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Five Questions with EC’s Founder and President Laurene Powell Jobs

Laurene Powell Jobs is an entrepreneur and the Founder and President of Emerson Collective, a company working to create a world of abundance for future generations.

In establishing Emerson Collective in 2011, Laurene pioneered a new model for impact that combines venture capital investing and philanthropic grant-making under one roof to accelerate solutions to complex challenges in education and economic mobility, immigration and the environment.

In 2021, Laurene also created the Waverley Street Foundation, a spend-down fund focused on advancing climate solutions that arise from and address the needs of communities on the frontlines of climate change.

A staunch advocate for education, in 1997 Laurene founded College Track, a program helping thousands of students facing systemic barriers become the first in their family to graduate from college. She is also cofounder of The XQ Institute, an organization working to ensure high schools are preparing students for high-demand, high wage jobs. She serves as board chair of both organizations.

Laurene is lead investor and board chair of The Atlantic and she serves on the boards of Chicago CRED, Elemental Excelerator (where she is board chair), The Council on Foreign Relations and The Ford Foundation. She is a member of the National Academy of Arts and Sciences and a recipient of Stanford Graduate School of Business’ Ernest C. Arbuckle Award.

Why did you choose the name Emerson Collective?

Both words are very meaningful to me. I’m deeply inspired by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s writings on our ability to transcend limitations that are placed on us by society. I love the word collective because it acknowledges that we are all at our best when we learn from–and work with–team members who share a sense of purpose and possibility. Like steel sharpens steel, we make each other better. With the name Emerson Collective, we recognize that humanity is bound together, and that we can create new possibilities by drawing on one another’s gifts and talents.

How did College Track inform Emerson Collective?

Working with the students, families and staff of College Track enriched my understanding of our country and the many systems within it. At its best, the public education system is an engine for social and economic mobility. But we all know it doesn’t always work that way. Education is not an isolated or siloed domain. It connects to a broader set of systems that touch people’s lives, including immigration, health, environment and economic opportunities. The understanding of just how interconnected these issues are was fundamental to the creation of Emerson Collective.

Why are multidisciplinary solutions important to addressing society’s challenges?

It’s very difficult to make sustainable and sustained change. None of the issues we are trying to address have easy solutions and making progress requires a variety of approaches. We work with domain experts with a breadth of experiences, insights, and relationships, and we use a range of tools, like philanthropy, investing, convening, and storytelling to build broad coalitions. As challenges evolve, we are nimble in our response and find that a cross functional approach often yields unexpected results.

Emerson Collective is structured as an LLC, rather than a non-profit, like traditional philanthropic foundations. Why is that structure important to the way EC works?

Dr. Martin Luther King said that philanthropy is a very useful and good tool, but it can’t ignore the conditions that created it. I believe that philanthropy is a very powerful tool for good, but it’s not the only powerful tool. Mission driven investing is a tool for good. Art and activism and storytelling are tools for good. The LLC structure allows us the flexibility to creatively use the best attributes of all these models to address emerging needs and opportunities.

What is your biggest hope for what Emerson Collective can achieve?

I would like Emerson Collective to be a place where great leaders come to do difficult things. Through our efforts, we hope to shape a world where people are not bound by the circumstances of their birth. Instead, they have the ability and agency to design their own paths—aligned with their highest and best purposes. We work to create equitable opportunities, and my hope is that we leave the world a little improved because we have existed.