The Philanthropy Roundtable is pleased to announce the selection of John A. and Susan Sobrato as the 2020 recipients of the William E. Simon Prize for Philanthropic Leadership. The prize honors philanthropists who exemplify the ideals and principles that guided Mr. Simon’s giving, including personal responsibility, resourcefulness, volunteerism, scholarship, individual freedom, faith in God, and helping people to help themselves.
As a young boy, John watched his Italian immigrant father, John Massimo Sobrato, work 18-hour days at his San Francisco restaurant. World War II rationing in the 1940s prompted his parents to purchase farmland in nearby Atherton, where they planted row crops and raised chickens to supply the restaurant. John recalls, “Both my mother and father worked very hard…and they both believed in giving back. I can remember when I was nine or ten watching my father give out cash…He was very, very generous to people in need.”
In 1952, when John was only 12 years old, his father passed away. Newly widowed, John’s mother, Ann, sold the restaurant and land, and invested the proceeds in more local property. Ann quickly discovered her penchant for real estate. Known today as “the Mother of Silicon Valley,” “Granny Ann” was a pioneer in the 1950s, developing apartment houses, warehouses, and—unusual for the time—buildings “on spec.” She paid John to sweep warehouses on the weekends during his elementary years and help her manage buildings during high school.
Born and raised a few miles away in the town of San Mateo, Susan describes hers as a “typical, happy, middle-class childhood,” when “no one locked their doors, and all the neighborhood kids played together.” After graduating high school and enjoying her new working life, she met John at the wedding of a mutual friend.
At 18, John earned his real estate license. He became the Palo Alto Real Estate Board’s first and youngest “Million Dollar Club” member.
John and Sue married at the age of 21 in 1960. While on their honeymoon, John received the news that the owner of the residential real estate firm at which he worked had passed away. John took over the business, renaming it Midtown Realty.
In 1961, John partnered with his mother to develop a 14,000 square foot “tilt-up” building for Lockheed Corporation in Sunnyvale. That early success prompted the decades of investment and development that built The Sobrato Organization into what it is today.
It is difficult to overstate The Sobrato Organization’s impact on the region. The list of companies for whom TSO has developed signature buildings is a veritable “who’s who” of Silicon Valley high tech: Apple (the now famous 1 Infinite Loop is a Sobrato development), Amazon, Facebook, Google, Sony Entertainment, Cisco, Netflix, EMC, Broadcom, Yahoo!, Intel, NVIDIA, and Citrix. The firm began diversifying in the early 1990s, investing in marketable securities, and developing residential communities. All told, more than 15 million square feet of Class-A commercial and R&D facilities have been developed by John’s company, with 75 commercial properties, hundreds of acres of land, and 30 apartment communities currently under Sobrato ownership.
The Sobratos have married their real estate and philanthropic endeavors by donating and running the Sobrato Centers for Nonprofits, a program which offers free office space, conference space, and collaboration opportunities to local nonprofits. Currently, the Centers offer space to 75 nonprofits in three centers across Silicon Valley. A fourth center is set to open this year.
In 1996, the Sobratos decided to formalize their philanthropy and officially involve all adult family members in their giving by founding the Sobrato Family Foundation. From the start, the family committed their foundation to giving back where their wealth was made and building opportunities for all in Silicon Valley.
The Sobratos have given generously to support organizations serving the homeless, micro-enterprise lenders, charter schools, and Catholic schools and colleges. These include Cristo Rey San Jose Jesuit High School, which John co-founded seven years ago, San Jose diocesan schools, and Santa Clara University. One of their favorite initiatives is SEAL – the Sobrato Early Academic Language Model, a high-quality program for English Learners from preschool through grade 3. SEAL has now been implemented in 31 Silicon Valley schools and is reaching over 100 schools and 50,000 children across California.
John and Susan Sobrato are regularly recognized on Forbes’ America’s Top Givers list as well as the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s Philanthropy 50.
In 2012, John and Susan, together with their oldest son, John Michael, became the first multigeneration signatory of the Giving Pledge and committed to give 100% of their wealth to their foundation or to charities.
The William E. Simon Prize for Philanthropic Leadership includes a $200,000 award which the Sobratos will donate to Cristo Rey San Jose Jesuit High School. More information about the prize and a full list of previous winners can be found here.
John and Susan will be celebrated on Thursday, October 15 during a special lunch in Naples, Florida at The Philanthropy Roundtable’s 2020 Annual Meeting.
Read more about John Sobrato in an interview that ran in the Fall 2018 issue of Philanthropy magazine.