Oki Knows Giving

Oki-Foundation“The word `philanthropy’ wasn’t a word that I grew up with,” says Seattle’s Scott Oki. Now he and his wife Laurie give it true meaning every day.

YOU CERTAINLY COULDN’T TELL FROM HIS OFFICE, A well-struck-kickball’s distance from the Toys ‘R’ Us store in the Seattle suburb of Bellevue, Washington. The Oki Foundation resides in a former church on Main Street, which, by its modest size and appearance, presumably served a small congregation in the long-ago days when this area was covered in strawberry fields. Upon entering the no-longer-sanctified building, you are directed downstairs, where you’re greeted by the sight of Scott Oki sitting at the desk of a small, inside office (and not even the corner one at that), its door open and welcoming. He’s surrounded by wood-veneer office furniture, nearly every surface of which is covered by photos of his three children, of his wife Laurie, and of himself flanked by three club-bearing men, squinting into the camera in the inevitable charity-golf foursome portrait. He looks up from his laptop computer, his Japanese American features handsome and crinkling as he smiles and reaches out to shake hands.

You also can’t tell it by his car, a white Lexus sport-utility vehicle that is standard issue for the housewives and working families of this upper-middle-class community on the eastern shore of Lake Washington. Oki, 51, hops in, tosses the papers and children’s toys from the passenger seat into the back and invites you to come along on a ride into his childhood. He’s wearing a gray Ashworth golf shirt and black corduroy slacks, and it takes more than two furtive peeks at his close-cropped black hair to, find the little accents of silver gray that lurk within.

Given such modest trappings, one almost wants to confirm that this is indeed the same Scott Oki who, with wife Laurie running the Oki Foundation, has given away millions of dollars and thousands of hours of his time to charity in Seattle/King County in recent years. The time given, and the way that it is given, are the main reasons why the Okis are invariably mentioned when people discuss the new era of philanthropy that is rising in Seattle and creating whole new approaches to giving. “One of the most wonderful things about the Okis is that they see the benefit and value of a good idea, and they continue to support it,” said Doug Picha of the Children’s Hospital Foundation. He later adds,”I think that Seattle is the epicenter of philanthropy today. It couldn’t be a more exciting environment.”

The paradigm for the movement isn’t Bill Gates (whose foundation’s assets are estimated at nearly $22 billion, making it the single largest charitable trust in the world), but former Gates colleague Oki, the son of a Nisei family who achieved the American dream of making a fortune through.hard work, skill and extraordinary luck and timing. The capsule version is that Oki did wondrous things in sales and marketing for Microsoft in its early years, retired young with a reported 500,000 shares of stock, watched the company’s value (and his own net worth) go through the roof and embarked on a second career in giving that rivals the first for sheer output. His private fortune has been estimated by Forbes as being in the $750 million range. In the living room of their handsome lakefront home in Bellevue, Oki sighs and Laurie fidgets when the figure is mentioned. “That number was really inflated,” he says. “I don’t know where they got it. “Would he like to set the public record straight? A rare frown crosses his broad, suntanned face as he makes an executive decision. He shakes his head. “Any way you look at it, it’s a boatload of money,” he finally says, and even that tiny admission makes both of them feel immodest and unhappy.

Laurie, a petite, intense, brown-haired and brown-eyed woman in her early 40s–the Rocky Mountain-born daughter of an Italian father and Serbian mother who never, never put on airs or extolled good fortune when it came–fixes her bright eyes on mine. “I don’t think that either one of us thought we’d be in this position,” she says quickly. “We assumed we’d be successful and live a nice lifestyle, but not this.” Her hands flutter as if to make the point that a few million dollars is a reasonable measure of success for hardworking people who get a lucky break, but anything more than that practically requires a constant disclaimer that they’re not becoming snobby rich people. Her eyes flash again.

“Part of me wishes that more people who have been blessed, as we have been blessed, would apply themselves to helping out.”

“Helping out” hardly does justice to what the Okis now do with their time, as an interest in philanthropy has matured with them into a passion nearly nine years after he left Microsoft and she left her job as a cosmetics executive to raise Alexander, 10, Nicholas, eight, and Callan, a three-year-old bundle of big-eyed energy. Scott’s resume currently lists twenty-seven nonprofit groups on whose boards of directors he serves, as well as a dozen for-profit groups. They’re so numerous that he has to highlight with a pink pen the ones that take up most of his time these days: the Boy Scouts of America, the Children’s Hospital Foundation, the Japanese American Chamber of Commerce (which he cofounded), United Way of King County and United Way of America. “I spend 90 percent of my time raising money nonstop for one organization or another,” he says.

Laurie’s calendar is no less crowded. She is the point person for the Oki Foundation, which the couple founded in 1988 and endowed with thousands of shares of Microsoft stock, and oversees its myriad interests in funneling aid to children’s causes. She also sits on the board of the Seattle Children’s Theater and the advisory board for an organization that is dedicated to helping foster children; serves on the town council in the affluent corner of Bellevue where they live alongside neighbors Craig and Susan McCaw, several members of the Nordstrom family and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer; and has been a board member at Children’s Hospital. Despite the work load, she considers herself to be “basically a full-time mom,” arranging her schedule so that she can pick up her sons from school every afternoon.

“In a small way, we’re setting an example for the newly formed wealth of this community,” says Scott. “It’s important to get involved in giving at an early age.” A wry smile, and then, “We’re not intentionally trying to make people feel guilty, but there is a little bit of that, showing how much we get involved.” They’ve written more checks for charitable causes than they can keep track of (“We just keep putting more money into the foundation,” shrugs Laurie), including numerous million-dollar-plus donations, but the time that they donate is the real story here. Scott loves to roll up his sleeves on a new project and direct his considerable mental energies toward making changes in an organization. His ability to see beyond traditional fundraising sources and his executive’s knack for reorganizing internal structures and procedures (and selling the reorganization to his peers) are becoming legendary in local circles. “I try to get into it in as leveraged a way as possible,” he says. “I get organizations to create an infrastructure to raise money far more effectively and efficiently.”

Example: Three years ago, as a campaign board cochairman of the local United Way chapter with Costco CEO Jeffrey Brotman, Scott realized that nobody was going after large donations in a focused way. He introduced a giving campaign that quickly paid off in raising major contributions from 16 percent of total fundraising to what is now 48 percent of the organization’s dollars. “Before this, only Bill and Melinda Gates gave at the $1 million level,” says a slightly amazed Joanne Harrell of the United Way. “Now we have thirty-one donors at that level, thanks to Scott and Jeff.”

A similar approach at Children’s Hospital produced the Children’s Circle of Care, where a $1 million unrestricted gift from the Okis was used as the matching-funds bait to lure 100 gifts of $10,000. The strategy was so successful that it has been rolled out at children’s hospitals in Boston, Toronto and Vancouver, among others. “We took that model to our peer organizations, and it was tremendously influential,” says Children’s Hospital Foundation’s Picha.

The pink-highlighted list goes on. Scott reorganized committees at the highest levels at the University of Washington when he served as a regent, and then organized the first foundation for the Boy Scouts. “He’s taking that intellectual power that made his wealth and he’s applying it to philanthropy,” says Brotman. “Scott has a powerful presence, and he’s an extremely bright guy. He commands a lot of respect because he’s been successful financially and has a capacity for solving problems.”

Oki’s most influential work might turn out to be Social Venture Partners, the “venture philanthropy” group–which he cofounded with software magnate Paul Brainerd in 1997–that gets to the heart of why Seattle has become such a progressive player in philanthropy. Oki and Brainerd began by putting out the call to dozens of their contacts in the Internet, software and biotech communities and making them an intriguing proposal. By pledging $5,000 or more a year to charity, they could become “partners” in SVP and help define where and how the money would be donated in the community. More importantly, though, SVP partners are encouraged to roll up their sleeves (is this beginning to sound familiar?) and help out on the grass-roots level. They become managers and mentors for the very organizations that they fund. For example, the University of Washington Women’s Center got expert SVP assistance in building a Web site, reworking a newsletter and placing at-risk teenage girls in mentoring programs. Another organization got help in developing a comprehensive marketing plan from their SVP volunteer, and a third benefited by having an expert assist in a lease negotiation. Having trained professionals lending their considerable expertise on an organizational level is an awfully powerful concept, and far different than millionaires writing checks at black-tie dinners. “We typically have five to seven people working in each of the organizations that we fund,” says Brainerd, when reached at his own foundation office in downtown Seattle. “We try to sit down and build a business plan with them. It might take a whole year just to build confidence and trust.” Oki and Brainerd’s initial efforts netted thirty-six founding SVP partners; there are now 250, and the list is growing. “Seventy percent of them are giving their time and expertise in addition to giving their money,” says Brainerd proudly.

Back in the white Lexus, Scott drives us over Lake Washington to his childhood neighborhood in the Rainier Valley section of south Seattle. It looks much the same now as it did forty years ago, with neat rows of wood-frame houses on tiny lots struggling to hold their own against the wind and rain in a working-class part of town. He stops the car beside a blue house surrounded by a chain-link fence and a yard that is losing the battle to weeds and crab grass. It was here that Kyoto (Bob) and Kim Oki, both first-generation Japanese Americans, set up household a few years after returning from the internment camp in Minidoka, Idaho, where they met and were married. They didn’t talk about the camp much to Scott and his siblings. (“It was like pulling teeth getting that stuff out of them,” he says. Then, diplomatically, he adds, “They were young, and youth view those things differently.”) But Minidoka left its shadowy mark on the family. One of the first things Scott did with the Japanese American Chamber of Commerce was to spearhead a Shoah-like project, the Densho project, which records and digitizes the life histories of people who had been interned.

Bob Oki worked hard at the post office, “stuffing mail into pigeonholes,” says Scott, and Kim boarded a bus every morning and headed downtown to work as a secretary for a government agency. Money was tight, and the family supplemented their income by tying fishing flies at the kitchen table during the winter months and picking fruit in the summer. Scott remembers long days of backbreaking work in the strawberry fields of Auburn, Washington, at the tender age of 10, encouraged by his grandmother, who lived with the family. She spoke only Japanese, which he and his brother and sister couldn’t understand and which had to be translated by his parents, who spoke only English to their children. He received fifty cents a flat for strawberries and seventy-five cents for raspberries (“a couple of bucks on a good day”), and when you filled up your entire punch card for doing enough work you got to take home a flat of fruit, which Kim and Grandma would turn into strawberry milk shakes and shortcake.

The real passion of the family was the Imperial Drum & Bugle Corps that Bob formed when Scott was a kid, a cadre of crack teenage marchers and musicians who performed at parades and jamborees throughout the Northwest. Kim sewed the uniforms and the flags for the color guard and packed the lunches; Scott played the drum; and Bob stayed up all night having long discussions about fundraising, managing and coordinating the corps. There was always a new raffle to sell, or light bulbs or candy to hawk, in the endless cycle of fundraising that kept the group alive.

It may have also indirectly kept Scott alive, because after nearly flunking out of the University of Washington in 1968, thanks to a rather spectacular mismanagement of his first, youthful freedom (“I spent my first year shooting pool and playing cards–everything except going to class”), he received an ominously low number in the draft lottery. With a tour of duty in Vietnam staring him in the face, he enlisted in the Air Force in Colorado and became a member of its band as, naturally, a drummer. At the same time, he enrolled at the University of Colorado, hit the books hard and graduated magna cum laude. He earned his MBA a year later (graduating first in his class) and went to work as an accountant at Hewlett-Packard.

He was miserable. He wanted to make a big splash in business, but the company wanted him to crunch numbers, and even made him improve his ten-key addition skills by adding numbers out of the phone book for hours on end. After just a few months on the job, he fought to move into a new position in marketing (“that ruffled some feathers”), but his first real test came in 1980, when he quit to form a new company in California that developed and sold turnkey computer systems to medical offices. Despite Oki’s work raising money, developing products, marketing and selling them and working ungodly hours, the company failed, and he was forced to look for another job just two years later.

It was then that his resume caught the eye of Steve Ballmer and Bill Gates at Microsoft, which had recently set up shop in the Seattle suburb of Redmond and was desperate for businessmen to support its technical expertise. Oki began as a marketing manager, but within a month he had sized up the company and saw where the greatest opportunities lay, and he convinced Gates to give him $1 million to open an international-sales division.

He was off and running in the first of ten “dog years,” as he calls his time at Microsoft, because for every year on the job he felt like he had aged seven. In Gates, Oki found the brilliant technician and strategist who could match him for sheer energy and dedication to the job. In their fanaticism for working–three straight years without a day off for Scott –the two of them created a paradigm that has since become synonymous with the software industry and “the Microsoft culture,” as Scott fondly puts it. That culture would see him flying nonstop from Seattle to London, going straight from the airport to the first meeting, working all day and into the night, and demanding that his European managers and employees do the same, keeping people up for midnight meetings, and then leaving the next morning to crack the whip all over again in Paris, Munich, Milan, Tokyo and Stockholm. By 1984, he had become Pan Am’s most frequent flier, logging more than 400,000 miles.

“I was in heaven,” he recalls over a dim sum lunch at a Chinese restaurant in Seattle’s International District. “I had never even traveled internationally or set up a business like that. I just wasn’t going to fail. Remember, I had come from a failed start-up company, and I wasn’t going to let that happen again.” The international business became a huge cash cow for Microsoft, and Oki rose to the top of Gates’ sales and marketing force. He secured his future by asking for more and larger stock options as part of his raises, which the company was only too happy to grant.

Scott met Laurie Bellio at a Fourth of July party in 1984 that had been orchestrated by his sister-in-law, who happened to work at Cosmair, the international cosmetics firm for whom Laurie served as the regional vice-president of sales out of Seattle. A product of Golden, a middle-class suburb of Denver, Laurie, a petite, pretty woman, had come out of a Catholic grade school and a public high school. Her father was a pilot for Pan Am; her mother stayed at home to raise Laurie and her two siblings. “It was a very nice, very loving, very close family,” she says. Laurie studied French at the University of Denver and got her MBA there before embarking on her career in cosmetics, first for Revlon’s Ultima II line and then for Cosmair.

The courtship was anything but conventional. “We had the funniest dates,” says Laurie. “I’d pick him up at the airport on Saturday morning from Europe. We’d go out to lunch and then go to Microsoft together to work. I’d grab one of his computers and do my business while he did his, and we’d stay there until 1 or 2 A.M. We’d go to brunch the next day and then I’d put him on a plane to Australia.” When their schedules allowed, they’d meet for dates in New York or San Francisco, or for skiing in Colorado. They were married in 1988.

When Laurie was pregnant with second son Nicholas, she couldn’t find any baby blankets that she liked, so she bought some cotton flannel and had nice blankets sewn by a friend. “We should make these and sell them!” Scott told her when the pretty new blankets arrived, and he suggested that they donate the profits to charity. Thus was born Nanny & Webster (named after first son Alexander’s favorite stuffed animals), which now manufactures a whole line of soft blankets with beautiful designs that companies like Microsoft, Nintendo and The Seattle Times buy as new-baby gifts for their employees. The proceeds go directly to the Oki Foundation, which then distributes them to Seattle-area charities.

The experience helped the Okis crystallize their vision of philanthropy. A Microsoft copywriter came up with the slogan “To provide warmth and comfort for children and those who care for them,” and they began to direct their giving to causes that directly benefited children in the community. A watershed moment occurred in 1993–a year after Scott had surprised everyone, including Laurie and Bill Gates, by retiring from Microsoft at the age of 43–when Children’s Hospital came calling to ask for that original unrestricted million-dollar donation from the Okis. “At that time, it was a significant percentage of our net worth,” recalls Scott. “The request hit us in the face like a bucket of cold water. It was a major decision for us.”

It wouldn’t be a significant percentage of their net worth for long. The Okis’ fortunes soared with the intense valuation of Microsoft stock over the last decade. (Scott’s parents got rich, too, thanks to the “couple of thousand” Microsoft shares he gave them as a gift many years ago. They now live in Scott and Laurie’s old house in Bellevue and support many of the same philanthropic causes.) Today Scott and Laurie carve out time to ski in Colorado and return to Europe to see some of the sights he missed when he was traveling on business. They’ll spend weeks at a time in Italy or Paris, where Scott and Laurie “walk and walk and walk” to see the museums and street life. Laurie occasionally flies off to desert spas with a “lunch bunch” group of girlfriends. Scott can indulge his passion for golf, which he developed late in his career at Microsoft, by going off to Scotland to play thirty-six holes a day or teeing it up with his buddies at one of the five courses he now owns through Oki Developments, his holding company that specializes in golf-course development. Ask him about it and he waves his hand vaguely and says, “They [meaning the executives he hired] handle everything.” The Okis don’t collect art or cars (“Collections?”) he asked. “You mean, besides the Pokemon collection?”) and wistfully remember the days, pre-children, when they could water-ski together at 5:30 A.M. before work.

Scott Oki’s whole world seems to spread out before you at the Golf Club at Newcastle, a gorgeous new golf course that his company developed and opened last year. Perched on a hillside in south Bellevue, the stylish, manorial clubhouse (which was decorated by Laurie) looks directly across the lake to the south Seattle neighborhood to which he was born, and north to the lakefront communities where he lives within a few miles of Paul Allen, Bill Gates, Brotman and the other new scions of wealth who are changing the nature of philanthropy, first in Seattle and then spreading like ripples in the lake to the whole country. The scene reminded me of a recent trip to Scotland, where I found photos of an elderly Andrew Carnegie in the clubhouse of a golf course, his steel career ended and his millions donated to build libraries across America. He had come home to enjoy his remaining years, and behind a long, thick beard, he looked thrilled and happy as he and his wife gave away a big silver trophy to the winner of the local golf tournament. One can imagine a similar dotage for the Okis, punctuated with happy memories, a healthy family, a little golf and the knowledge that they have made an impact on their world.

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