Jeff Bezos

© Image Copyright : Photo from Wikimedia Commons / Author of Photo: Len Edgerly

Jeff Bezos was born on January 12, 1964, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He was born to a teenage mother, Jacklyn Gise Jorgensen, who was married to the boy’s biological father, Ted Jorgensen, for less than a year. When Jeff was 4 years old, his mother married Cuban immigrant Mike Bezos.

After earning a degree in computer science and electrical engineering at Princeton University in 1986, Bezos worked for several Wall Street firms including Fitel, Bankers Trust, and the D.E. Shaw Group, where in 1990 he became the company’s youngest vice president.

In 1994 Bezos left D.E. Shaw to create Amazon.com, an Internet bookstore which he named after the famous river in South America. The company launched on July 16, 1995 and quickly became a huge success, selling books to customers in more than 45 countries during its very first month. Amazon went public in 1997 and subsequently expanded its product line to include the sale of CDs and videos the following year. Later, it began to sell all manner of merchandise through partnerships with major retailers and independent merchants. The company’s annual sales grew from $510,000 in 1995 to more than $17 billion in 2011, to $178 billion in 2017.

On June 15, 2012, it was reported that Bezos and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were planning to announce the launch of the Kindle Mobile Learning Initiative (KMLI), a “public-private partnership” between Amazon and the U.S. government. According to The Hill, the purpose of this “global e-reader program” would be to “introduc[e] aspects of U.S. society and culture directly to young people, students, and international audiences in new ways.” But KMLI was canceled even before it got off the ground, because its selected e-reader was not compliant with federal Section 508 requirements pertaining to information access for persons with disabilities.

In July 2012, Bezos and his wife, MacKenzie, announced that they had agreed to donate $2.5 million to help pass Referendum 74, which called for the legalization of same-sex marriage in Washington State. As a New York Times blog post noted at the time, this was “a game-changing gift” that “instantly” placed Mr. and Mrs. Bezos “among the largest financial backers of gay marriage rights in the country.” That November, Referendum 74 narrowly passed by a margin of about 3 percentage points.

On August 5, 2013, Bezos spent $250 million to purchase The Washington Post and other publications affiliated with its parent company, The Washington Post Co.

In 2014, Bezos’ Amazon corporation spent more than $1 billion to buy out Twitch Interactive, the world’s largest video-game-streaming platform.

In December 2016, Bezos joined with Bill Gates and a number of other wealthy investors to create Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a $1 billion fund that would put money into “green energy” initiatives over the ensuing 20 years.

In January 2017, Bezos denounced the executive order by which President Donald Trump sought to temporarily deny entry to the United States for citizens of seven majority-Muslim nations that were known hotbeds of Islamic terrorism. In an email message to all Amazon employees, Bezos wrote: “This executive order is one we do not support. … Our legal team has prepared a declaration of support for the Washington State Attorney General who will be filing suit against the order. We are working other legal options as well. We’re a nation of immigrants whose diverse backgrounds, ideas, and points of view have helped us build and invent as a nation for over 240 years. No nation is better at harnessing the energies and talents of immigrants. It’s a distinctive competitive advantage for our country—one we should not weaken.”

In June 2017, Bezos voiced his wish to “protect” the earth from the possibility that the greenhouse-gas emissions associated with industrial civilization might eventually cause the planet to become “a retrograde world where we have to freeze population growth” in order to avoid an environmental catastrophe with existential implications. Asserting that “all of our heavy industry” should “be moved off-planet” over the course of “the next few hundred years,” he added: “Earth will be zoned residential and light industrial. You shouldn’t be doing heavy energy on earth. We can build gigantic chip factories in space.”

In October 2017, Bezos, Hillary Clinton, and Democratic U.S. Senator Kamala Harris were among the featured speakers at the annual Human Rights Campaign National Dinner in Washington, DC.

Bezos has been an avid supporter of the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) executive action through which then-President Barack Obama granted most DREAM Act-eligible individuals temporary legal status, work permits, access to certain publicly funded social services, and protection from deportation. In January 2018, Bezos announced that he was donating $33 million to fund scholarships – valued at $33,000 apiece – to cover college tuition expenses for 1,000 illegal-alien high-school students who were DACA beneficiaries. He gave this money to TheDream.US, a nonprofit education group dedicated to helping DACA students pay for college.

On January 30, 2018, Amazon.com, Berkshire Hathaway, and JPMorgan Chase issued a joint press release announcing that they planned to pool their resources to form a new healthcare company – one that would be “free from profit-making incentives and constraints” – for their U.S. employees. “The healthcare system is complex,” said Bezos, “and we enter into this challenge open-eyed about the degree of difficulty. Hard as it might be, reducing healthcare’s burden on the economy while improving outcomes for employees and their families would be worth the effort.”

In the aftermath of the May 25, 2020 death of George Floyd — a black man who had died after being abused by a white police officer in Minneapolis — a number of U.S. cities were overrun by protests and violent riots led, in part, by Antifa and Black Lives Matter. To show his solidarity with the demonstrators, Bezos placed on the Amazon homepage a large banner reading: “Black lives matter: Amazon stands in solidarity with the Black community.” An Amazon customer subsequently sent Bezos an email that said: “ALL LIVES MATTER! … if it wasn’t for all these lives providing their service to [you] and your company, where would Amazon be today?” Bezos responded to that customer as follows:

“I have to disagree with you. ‘Black lives matter’ doesn’t mean other lives don’t matter. Black lives matter speaks to racism that Black people face in our law enforcement and justice system. I have a 20-year-old son, and I simply don’t worry that he might be choked to death while being detained one day. It’s not something I worry about. Black parents can’t say the same. None of this is intended to dismiss or minimize the very real worries you or anyone else might have in their own life, but I want you to know I support this that we see happening all around us, and my stance won’t change.”

As of May 2020, Bezos’s net worth was approximately $143 billion, making him the wealthiest person in the world. His principal residence is a $25 million lake house in Medina, Washington. He also owns a 27,000-square-foot home worth about $23 million in the District of Columbia, a 2-acre property in Beverly Hills that is valued at approximately $25 million, and a $65 million private jet.

On June 29, 2020, the Bezos-owned live-streaming service known as Twitch — which the Donald Trump presidential campaign had utilized to stream rallies and campaign videos since October 2019 — announced that Trump’s account on the platform would be temporarily banned because of “hateful” remarks he had made during a recent campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Specifically, Twitch objected to Trump’s reference to a “tough hombre” breaking into a woman’s home. According to The Federalist, “Twitch also cited Trump’s now five-year-old comments about drugs and rapists coming over the [U.S.-Mexico] border.”

On February 2, 2021, Bezos announced his plan to step down as Amazon’s CEO and become the company’s executive chair. In a blog post to his employees, Bezos said that in his new role he would focus more on: (a) new products and initiatives being developed at Amazon; (b) his space exploration/rocket company Blue Origin; (c) his newspaper, The Washington Post; and (d) his charities. Bezos officially stepped down on July 5, 2021. He was succeeded by Andy Jassy, who had run Amazon Web Services since 2003.

On the morning of July 20, 2021 — the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing — Bezos participated in Blue Origin’s first manned space flight, accompanied by a hand-picked group of three people: (a) Bezos’ brother Mark; (b) an 18-year-old man from the Netherlands; and (c) an 82-year-old female aviation pioneer from Texas. The rocket was named New Shepard, in honor of America’s first astronaut, Alan Shepard. After the capsule reached an altitude of approximately 66 miles during its 10-minute flight, it touched down in a West Texas desert. Bezos exclaimed at that time: “Best day ever!”

Immediately after his space flight, Bezos held a press conference where he stated: “I have a little surprise for you. I am announcing today, a new philanthropic initiative … The Courage and Civility Award. It recognizes leaders who aim high, and who pursue solutions with courage, and who always do so with civility.” The first two winners of this award and the $100 million prizes that came with it, were the communist activist Van Jones and the Spanish chef José Andrés, the latter of whom founded World Central Kitchen to supply meals for needy people during natural disasters. When announcing the awards, Bezos said that “we should question ideas, not the person. … We need unifiers and not vilifiers. We want people who argue hard and act hard for what they truly believe.” Regarding Jones in particular, he said: “I bet Van Jones is going to do something amazing with that $100 million. I don’t know what yet. I bet he doesn’t know what yet, but it’s in your hands, Van Jones.”

On September 30, 2021, twenty-one current and former employees of Bezos’ Blue Origin company published an essay accusing the company of bullying its employees, stifling internal feedback, disregarding safety concerns, and creating a sexist environment that was hostile to women. Some excerpts:

“[I]f this company’s culture and work environment are a template for the future Jeff Bezos envisions, we are headed in a direction that reflects the worst of the world we live in now, and sorely needs to change. Blue Origin currently has more than 3,600 employees [who are] mostly male and overwhelmingly white. One-hundred percent of the senior technical and program leaders are men.

“Workforce gender gaps are common in the space industry, but at Blue Origin they also manifest in a particular brand of sexism. Numerous senior leaders have been known to be consistently inappropriate with women. […] We found many company leaders to be unapproachable and showing clear bias against women. […]

“The company proclaims it will build a better world because we’re well on our way to ruining this one, yet none of us has seen Blue Origin establish any concrete plans to become carbon neutral or significantly reduce its large environmental footprint. Jeff Bezos has mad splashy announcements and donations to climate justice groups, but ‘benefiting Earth’ starts in one’s own backyard. […] For years employees have raised environmental concerns at company town halls, but these have been largely left unaddressed. […]

“That culture has also taken a toll on the mental health of many of the people who make Blue Origin’s operations possible. Memos from senior leadership reveal a desire to push employees to their limits, stating that the company needs to ‘get more out of our employees’ and that the employees should consider it a ‘privilege to be a part of history.’ One directive held out SpaceX as a model, in that ‘burnout was part of their labor strategy.’ Former and current employees have had experiences they could only describe as dehumanizing, and are terrified of the potential consequences for speaking out against the wealthiest man on the planet. Others have experienced periods of suicidal thoughts after having their passion for space manipulated in such a toxic environment. One senior program leader with decades in the aerospace and defense industry said working at Blue Origin was the worst experience of her life.

“Professional dissent at Blue Origin is actively stifled. […]  This suppression of dissent brings us to the matter of safety, which for many of us is the driving force for coming forward with this essay. At Blue Origin, a common question during high-level meetings was, ‘When will Elon [Musk] or [Richard] Branson fly?’ Competing with other billionaires—and ‘making progress for Jeff’—seemed to take precedence over safety concerns that would have slowed down the schedule. […] We have seen a pattern of decision-making that often prioritizes execution speed and cost reduction over the appropriate resourcing to ensure quality. In 2018, when one team lead took over, the team had documented more than 1,000 problem reports related to the engines that power Blue Origin’s rockets, which had never been addressed. […] Should not the leaders of a company touting itself as the solution for humanity’s future also make certain their company is operating ethically, responsibly, and under oversight that creates accountability and ensures safety? Not so at Blue Origin.

“Following a 2018 Supreme Court decision cementing the legality of arbitration agreements, Bezos quietly mobilized an initiative to have all employees sign away their right to resolve employment disputes in court or to speak out about harassment or discriminatory conduct. In 2019, Blue Origin leadership requested that all employees sign new contracts with a non-disparagement clause binding them and their heirs from ever saying something that would ‘hurt the goodwill of the company.’ Contracts for some departing employees now mandated they pay the corporation’s legal fees if the corporation chose to sue them for breach of contract. The inner circle of leadership tracked who signed, and discussed contingency plans for those who did not. […]

“In our experience, Blue Origin’s culture sits on a foundation that ignores the plight of our planet, turns a blind eye to sexism, is not sufficiently attuned to safety concerns, and silences those who seek to correct wrongs. […]”

On November 22, 2021, it was announced that Bezos was donating $100 million to former President Barack Obama’s private philanthropy, the Obama Foundation. It was the largest individual gift ever made to the nonprofit in its seven-year history, and was intended to help train emerging leaders — “young activists,” as Mr. Obama described them — in the United States and abroad. “I’m thrilled to support President and Mrs. [Michelle] Obama and their Foundation in its mission to train and inspire tomorrow’s leaders,” said Bezos. When he made the gift, Bezos asked that a plaza at the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago be named for the late congressman John Lewis, who had died in 2020. “I can’t think of a more fitting person to honor with this gift than John Lewis, a great American leader and a man of extraordinary decency and courage,” Bezos said in a written statement.

Further Reading:Jeff Bezos” (Biography.com);  “How Jeff Bezos … Spends His Billions” (CNBC.com, 7-27-2017).

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