Giving Back

Unit of One


Getting may be satisfying, but giving back is fulfilling. Last year at this time, Unit of One focused on ways that businesspeople were giving back and making a difference, in categories as diverse as education, finance, technology, urban affairs, and the environment. The response to that feature suggested that for many Fast Company readers, the holiday season is a time when giving takes on more meaning than getting — and that the magazine should return to this theme regularly. So this year, we asked 10 leaders to describe how they use their skills, time, creativity, and money to give back to children — one category that everyone agrees is of transcendent importance. Here’s your chance to consider the many ways there are to get involved — and then to figure out how you can give back.


John Starks

New York Knicks
New York, New York

Do you want to know the best thing that you can do for a child? Give him or her some of your time. You might not be able to quantify this type of giving. There may never be a bottom-line calculation of the benefits. But the rewards will far outweigh anything that your work can give you.

I didn’t have it easy when I was growing up. But I know that I was incredibly fortunate to have great coaches. My first basketball coach, Roy Gage, volunteered his time — showing us sixth-graders how to play ball. But he did a lot more than coach us on layups and free throws. He talked to us — about life, about school, about family troubles. There were even times when, after we won a game, he would take us to the store that he owned and say, “You earned this. Go get whatever you want.” Sometimes we forget what a profound difference the most simple gestures can make.


I started my own foundation for kids four years ago. And I spend a lot of time talking to kids — in schools, in correctional homes, and in my basketball camps. Most kids just want someone to talk to. And if you’ve already been through what they’re going through, they eat up everything you say. I can “coach” someone by sharing what I experienced as a kid and by listening to what they’re experiencing.

I can give even more by leveraging my name — for example, by getting Scottie Pippen and Patrick Ewing to participate in the John Starks All-Star Basketball Classic, a fund-raising tournament. Most NBA players had tough childhoods themselves, and it’s easy for them to relate to what I’m trying to do. Also, a few years ago, I made a deal with Minolta that for every three-point shot I made during that season, they’d donate $100 to my foundation. I ended up shooting $24,700 worth of three-pointers. I remember being extra careful when I got close to the three-point line — not only because I wanted those three points but also because I wanted that $100.

John Starks Foundation has awarded more than $60,000 in scholarships, aided more than 2,500 students through its various programs, and donated more than $200,000 to charities in such cities as New York and Tulsa, Oklahoma, where starks grew up.


Keith Rowe

Director of Technology for Interactive Media
Microsoft Corp.
Seattle, Washington

After eight years of working in a hard-charging environment, I realized that I was turning into a guy who was just an engineer, just a manager. I wasn’t doing anything else. When people would start talking about their interests outside of their work life, all I could do was think, “I’m really excited about what I did at work yesterday.” I didn’t have anything else going on. So last year, I decided to look for ways to become more of a full-fledged human being — including ways that I could start giving back.

I was contacted by the head of Social Venture Partners, a group that was in the process of forming. Everyone who was joining the organization had felt frustrated with standard philanthropy: too much check writing and gala attending, and too little focusing on specific problems and real solutions. SVP’s approach is to engage people who are used to having control and who want to solve problems from the ground up.


We decided we would treat the funding that we provided — especially for projects related to children — as though we were a venture-capital company. We’d hunt down interesting ideas that others had ignored, and we’d plant seed money. But more than that, we would give our time and expertise as business managers, accountants, lawyers, and technologists.

I’m the lead partner in an endeavor that SVP is starting with one of our grantees, Talbot Hill Elementary, a school in a Seattle suburb. I spend most of my time planning how best to apply our money and our members’ skills. For instance, a few of our software-design engineers are helping to install an email system at the school that will give students another tool to interact with one another. I brought in a former television-news director, who’s helping to create a student-newscast program. We’ll hook it into the school’s closed-circuit TV system, which will enable the students to write, produce, and direct their own programs.

Everyone gets satisfaction from helping to solve problems. That satisfaction is abundant when you can look back at the end of the day and know that you actually did something.


Keith Rowe consults on technical strategy for all of Microsoft’s Web properties. He has led the development of such projects as, The Microsoft Network, and the software program Visual C++.

Jan D’Alessandro Wadsworth

Assistant General Counsel
America Online Inc.
San Mateo, California

Several years ago, I was an associate in a big law firm in San Francisco. By most standards, I had a great job. But I was frustrated with my work, and I was looking for something else to do. Through friends, I met a woman, Elana Rosen, who wanted to start a foundation to promote media literacy in kids. When I told her I was a lawyer, her eyes lit up. “Great,” she said. “I’m looking for a lawyer.” We spent the rest of the evening talking about her plans. I was hooked. I ended up getting the Just Think Foundation approved as a pro-bono client for my law firm. I did the legal work to get us incorporated and to establish tax-free status, and I wrote a business plan with Elana.


Eventually, I left the law firm and joined AOL. I’ve become something of an evangelist for the foundation. I’m constantly talking to people about what the foundation is doing — piquing people’s interest and encouraging their involvement. The best way to get involved is to merge what you like to do in your free time with what you do for a living.

AOL’s Jan D’Alessandro Wadsworth, the company’s legal- and business-affairs representative on the West Coast, focuses on entertainment- and technology-licensing issues. The Just Think Foundation offers instruction in how to think critically about popular media to children, teachers, and parents .

Gun Denhart

Cofounder and Chairman
Hanna Andersson Corp.
Portland, Oregon


I’ve heard it said that people who volunteer live longer. Now, I don’t know if that’s fact or fiction, but it does speak to a simple reality: If you can create balance among your work, your community, your family, and your friends, then you’re going to be more satisfied. That just makes sense.

My husband and I started our business from our house 15 years ago. When we began, the last thing I was thinking about was how we’d “give back.” In fact, one of our most successful programs, Hanna Downs — in which we take back customers’ used clothes and donate them to charity — began as a marketing initiative: We actually used to buy back unwanted clothes from customers. We sold clothes by catalog; we figured that if we bought back our clothes, we’d show customers that we truly stood behind our product.

One day, a man came to our house to buy clothes. He was the executive director of the Raphael House, a home for abused mothers and children in Portland. When he told me about the home, I gave him a huge pile of used clothes. We’ve been donating clothes to the home ever since.


It doesn’t take much to leverage the resources of my company, so there is little reason not to get involved. Another of our programs is Cash for Kids. Over the years, several state-wide initiatives have limited funding to schools; consequently, a lot of school programs have been cut. So we decided to give each of our employees’ kids $100. It’s up to the kids to decide how they want to share that money with their school.

I’m not so naive as to think that people who give do so from the goodness of their hearts. Your giving can be for the good of your business too — and even that type of giving is better than doing nothing at all.

Gun Denhart started Hanna Andersson, a company that sells children’s clothing by catalog, in 1983. The company, which now brings in $45 million in revenues, donates 5% of its pretax profits to charities that benefit women and children.


Steven Perkins

Senior Vice President
Oracle Federal
Reston, Virginia

It’s hard for me to imagine anybody who’s busier than I am. Last year, I was running Oracle’s global financial-services business, and I practically lived on red-eye flights. But occasionally I would put in a day’s work in Europe, fly back to the United States, and still make it in time to coach kids’ basketball at night. I’ve coached kids for 18 years. Coaching is part of my schedule, no matter how busy I am. It’s a tremendous stress reliever. And it’s satisfying to see kids — who earlier in the year may have been frustrated with their inability to play — develop self-confidence. By the end of the year, many of them tell me that they love to play and to compete. Sometimes I think I get more out of coaching than I give.

Coaching kids has taught me a lot about coaching people at work. One of the teams I coach is a select soccer team — a traveling team whose players have to try out for spots. They’re a little like the folks at Oracle: all Type A personalities. Last year, they all played forward on different teams, so they were all stars and leading goal scorers. But how do you make a team out of Type As? Who will play defense? Somebody has to play midfield; somebody has to play goalie. They can’t win as 11 individual stars — but they can win as a team. What manager hasn’t asked those same questions? Sure, I might be the coach, but that doesn’t mean I can’t learn a thing or two from the kids.


Steven Perkins oversees Oracle’s sales-consulting and product-strategy initiatives in the federal-government market. Perkins also serves as Oracle’s executive sponsor for the Special Olympics and is leading a project to build applications that will manage information on Special-Olympics athletes, games, results, and volunteers.

Gabriel Acosta-Lopez

Director of Platform-Development Services, Palm Computing Inc.
3COM Corp.
Mountain View, California

I remember the exact moment when I knew that I had to start giving back. It was about a decade ago, when I was working at Apple and I received my first paycheck. I couldn’t believe that I was making so much money! I was used to barely getting by — as I’d done in grad school, when I could fit only one movie a month into my budget — and here I was sitting on a huge paycheck, with another one coming right behind it. I was new to the Bay Area, so I did a little research and started getting involved as a mentor with an at-risk-youth organization in East San Jose called Turning Point. My first week of training as a mentor was some of the best training I’ve ever had. In fact, everything that I’ve learned in the past nine years about being a successful manager has come from working with young people.


The most valuable skill I learned sounds simple: how to contribute to people. To make a difference in someone’s life — whether a youth or an employee — you need to be able to contribute in two ways: by listening to them, and by believing in them more than they believe in themselves. Whether I’m a manager or a mentor, my role is the same: to make the person I’m working with successful. It’s not about giving advice or sharing war stories as much as it is about simply supporting them.

There’s no “higher high” than being able to contribute to someone. I can’t stop mentoring young people, helping them in whatever way I can — just as I can’t stop contributing at work. Contributing is a skill that you develop — just like managing, planning, strategizing, leading. And the great thing is that once you develop contributing as a skill, everyone will want to have you around.

Before joining 3COM, Gabriel Acosta-Lopez ( worked at Apple from 1989 to 1997, first in its R&D University and then as senior manager of the Newton Group. He has been a mentor at Turning Point Mentoring Program since 1989.


Steven Wynne

President and CEO
adidas America
Beaverton, Oregon

The other day, I was talking with someone I work with about how crazy our travel schedules can get. Somehow we got on the topic of what our obituaries would say if we were in a plane crash. I said that I’d regret how my obituary would define me: “Steve Wynne, the president of adidas, who died in an airplane crash, . . .” Of the things that define my life, being the president of adidas is about fifth on the list — after my two kids, my wife, and my community. Maybe my desire to have an impact on what happens around me is a relic of growing up in the ’60s. But I’ve never been able to ignore a problem that’s in front of me — whether it’s at work or outside my front door.

I live in Oregon, and one of the most pressing problems faced by our state is its educational system. For a long time, Oregon funded schools through property taxes, rather than through a sales tax or through income taxes. In the ’80s, we had a huge property-tax revolt, and our education system bore the brunt of the changes that came about. Since then, there has been an ongoing debate about how to fund education.

So in the early ’90s, when former governor Neil Goldschmidt approached the law firm where I was working to ask if we would help start the Oregon Children’s Foundation, I jumped at the chance. We didn’t know exactly what we would do, but we knew that we had to do something. We pulled some money together, pooled our resources, and hired a great executive director. We started a statewide program for kids called SMART (Start Making a Reader Today). Quite simply, the program gets volunteers into the schools to work with kids one-on-one to develop reading skills. But the program has also achieved a larger goal: It links people to their communities — and helps them to understand just how difficult it is to educate a kid these days.

A lot of what I’ve learned by being involved in a startup nonprofit has helped me to do better at my “day” job. The most important thing I’ve realized is that if you overcommit yourself to your work, you become valueless to your company.

Before joining adidas in 1995, Steven Wynne was a founder of, and a senior partner in, the Portland, Oregon law firm of Ater Wynne Hewitt Dodson & Skerritt. His law practice focused on the formation, financing, and development of entrepreneurial companies.

Katrina Garnett

Founder, President, and CEO
CrossWorlds Software Inc.
Burlingame, California

I’ve never been satisfied with blank-check giving. It’s like paying taxes: You just don’t know where your money goes. And my skin bristles when I see people pat themselves on the back because they gave a big chunk of money to the Museum of Modern Art, or when I see people attend glamorous charity functions, all dressed to kill in ball gowns and dripping with jewelry. To me, that’s a big-city, old-money type of giving. Starting something that’s truly effective — for profit or not for profit — is hard work. There’s always a reason to procrastinate. I know: For 10 years, while working in the high-tech world, I did little else but write checks. I never did AIDS walks or bike-a-thons. That just wasn’t my style, mainly because I never dabble: I’m either committed 100%, or I’m not involved at all.

I was motivated to start giving back when people kept asking me the same question over and over: “Why can’t you hire more women?” The reason is that there simply are not enough women coming out of school with computer-science or engineering degrees. Two years ago, my foundation did a survey that revealed that, while girls often made better grades in math than boys did, they had little encouragement to translate that ability into a career in high-tech. Plus, girls are hooked on the perception that programming is a lonely, nerdy job that involves sitting in a cubicle all day, writing code. They don’t realize the variety of jobs that are available in fields like business development or in marketing.

That’s why, in August, we held a computer camp for 25 girls on the Stanford University campus. We had the girls taking apart computers and putting them back together again. But I was also trying to create a women’s networking machine. We had women from high-tech companies come to the camp to talk with the girls. One woman, from Macromedia, hired two of the girls as summer interns.

One thing that the girls said after the camp was that they were excited to meet “real women.” One evening, when I was walking back from dinner, I began to understand what they meant. I passed another computer camp. It was held at one of the big frat houses, and it was 99% boys. I thought, Where are all the girls? The next day, as I drove onto campus and passed an athletic field, I got my answer: I saw hundreds of girls, all wearing little cheerleading outfits and jumping around at a cheerleading camp.

All that girls need is a little encouragement and access to opportunities. Then watch out.

Before founding CrossWorlds Software, Katrina Garnett worked at Oracle and at Sybase — where she served as vice president and general manager of its $150 million Distributed-Objects and Connectivity Division, and where she managed a 300-person development team. She formed The Garnett Foundation to address the underrepresentation of women in the computer industry.

Luke O’Neill

President and Founder
Shackleton Schools Inc.
Boston, Massachusetts

I remember standing by a swimming pool with my father when I was about 12. I asked him, “Dad, why am I here?” He said, “You’re here to swim.” But what I was really wondering — as we all do at various points in our lives — was, What am I on this planet to do? The answer became clearer to me as I grew up — especially after I took a course at Georgetown University called “Theology of Social Action.” It was taught by Father Otto Hentz, who was also President Clinton’s theology professor. The point of the class was to teach us that we had to go out in the world and “do something.”

I’ve always tried to help kids — as a big brother, as a lawyer and special public defender, or as an associate executive director of a Boys & Girls Club of America. But in each of these experiences, I was helping kids at what seemed to be too late a point in their lives. I wanted to create a place that could do something for kids before they needed help. So I decided to start a school. I wanted the school to be community-based and to have a flavor of adventure — to give kids the depth that they need to grow and to flourish. But I needed to learn a few things first: how to create an organization, how to make it strong, how to get financing, how to get good people involved. So I went to business school, and I haven’t looked back since.

My approach to giving back is simple: Try to see something that needs to be — and then help to create it. You don’t have to be a nonprofit worker bee, in the trenches day in and day out. There’s a great need for orchestra leaders, for people who can dream about something big and then actually make it happen. Kurt Hahn, the founder of Outward Bound, said that the purpose of education is to impel people to effect what they see to be right. That’s a good purpose to have in any endeavor.

Luke O’Neill began his career as a corporate attorney. In 1990, he joined the development staff of Outward Bound USA. In 1992, when he was at the program’s school in North Carolina, he raised a record-setting $8.5 million in 20 months. He founded Shackleton Schools ( in 1996.

Danny Grossman

Cofounder and President
Wild Planet Toys Inc.
San Francisco, California

There’s a potential danger when the private sector gets involved in the nonprofit sector — a danger of overpromising. Often our aspirations can gallop ahead of our ability to deliver. When I started Wild Planet, I wanted to create an organization that would promote a double bottom line — one of profit and one of social responsibility. But I never characterize my organization as a “socially responsible company” — because we’re not. We have plenty of warts, and we make plenty of mistakes. But in the beginning, we spent as much time defining our guiding values as we did defining the products that we take to market.

Rather than just erecting a corporate-giving program and then seeing if anyone took the bait, we polled people at our company to see what their interests were. Then we figured out how to form effective alliances with the “outside” world. The result is that our giving is consistent with the organization’s mission and values.

Danny Grossman has been a teacher, a mentor, and a little-league coach (in India). He has been a board member of Friends for Youth, an organization committed to establishing mentorships for at-risk kids, and he now serves on the board of the Children’s Television and Resource Education Center, which develops products and services to promote children’s social development. Wild Planet strives to create toys that parents will value and that kids will find cool.