Larry Brilliant

Executive director of

[Background: An endocrinologist with a masters in public health from the University of Michigan and an MD from Wayne Medical School; worked on the World Health Organization’s smallpox-eradication program; founded the Seva Foundation, a nonprofit that helps eliminate curable blindness in the developing world; works as an adviser to the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, Omidyar Network, and Kleiner Perkins venture capital; cofounded The Well, a pioneering online community.]



“When my role with was announced, my three children said, ‘Dad, now your life finally makes sense to us.’ I had spent time as a tech wonk, and then I would rush off to Africa to eradicate small pox. It didn’t make sense to them, those two very different things. At Google, I combine them. I can analyze a business plan and balance sheet, and I also have field experience in the developing world, so I understand how to get things done.”


“No one has built a before, so we don’t have the vocabulary for it. We think of ourselves as a hybrid philanthropy and an experiment. We’re not a traditional 501(c)3. We’re not primarily using tax-advantaged funds. We have $90 million in a foundation structure, but the majority of the value of the 3 million shares of Google stock and 1% of profits– which turns out to be $2 billion–is not restricted. We also have the resources of talented and socially engaged Googlers. That’s our greatest asset.”


“Creating this from a white sheet of paper has been a classically Googly process. We started out doing VC-industry mapping and looking at the holes in what’s the single most important thing to do on climate change, the prevention of communicable diseases, and poverty. We asked, ‘Do we have anything to add?’ We began with thousands of ideas from Googlers and others in the field, and winnowed them down. We made it a straight-out competition: Show up on Monday armed with your data and your plan–where we’d give grants, where we’d make investments, the outcomes–and prove it. Then we got together and ranked each idea. Does it fit on the scale of changing the world? Does it fit Google?”



“After our grueling selection process, we presented one of the initiatives on renewable energy to Larry and Sergey [cofounders Page and Brin], and Larry said, ‘That’s great, but it’s not enough. You’re not thinking big enough.’ So we went back to the drawing board. He was right. You can make unlimited renewable energy from electricity, but unless you find a way to make it cheaper than electricity from coal in China and make it replicable and profitable to others, it won’t achieve the climate-change reduction we need.

We’re investing $10 million in startups like eSolar, a solar-thermal power company. We’re giving grants to research labs that are developing tech solutions to geo-thermal, solar, and wind power. We’re funding studies to show the health effects of different kinds of electricity–renewable or fossil fuels.”


“I try not to be reactive, but it’s the hardest thing, because I get thousands of emails about what should do and I can’t answer all of them. I try to keep focused on what are the few things we can do. How do we hire to get there? What’s the business plan for each initiative?”



“I try to visit our projects in India and Africa and China once a year. I also spend a lot of time inside Google, with the product groups, hearing about new developments to see which ones apply to our work. One team told us it was going to announce $10 million in prizes for mobile apps, so we said, ‘Let’s make some that benefit poor people in the developing world. Public-health apps. Economic-development apps.’ Now we have the developer community building apps for”


“I don’t want to wax too sycophantically, but I think they’re moral prodigies. It takes quite a bit of prescience before you’re a public company to say, ‘We’re going to take 1% of our stock and profits and put it in service of things that don’t benefit shareholders but make the world better for all of us.'”


About the author

Chuck Salter is a senior editor at Fast Company and a longtime award-winning feature writer for the magazine. In addition to his print, online and video stories, he performs live reported narratives at various conferences, and he edited the Fast Company anthologies Breakthrough Leadership, Hacking Hollywood, and #Unplug