, Activism and Impact.”

All the while, she tended to Emerson Collective, quietly assembling a kind of Justice League of practical progressives: Arne Duncan, education secretary in the Obama administration, came on board to tackle gun violence in Chicago. Russlynn Ali, assistant education secretary for civil rights in the Obama administration, co-founded Emerson’s affiliate for education reform, the XQ Institute, where none other than storied urban fashion entrepreneur Marc Ecko has landed as chief creative and strategy officer. (“I feel like everything I’ve done up until this moment was for this reason,” the former T-shirt designer for Spike Lee and Chuck D told me.) Andy Karsner, assistant energy secretary for renewable energy in the George W. Bush administration, runs environmental programs. Jennifer Palmieri, communications director for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, consults on communications strategy. Dan Tangherlini, head of the General Services Administration under Obama (and D.C. city administrator under Fenty) is the chief financial officer. Peter Lattman, former deputy business editor of the New York Times, oversees media investments and grants. Marshall Fitz, former vice president of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress, runs immigration reform efforts.

Then, last year, Powell Jobs unleashed a series of dramatic moves across a three-dimensional chessboard of American culture. In July, Emerson Collective purchased a majority stake in the Atlantic, a 161-year-old pillar of the journalistic establishment. In September, an arm of the collective and Hollywood’s Entertainment Industry Foundation co-opted the four major networks in prime time to simultaneously present an hour of live television, featuring dozens of celebrities inviting the nation to reconceive high school. Over the following weeks, the collective partnered with the French artist JR to create two monumental pieces of guerrilla art on either side of the U.S.-Mexico border that went viral on social media as satirical critiques of the border wall. In October, she bought the second-largest stake — about 20 percent — in the estimated $2.5 billion holding company that owns the NBA’s Wizards, the NHL’s Capitals, Capital One Arena and several other sports ventures.

The pace continued this year. In February, Golden State Warriors star Kevin Durant announced he was committing $10 million to help create a Washington-area branch of a program that Powell Jobs had co-founded, which supports students to and through college in nine cities. In March, Emerson Collective helped bring director Alejandro Iñárritu’s shattering virtual-reality installation “Carne y Arena” — an immersive experience that simulates what it’s like for an immigrant to cross the border — to an abandoned church in Northeast Washington.
She had our attention now — but what was she doing? Emerson Collective did not appear to conform to traditional models of philanthropy. Its worldview seemed more or less clear — center-left politics with a dash of techie libertarianism — but its grand plan was unstated while its methods of spurring social change implied that simply funding good works is no longer enough. The engine Powell Jobs had designed was equal parts think tank, foundation, venture capital fund, media baron, arts patron and activist hive. Certainly, it was an original creation — and potentially a powerful one. “I’d like us to be a place where great leaders want to come and try to do difficult things,” Powell Jobs told me recently. “I think we bring a lot more to the table than money. … If you want to just be a check writer, you’d run out of money and not solve anything.”

Of course, she plans to reinvent the high school, possibly the entire American school system that gave her a life.

“Her father was a Marine Corps pilot who was killed in an airborne collision when she was 3. Her mother was left with four children under the age of 6 and not much money. She scrambled for ways to make ends meet, setting an example of “work ethic and commitment to focusing on what you need to do to be successful or, in her case, to survive,” Laurene’s older brother Brad told me. Laurene and her three brothers — two older, one younger — always had jobs. The local paper route was passed down from one sibling to the next. There was no money for the family to travel, so Laurene collected stamps of countries she would like to visit someday. (Their mother later married a school guidance counselor, and Powell Jobs has a younger sister and three stepsiblings from that marriage.)

“School was the thing that really worked for me,” she says. “I did well in school, and so it was a nice, positive, rewarding cycle for me to want to spend as much time there and to excel.” Fewer than half the students at her high school went on to college, according to Powell Jobs, but she and her brothers were determined. With student loans, multiple jobs, work-study and a small family commitment, she paid for enrollment in the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied economics, political science and French. “I know it in my core that, without that, I never would have had the opportunities that I have in my life,” she says. Education would become Emerson Collective’s seminal issue. “For the students who I work with, I understand that school is their way out,” she says. “It’s really their portal to anything larger than what they see around them. That was true for me.”

She went to the University of Pennsylvania, then worked at Goldman Sachs, then on to Stanford Graduate School to learn to be an entrepreneur. But there she had the good fortune to meet Steve Jobs, who was giving a lecture, and the rest is history. After his death, she set up the Emerson Collective, named for Ralph Waldo Emerson.

“She set up the collective as a limited liability company rather than a foundation, not unlike the three-year-old Chan Zuckerberg Initiative established by Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg. This gives flexibility to do more than just make grants to nonprofit groups. “When philanthropists are engaged in the type of system change that Laurene is,” Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen, a venture philanthropy expert at Stanford and a friend of Powell Jobs’s, told me later, “you have to be as nimble as possible because ecosystems are constantly shifting, stakeholders are developing new positions on particular issues, political contexts change, economic forces evolve.”

Emerson invests in private companies, Powell Jobs said, not because the goal is to make money but because Silicon Valley has shown her that “amazing entrepreneurs who … are 100 percent aligned with our mission” can find solutions that might not occur to a nonprofit. Emerson is also able to back advocacy groups, launch its own activist campaigns and contribute to political organizations. It has given $2.6 million at the federal level since 2013, primarily to Emerge America, dedicated to recruiting Democratic women candidates, and to Priorities USA, a Democratic super PAC. Powell Jobs herself is a registered independent and has made about $4 million in federal campaign contributions since 1997, mainly to Democratic candidates and organizations in line with issues of concern to Emerson.

“The LLC structure also means Emerson need not disclose details of its assets and spending. “The majority of her philanthropy, no one knows about,” Arrillaga-Andreessen said. However, a tax filing Powell Jobs signed last fall offers a clue to the scale, showing that a related entity called the Emerson Collective Foundation began 2017 with $1.2 billion available, largely from Disney stocks and bonds, a fruit of Steve Jobs’s sale of Pixar to Disney in 2006.

For the crew Powell Jobs has assembled, being tapped to join the collective was like being called to a mission. In early 2016, shortly after he had left the Obama administration, Arne Duncan mentioned to Powell Jobs his idea for a novel experiment to confront the gun carnage in his home town of Chicago. “I said that I can’t guarantee you that I’ll be successful — I may fail,” Duncan recalled to me. “She said basically, ‘I want to take on some of society’s most in­trac­table problems for the next 25 years and then pass the torch to someone else. So why don’t I support you in that work?’ … I think she was actually attracted to the level of difficulty.””

Another passion is immigration reform. Who did she hire to make a documentary? Davis Guggenheim. Unmentioned in the article is his turkey, “Waiting for Superman.”

“In 2013 Powell Jobs commissioned documentarian Davis Guggenheim (“An Inconvenient Truth,” “He Named Me Malala”) to make a film called “The Dream Is Now” about dreamers hoping to build lives in this country. She wanted it done in a matter of months to have a timely influence on the political debate. It was typical of Emerson Collective’s approach to issues. Alongside the usual tools of polling and policy advocacy, it will create, say, an “immigration innovation incubator” to foster tech solutions, and it will enlist artists and storytellers to appeal to the public on alternative channels.

“She was very involved in helping us pick who we should follow, how we should frame the issue,” Guggenheim told me. “We talk a lot about changing hearts and minds, about engaging people and telling stories that break through. … She is very focused on how do we tell stories that can change hearts and minds.”

Immigration is perhaps the most partisan fight into which she is pushing a stack of her billions of chips, on behalf of those who see the issue the way she does. On the other side is a countervailing apparatus of funders, thinkers and advocates pushing for tighter borders, fewer legal immigrants and more deportations. Since she entered the fray in 2001, her opponents have won nearly every battle in Washington, so she is turning her tactics away from the capital. “We’re looking for ways to activate people around the country, so that they can understand what’s at stake,” she says. “So that they can start building a chorus that Congress can’t ignore.

Her strategy on education policy has been similarly novel. The long list of storytellers in acting and song who participated in last fall’s prime-time education reform special — from Tom Hanks and Viola Davis to Lin-Manuel Miranda and Andra Day — did a good job of selling Emerson’s approach to reimagining high school. The XQ Institute, Emerson’s independent education arm, has pledged $115 million to 18 schools across the country pursuing their own innovative approaches, including Washington Leadership Academy, a tech-focused public charter in the District. Without prescribing exact models, the group wants schools to focus on the competence a student achieves in a given subject more than the number of hours she sits in that class. There’s an emphasis on knowledge relevant to employers of the future.“

Immigration reform is a terrific issue for LPJ. She should definitely put her eggs in that basket, but someone should explain that you can’t fix our insane policy at the grassroots, but only in Washington.

The article says the first check she ever wrote to a charity was to the Southern Poverty Law Center for $20, when she was in high school. I hope she writes lots more checks to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Their work is important. They help people. They don’t toy with their lives and institutions.

Here is Jan Resseger’s take on Laurene’s plans: