3 Members Of Powerful Silicon Valley Cabal On Board Of Obama Foundation Have Checkered History

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Written by Dana Sanchez
Obama Foundation
Three board members with strong ties to Silicon Valley and a sometimes-controversial past sit on the Obama Foundation, which has been accused of relying “on corporate lobbyists and financial industry insiders over philanthropy experts.”

In June, the Obama Foundation announced that Sean Parker, the billionaire founding president of Facebook, had joined its board of directors.

Parker joined a 15-member board of volunteer directors that includes at least two other powerful Silicon Valley players — David Plouffe and John Doerr.

The Chicago-based nonprofit oversees the creation of the Barack Obama Presidential Center, runs the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, which Obama began while he was president, and operates a scholarship program through the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy.

The foundation pulled in about $165 million from private donors in 2018 and spent about $31 million on leadership training and development programs, and about the same on preconstruction costs for the Obama Presidential Center.

The board has been described as one that “relies on corporate lobbyists and financial industry insiders over philanthropy experts,” The Observer reported.

Some of that criticism may stem from Parker, Plouffe and Doerr’s influence.

In addition to Parker, Plouff and Doerr, board members include Martin Nesbitt (board chairman), Thelma Golden, Dr. Mahalia Hines, Glenn Hutchins, Gov. Deval Patrick, J. Kevin Poorman, Penny Pritzker, John Rogers, Michael Sacks, Juan Salgado, Julianna Smoot, and Robert Wolf.

On the Obama Foundation: Sean Parker

Parker helped craft the tax code for Opportunity Zones by pairing a capital-gains tax break with an incentive to invest in distressed neighborhoods.

Opportunity Zones allow people to make investments they can write off on their taxes and feel good about it. The “feel-good” part involves investing in low-income and undercapitalized communities.

Parker was behind what has been seen as a Trump opportunity — part of the president’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Acts.

Finding tax loopholes is nothing new for billionaires. “Silicon Valley’s 1-percenters have long flocked to tax loopholes to try and keep the IRS out of their lives,” Theodore Schleifer reported for Vox. “When you’re as rich as Mark Zuckerberg or Jeff Bezos, you have legions of highly paid lawyers and advisers who specialize in taking advantage of every subsection of the tax code to keep your billions your billions.”

More than 200 commercial real estate owners, developers, brokers and investment managers participated in a Bisnow survey about opportunity zones.

One described the program “gentrification on steroids.”

At age 19, Parker founded Napster — a file-sharing service that is credited with changing how the world consumes music. He also helped bring Swedish streaming giant Spotify to the U.S.

Parker is not without controversy. He has a reputation as a partier and in 2005, was arrested for alleged cocaine possession. No official charges were filed, but the incident contributed, in part, to his departure from Facebook, Business Insider reported. Justin Timberlake played Parker in the 2010 movie about Facebook — “The Social Network.” Parker did not like his portrayal as a party animal.

Parker is also known as a philanthropist, donating $600 million in 2015 to launch the Parker Foundation focused on funding programs in life sciences, global public health and civic engagement.

On the Obama Foundation: David Plouffe 

Plouffe was campaign manager for Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. He served as senior advisor to Obama from Day 1 of Obama’s term in the White House. In 2014, Plouffe became the senior vice president of policy and strategy for Uber. In 2017, Plouffe joined Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to lead policy and advocacy.

In 2017, the Chicago Board of Ethics fined Plouffe $90,000 by violating ethics rules when he failed to register on time as a lobbyist after contacting then-Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to help Uber with regulations for picking up travelers at Chicago airports.

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In 2016, Zuckerberg pushed Facebook board members to let him to retain control of the company if he takes a leave of absence to work in government, Techcrunch reported. Plouffe’s hiring could “fan speculation that Zuckerberg wants to take a direct role in government some day,” Josh Constine wrote.

Plouffe’s role on the board gives Facebook access to Obama.

On the Obama Foundation: John Doerr

John Doerr is a Silicon Valley legend with a net worth of $7.7 billion, according to Forbes. He’s chairman of the VC firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and has funded companies including Google, Amazon and Netscape.

But his name is tied to inequality for many women. In 2012, Ellen Pao, a former Kleiner Perkins employee, filed a gender discrimination suit against the firm. She alleged a widespread and long-term pattern that led to her being denied promotions and compensation and ultimately cost her her job.

In defending his company against the gender discrimination lawsuit, Doerr famously said the greatest tech entrepreneurs are “white, male, nerds.”

In a recording of a public presentation played in Ellen Pao’s discrimination suit against Kleiner Perkins, Doerr said:

If you look at (Amazon founder Jeff) Bezos, or (Netscape founder Marc) Andreessen, (Yahoo co-founder) David Filo, the founders of Google, they all seem to be white, male, nerds who’ve dropped out of Harvard or Stanford and they absolutely have no social life,” he said.

The implication was that Doerr has preconceived notions of who is more likely to be successful in the tech industry, and that Pao did not fit that profile, Business Insider reported.

Doerr admitted that the number of women in venture capital was “pathetic.” Pao lost the lawsuit.

In 2009, Doerr was appointed a member of Obama’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board to give advice and on how to fix America’s economic downturn.

Doerr donated up to $1 million to the Obama Foundation, according to the Observer.