Some thoughts on philanthropy

As I mentioned in my latest keynote, Let’s Build a Better Future, the best way to improve humanity is by harnessing the deflationary power of technology. Technology makes things more affordable, thereby increasing people’s quality of life. As a result, the cost of food, water, communications, transportation, electricity and essentials, has collapsed over the last two centuries. And its effects have even visible during our lifetime – when I was a kid only the rich took planes, owned cars, or had cell phones. Today they are accessible to almost everyone.

FJ Labs invests in and builds marketplaces. Marketplaces are deflationary because they bring liquidity, transparency and efficiency to previously opaque and fragmented markets. We have already invested in over 300 startups and will invest in 50-100 new startups every year covering almost every industry and geography. Likewise, the companies we build, like OLX, touch over 300 million people every month, millions of whom make a living on the site.

In other words, what I do professionally with FJ Labs impact many more people than anything I do philanthropically. Even then, we see the first order effects of our work and investment but do not always see the transformative second-hand impacts on the masses whose lives are improved. Nor is this contribution given traditional recognition by society at large. So, when approaching traditional philanthropic giving, I think deeply about how to complement my professional work to directly impact those in need and have come up with a reasonably non-traditional approach.

After a few large exits, I made large financial donations to my close friends, many of whom have chosen to transition to the less lucrative fields of academia and research instead of law and medicine. Others have just been generally less fortunate in life. I thought long and hard about the implications as I did not want it to damage my friendships but on balance I decided all could use some help.

To minimize the potential impact on their behavior and their friendships, I made sure to:

  • Only give to my closest friends whom I had known forever,
  • Make it clear it was a onetime gift, and
  • Give it with no strings attached and no expectation of accounting for what was done with the funds

The last point was very important. I often feel that there is an element of paternalism in people’s gifts. I trust my friends to know what is best for them. It is not my role to judge or assess therefore I gave explaining that I did not even want to know what their plans for the funds were. I just wanted to know that it was helpful to them in general.

My first more traditional donation came out of that process as well. One of my best friends, Niroshana Anadasabapathy, decided to start working on a basil cell carcinoma vaccine. She is brilliant and I would fund anything she worked on, so I made a 10-year commitment to support her lab. By sheer coincidence, I also ended up getting basil cell carcinoma, so I am even more committed to her success.

This personal connection has influenced my giving since then – I want to make long term commitments to organizations that resonate with me. Given my attachment to the Dominican Republic and my love for the local community in Cabarete, I became the largest local giver to the Dream Project to pay for the education of 7,500 children. I also funded their tech center to make sure the kids had Internet access and became tech savvy.

I started backing University of the People, a non-profit, tuition-free, online American University. Their goal is to open access to higher education – which speaks to my interest in education and the value of technology and access. I also invest in Laboratoria, which helps women improve their lives by learning to code and start higher-paying jobs in the technology sector.

In order to promote entrepreneurship around the world I back Venture for America and Endeavor. Venture for America is a two-year fellowship program for university graduates who want to work at startups that will grow jobs in American cities. FJ Labs helps out Endeavor, an organization that mentors and works with amazing entrepreneurs worldwide, by vetting or investing in their companies.

After watching John Oliver’s brilliant piece on medical debt, I forgave $1 million in underprivileged children’s medical debt through RIP Medical Debt. Over 64M Americans struggle to pay medical bills every year and a donation of just $100 may forgive $10,000 in medical debt.

Of late I have been reflecting how to be more systematic and thoughtful in my approach, especially how to help those who lack the most. That is where my good friend Alexandre Mars comes in. After a long and successful entrepreneurial career, he decided to focus most of his efforts on building EPIC. They systematically identify the top 36 organizations that warrant supporting and try to convince people to make donating to them the norm.

To help him, I became the NY ambassador of EPIC and we are thinking through how to present donating options to FJ Labs companies. As part of our upcoming welcome package for FJ Labs companies, we want to offer founders the opportunity to give a percentage of their future exits and automatic gifting by their employees through payroll deductions. I will also sign the EPIC pledge – promising a portion of my future exit proceeds to the EPIC portfolio.

It has been a fun and interesting journey. I had not spent much time pondering my approach or even tallying how much I was donating until my friend Niroshana interviewed me about my philanthropic philosophy as part of a class she’s teaching at Harvard. My thinking and approach will keep evolving over the years and I will be sure to update you.

2017 Holiday Gadget Gift Guide

It’s that time of the year again, so I am sharing my recommendations for all gadget lovers of the world to be happy this holiday season.

Notebook: MSI GS63VR Stealth Pro-002 & MSI GS73VR Stealth Pro-033

Both are amazing. They have 120Mhz 3ms screens, i7-7700HQ processors, an Nvidia GTX 1070 with 8Gb of GDDR5, a 512Gb SSD and a 1 TB regular hard drive. They are both incredibly light at 4 and 5.3 pounds respectively for the 15.6” and 17” models.

In the past I opted for the 15” version, but this year I switched to the 17” version. I prefer the larger screen to work and play on when I am traveling, and it has a much longer battery life, though obviously on the short side (3 hours) for a notebook given how powerful it is.

Computer Monitor: Philips BDM4350UC

When it comes to computer monitors I have always been of the thought that bigger is better. Given that it’s not uncommon for high end 32” 4K monitors to cost upwards of $1,000, the Philips BDM4350UC is an absolute bargain at $599.

The Philips BDM4350UC has a 50,000,000:1 contrast ratio, 5ms response time and supports 3840×2160 at 60Hz. This monitor fixes one the big flaws of the Philips BMD4065UC given that it supports HDMI 2.0. Note that by default the monitor is set for DisplayPort 1.1 and HDMI 1.4. You must manually go in monitor settings and switch them to 1.2 and 2.0 respectively. Once it’s done, it works gloriously!

Working and gaming are amazing on it. Without hesitation, it’s the monitor to get!

Game Console: PS4 Pro

I own both a PS4 Pro and an Xbox One X. The Xbox One X is the most powerful console on the market yet and is now my default console for games that are available on both platforms such as Call of Duty: WW2. Games which take advantage of the Xbox One X’s power such as Gears of War 4 look stunning.

The reason I am recommending the PS4 Pro is that it has the better exclusives, especially Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, Horizon Zero Dawn and Drake Uncharted 4. I am also looking forward to The Last of Us 2.

Video Games

I stopped playing FPS many years ago. I was tired of the new iterations of Call of Duty which became increasingly unrealistic as your characters walked on walls, made impossible jumps etc. I am happy to report that Call of Duty: WW2 is a welcome return to the genre’s roots. It still follows the tried and true Call of Duty game mechanics, so I may tire of it faster than I did in the early incantations, but in the meantime, it’s tons of fun.

I love third person action adventure games and this year had two amazing entries in the genre: Uncharted: The Lost Legacy and Horizon Zero Dawn. Unchartered: The Lost Legacy is a spin off worthy of Drake Unchartered 4. The two heroines have amazing chemistry. There is a very even mix of puzzles, combat and exploration. The set pieces are amazing and recall some of the earlier Unchartered games and combat is engrossing. Horizon Zero Dawn takes place in a unique universe where giant mechanical animals roam the land and it’s up to you to figure out how this happened. The story is engrossing and the combat complex and thrilling.

If you have not played them yet, GTA V, Rise of the Tomb Raider, The Last of Us, Max Payne 3, L.A. Noire and Gears of War 4 and Drake Unchartered 4 are all worth playing.

On the PC, I am still playing Company of Heroes 2 while waiting impatiently waiting for Age of Empires IV.

Gaming Headset: HyperX Cloud II

The HyperX Cloud II headset is the perfect companion for the computer and PS4 recommendations above. It’s super comfortable. The microphone noise cancellation is the best I have ever used. People I talk to can’t hear the background noise even when I am in a noisy environment. Likewise, by being closed cup, the headset has amazing noise cancellation and I can work and play effectively from anywhere.

One of my top pet peeves is people not using headsets with built in microphones when doing Skype calls. Especially if you are fund raising it does not reflect positively on you if I can hear you are in a noisy coffee shop and can barely hear what you tell me. If you do a lot of Skype calls get a great headset!

Webcam: Logitech HD Pro C922 and Logitech 4K Pro

Given that most of my work entails doing Zoom and Skype calls, webcam video quality is key and the Logitech 4K Pro has the best, but is very expensive at $199. If 1080p is good enough the C922 is amazing as well for $79.

TV: Vizio M75-E1 & LG 65B7A OLED

When it comes to TVs I think bigger is better. The Vizio M75-E1 is a 75” 4K HDR TV with the best picture quality and features of any TV in its price range costing just $1,799.

If you are less price sensitive and don’t mind getting a smaller TV, the LG 65B7A has the best picture quality of any TV ever made and costs $2,299 for 65” options at Amazon.

Living Room Speaker: Devialet Phantom Silver

The Devialet has by far the best sound of any speaker I have ever listened to. It has no distortion, even at high volume, no saturation and no background noise. It’s so powerful, even in its 3,000 Watt silver option, that I only installed one in my living room as a replacement for the various Sonos Play:5 speakers I had. I setup the Sonos speakers in the media room instead with the Sonos sound bar and subwoofer.

BTW Don’t put the Sonos and Devialet on the same system as they have different lag so the sound is not synchronized. The Devialet has a built-in lag of 160ms, while the Sonos has a lag of 70ms.

Home Automation: Mix and Match and control with Amazon Echo Dot

I tested the Google Home Mini and the Amazon Echo Dot both of which cost $49. The Google Home Mini actually has better voice recognition, but I opted for the Amazon Echo Dot because it had integrations with all of the devices in my home: Sonos (which Google does not yet support), Logitech Harmony, Lutron, Smarthings and Ecobee.

To control all the AV in the media room, I setup a Logitech Harmony Elite. With one remote, I control the PS4 Pro, Xbox One X, Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, Verizon Fios and external HDMI input. There is still a little bit of lag, but I find it bearable and the remote control works well with all the aforementioned devices.

The blind motors are Somfy. I am using some custom code to control them via SmartThings which I then control though Alexa, my iPhone or iPad.

The fireplace is connected to a Remotec ZFM-80 z-wave relay. This relay is connected to SmartThings. Lights are Lutron Caseta wireless. I am using Ecobee 4 thermostats to control both the HVAC and the floor heating.

Here is a video of all of it in action in my master bedroom:

I must admit that it’s far from trivial to setup and it took me hours both to do the original installation and to connect everything in an intelligible way to Alexa. I am still working on my naming nomenclature to make everything as user friendly as possible. Non-tech savvy individuals should probably abstain or get a professional installer.

Happy holidays!