Technology

Google's Brilliant Philanthropist


Dr. Larry Brilliant has helped the blind to see and has been instrumental in eradicating small pox in India. But these feats may pale in comparison to the challenge that now lies before him. On Feb. 21, Google said Brilliant, an epidemiologist and tech entrepreneur, will become the executive director of Google.org, the Web-search giant's charitable arm.

Google (GOOG) founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin have promised shareholders they will make a social impact that will eventually "eclipse Google itself" by tackling the world's problems. In autumn, 2005, they outlined plans for Google.org, a network that includes both a charitable foundation with a $90 million endowment and other forms of social investing (see BW Online, 10/20/05, "Googling for Charity").

The network will focus its charitable endeavors on global poverty, energy, and the environment. Ultimately, Google.org will spend a sum that equals about 1% of the number of shares Google had when it went public. Based on the current stock price, that implies spending of more than $1.1 billion. Says Brilliant, "I'm drinking from a firehose."

"TWO DIFFERENT PERSONALITIES." Brilliant has just the eclectic background that makes him a natural fit for Google's philanthropic thrust. He is a physican and epidemiologist who has also been heralded as a tech visionary. He spent a decade studying religion in at a Himalayan monastery in India, followed by a stint as a diplomat with the U.N. He helped lead a World Health Organization program to eradicate smallpox and later founded the Berkeley (Calif.)-based Seva Foundation, an international health nonprofit group credited with restoring sight to more than 2 million blind people.

His tech credentials are also impressive. In 1985, Brilliant co-founded the Well, one of the oldest online communities, and he has been involved in a number of tech startups in the past two decades. "I've lived these two different personalities," says Brilliant. "I understand how a technology company works and will commit those resources to helping Google make the world a better place."

This is why the tech company chose Brilliant, says Sheryl Sandberg, Google's vice-president of global online sales and operations. "Larry Brilliant has the true passion to change the world, combined with proven ability to do so."

Brilliant plans to start his tenure with a pilgrimage to other foundations that are making a difference on a large scale. First stop: the Gates Foundation, where he says Dr. William Foege, senior fellow in global health, is a dear friend and former mentor. "He's the first person I'll call," Brilliant says.

VOLUNTEERS ABOUND. Brilliant expects to hire experts over the next few months to build knowledge in the fields where the network aims to make its mark. Apart from that, he says he has no immediate hiring plans, and reckons the organization doesn't need to be big to be effective. Meanwhile, Brilliant has no shortage of folks who are lining up to volunteer with Google.org, starting from within the Googleplex itself. More than 400 Google employees currently help administer the Google Grants program, which has donated $33 million in advertising to more than 850 nonprofit groups.

For now, Brilliant's not divulging much more about how the network plans to spend its windfall. The Google.org Web site remains skeletal, providing only broad brush strokes for the network's long-term plans. Google.org currently supports the Acumen Fund, a nonprofit that addresses global poverty through capital markets.

It is also funding TechnoServe's attempt to launch a business-plan competition and entrepreneurship-development program in Ghana. And it backs PlanetRead, a literacy group in India that is adding subtitles to song videos and Bollywood films to encourage reading among people with low literacy skills.

Those who've worked with Brilliant express faith in his ability to execute Google.org's mission. "Larry is able to get his vision across and really rev up people and have them buy into what he's trying to tell them," says Anthony Kozlowski, executive director of Seva, founded 27 years ago by Brilliant.

As Brilliant prepares for his new role, he's already clear on his vision. He says: "In 10 years, I'd like people to say Google changed the world less for its search engine than for the way in which it changed philanthropy to make the world a better place." Given Google's revolutionary impact on the way people search for information, Brilliant's order is a tall one indeed.


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