Talking with John A. Sobrato ’60 about building Silicon Valley—literally—and shaping it for future generations.
Talk about Silicon Valley, and the conversation naturally covers tech companies that make this place famous. Among them: Apple, Yahoo!, NVIDIA, Netflix, VeriSign … Not coincidentally, the campuses and buildings that house those iconic companies were all built by John A. Sobrato ’60. Few have done more to literally build the Valley. For that, and for the decades of leadership in philanthropy, John A. and Sue Sobrato were honored in 2015 with the Silicon Valley Leadership Group’s Spirit of Silicon Valley–Lifetime Achievement Award. This seemed a fine time to ask John A. Sobrato to sit down for an interview with Michael S. Malone ’75, MBA ’77—whose writing chronicling the epicenter of innovation has earned him the nickname the “professor emeritus of Silicon Valley.”
Right place, right time
While a student, Sobrato arranged his class schedule so he could start selling Eichler houses in Palo Alto part-time. By the age of 22, he founded Midtown Realty and was the youngest member of the Million Dollar Club of the Palo Alto Real Estate Board. In 1972, he sold Midtown Realty to focus exclusively on high-tech commercial properties. He went on to found The Sobrato Organization, one of the largest commercial development firms in Silicon Valley.
Malone: What role do you see yourself playing in Silicon Valley? It’s obvious that you’re a central figure in this story, but you’re not in that cavalcade of electronics companies, chip companies, computer companies. You play a very distinct role in this town.
Sobrato: I started my career when I was attending Santa Clara as a sophomore. In about 1957 I got a real estate license and sold houses three days a week and went to school three days a week. That kind of shaped my career as a real estate developer. I guess I was at the right place at the right time.
Malone: But there were a lot of people in the right place at the right time and didn’t accomplish what you did.
Sobrato: Well, I was fortunate. I’d say back in the early ’60s my mother started buying a few properties. My father died when I was 12, and my mother took some proceeds from the sale of my father’s restaurant in San Francisco.
Malone: He had a very famous restaurant, John’s Rendezvous.
Sobrato: Yes, he did—but actually, when she went to sell it, she sold it for $75,000. The wine alone was worth that much. So she started buying a few properties. This wasn’t Silicon Valley back then. It was still a lot of fruit orchards and the like. … She just bought property on instinct. When I got involved after I graduated and started doing some deals with her, at least I could go through the math and figure out if we were making a return or not. Back in those days, it was pretty hard to make a mistake. Everything turned to gold.
Why Santa Clara?
John and Susan Sobrato and the Sobrato Family Foundation have been prominent philanthropists in Silicon Valley for decades. They donated $20 million to build the University’s Harrington Learning Commons, Sobrato Technology Center, and Orradre Library, completed in 2008. Gifts from the Sobrato family have also supported other major capital projects on campus, including the Sobrato Residential Learning Community, Abby Sobrato Mall, and numerous other campus buildings. Sobrato also serves on SCU’s Board of Trustees.
Malone: SCU is your alma mater, but I can’t help but feel there are a million things calling for your attention out there. Why this university?
Sobrato: Well, I think again, I was at the right place at the right time when I decided to come to Santa Clara. (I was accepted at Berkeley, but then I went on a retreat when I was a senior at Bellarmine College Prep and pretty well was convinced that I’d go to hell if I didn’t go to Santa Clara!) Anyway, as I mentioned, it was fortuitous because it gave me the opportunity, once I was a sophomore, to arrange my classes so I could work in real estate three days a week, go to school three days a week.
At Santa Clara, in addition to a technical education, you have your education pretty well grounded in ethics. The Jesuits believe in educating the whole person. We have the three C’s here at Santa Clara: competence, compassion, and conscience. That’s driven into students. My son John Michael ’83 and his deceased wife, Abby ’83, both graduated from Santa Clara. I had two grandsons graduate here three or four years ago. All of them were taught the same thing I was taught: that if you are successful in a particular business, you have an obligation to share some of that success with the communities where you were able to succeed—for us, where we were able to construct buildings and make our business a success.
Give it away
Since its founding, the Sobrato Family Foundation has donated nearly $315 million in cash and real estate to educational, health, human services, and other charities. Elsewhere in Silicon Valley, gifts from the Sobrato family have included $20 million to Lucille Packard Children’s Hospital, $10 million to Bellarmine College Preparatory high school, and $5 million each to Valley Medical Center and National Hispanic University. A $1.25 million gift in 2012 helped build the Cristo Rey San Jose Jesuit High School, where John Sobrato currently serves as board co-chair.
Malone: You and your son John Michael signed the Warren Buffet pledge to give away your wealth.
Sobrato: Basically, yeah—the pledge requires you to promise that you’re going to give half your net worth of your estate to charity when, as I call it, “your will matures.” In our case, we decided a long time ago, since we were able to set up the family so they all feel comfortable, that Sue and I, and also John Michael, would give 100 percent of our wealth to charity.
Malone: So before the pledge, you’d already made that personal commitment.
Sobrato: When Warren Buffet called me, I said, “You’re too late. We already decided to do that.” He said, “Well, I still want you on the list.” “Okay,” I said.
Malone: You pioneered a trend by going into philanthropy. I think of you and I think of Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard beginning all this. Thirty years ago the complaint was that Silicon Valley didn’t give any money to charity. “It’s tightwads, new money”—and all that. Now Silicon Valley seems to lead the philanthropic role in some ways.
Sobrato: I think so. The Silicon Valley Community Foundation now is the largest in the United States. They have $7 billion under management, all in donor-advised funds.
A few enlightened folks, like the Zuckerbergs, have set aside $150 million of their billion that they gave to the foundation to go into education in Silicon Valley. But I would say all the other major donors have an alma mater outside of California that they donate to—or they get involved with international causes. As a consequence, very few of those $7 billion gets invested in Silicon Valley. So we as a foundation have decided that we need to primarily focus our giving on causes here in Silicon Valley. We hope that what we’re doing will create a culture of philanthropy that gives back in our own neighborhood.
“Wait till you see what’s coming.”
The Sobrato Organization owns 8 million square feet of office space and R&D facilities in Silicon Valley and 8,000 apartments in California, Oregon, and Washington. Sobrato serves as board chair of the family firm and oversees the three Sobrato Centers for Nonprofits that provide rent free office space to 56 nonprofit service providers totaling 350,000 square feet. Through the Sobrato House and Sobrato Center for Employment Training, grants, and other endeavors, the Sobrato organization supports job programs, the Sobrato Early Academic Language program, and many others.
Malone: I spent some time with Malin Burnham down in San Diego. He’s kind of you in San Diego: He transformed that city just as you’ve transformed Silicon Valley. Malin said to me that the smartest thing he ever did was retiring early and starting philanthropy early so he could actually learn the art of philanthropy. He’s about 86 and he’s had a 40-year run of being a philanthropist. He got good at it, as opposed to waiting until he was 70 years old and getting into it. Do you feel the same way? Because you started young, too.
Sobrato: Well, yes. Our foundation now will be 20 years old next year. Prior to founding that, I did some individual giving. It was back in the early ’80s when I got involved with Santa Clara, when Father Bill Rewak was president. I think the first major gift we made here was to endow the chair of engineering. Then we got involved with the reroute of the El Camino. I paid for part of that.
Malone: Thank you. The students thank you.
Sobrato: With Santa Cara it’s been a great experience. I’m looking forward to seeing the Santa Clara 2020 plan fulfilled: the new law school, the new STEM campus. People feel that the new buildings that have been built here in the last three or four years have transformed the campus.