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Giving Magazine
Reid Hoffman: Lofty Ambitions
by Kent Allen
LinkedIn's co-founder brings his venture capital savvy to philanthropy.

Even by the frenetic standards of Silicon Valley, Reid Hoffman, 47, is a busy man. He’s been at the center or on the periphery of dozens of start-ups, most prominently as a principal at PayPal and as co-founder of LinkedIn, the modern-day equivalents of—and now just as vital to life as—the personal check and the Rolodex. A venture capitalist who seems to have a finger in every tech pie, Hoffman is “the most connected man in Silicon Valley,” according to Forbes, which gives his net worth at upwards of $4 billion.

His involvement in nonprofits is as wide and deep as it is in his moneymaking enterprises, and he takes pains to apply the same ambition and business sensibility to the socially conscious organizations he supports. His intensity and the diversity of his interests are what you might expect from someone with a degree in symbolic systems (which focuses on different aspects of the human-computer relationship) from Stanford and a master’s in philosophy from Oxford.

In Hoffman’s nonprofit orbit of interest, a primary planet is Kiva, an unconventional “charity” that is more of a lending facility than a donative vehicle. The organization matches up lenders with borrowers for small-scale ventures.

Generally, the borrowers, who dot the landscape across the globe, have an idea for a small business but require as little as a few hundred dollars in startup capital. With few exceptions, they nearly always pay back the no-interest loan in its entirety after their businesses are in gear. While that track record is vital to the organization’s survival, Hoffman sees other benefits: Both lenders and borrowers, he believes, have an opportunity to learn how a small amount of money can make a big difference. He recently gave the organization $1 million so that thousands of would-be micro-lenders—who can invest as little as $25—could get a feel for the lending side of Kiva’s potential power. He is equally enthusiastic about the receiving end of the loans.

“The pattern you want is to empower people to invest in themselves,” Hoffman told TechCrunch, a blog about technology startups, in an interview last year in which he lauded Kiva for making small businesspeople out of ordinary folks who might not otherwise have the chance.

Hoffman takes a similar approach to other nonprofit organizations with which he’s been affiliated, including Do-Something and Endeavor Global. Do-Something resembles Kiva but targets young lenders specifically. Its generation-next edginess was apparent recently on its website: “Join over 2.2 million people taking action,” it urged. “Why? Because apathy sucks.”

By contrast, Endeavor Global, while a nonprofit, is not a charity. It matches up successful businesspeople with prospective entrepreneurs in a mentoring program. Hoffman himself takes on the role of mentor. In a posting on the organization’s website, he offered his “top 10 rules of entrepreneurship.” They included “aim big,” “maintain flexible persistence,” and “look for disruptive change.”

Hoffman says that in college he decided he wanted to try to influence the state of the world on a large scale. “My plan was to become a professor and public intellectual,” he told Director magazine a few years ago. “That is not about quoting Kant. It’s about holding up a lens to society and asking, ‘Who are we?’ and ‘Who should we be, as individuals and a society?’’’ But he soon determined that he could make a greater impact as an entrepreneur—and now he’s trying to help others do the same.

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