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The Giving Kind
Anh-Minh Le | Photo: Aubrie Pick | November 3, 2016
Atherton’s Felicia Horowitz is investing her time and resources to uplift communities, locally and globally.
Felicia Horowitz is standing in the middle of the prep kitchen at Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood. Her ensemble—a black-and-white-patterned cardigan, gingham-print pants and raspberry-hued Nicholas Kirkwood flats—has been accessorized with a hairnet, disposable gloves and plastic apron that swishes with her every movement. On this Wednesday morning, one of several days of the week that she volunteers at Glide, she is not Felicia Horowitz, the Atherton philanthropist and wife of well-known venture capitalist Ben Horowitz. She is not @feliciahorowitz, whose Instagram account includes pictures with celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo and Alicia Keys. (Earlier this year, Horowitz was included on Winfrey’s SuperSoul 100, which describes itself as a list of “awakened leaders who are using their voices and talent to elevate humanity.”) Here, at Glide, she is just Felicia, the woman with a ready smile and bubbly personality who has become a fixture in the prep kitchen and at Sunday service over the past seven years. “My intention,” she says of her philanthropic work, both in the Bay Area and abroad, “is to let people know that they are not alone.”
In August, Horowitz received the Janice Mirikitani Legacy Award, named after one of Glide’s two founders; the other is Mirikitani’s husband, Rev. Cecil Williams. The award is bestowed annually upon an agent of change who is furthering Glide’s mission of creating an inclusive community while helping the impoverished and empowering the marginalized. Horowitz’s acceptance speech, recounts Mirikitani, “made me cry. What she was saying was: What really matters is the human life—your passion to help others and to give back to the community. It’s not enough to be successful behind your computers and to earn the money. The greatest gift that you can give is to humanity.”
The gala event that honored Horowitz—along with CNN contributor and Dream Corps co-founder Van Jones, and journalist and prisoners’ rights activist Sarah Shourd—represented a rare moment in the limelight for Horowitz. Although a people person (“You have to be to do what I do”), she has normally shied away from press. And despite being so well-connected in Silicon Valley, she lacks any hint of self-importance. Since she is keen to call attention to some of the charitable organizations that she is passionate about, our initial interview takes place at Glide, where Horowitz is in the prep kitchen making lunch and “jaw-jabbing,” as she puts it, with Stephanie Gonzales, the community advocate at Glide Women’s Center. In addition to three hot meals a day, Glide offers a range of services; among them childcare, HIV/hepatitis C testing and counseling, housing assistance, substance-abuse recovery and free legal aid, as well as domestic violence and leadership programs.
Wherever we go at Glide—the prep kitchen, the dining room, the walk-in center—Horowitz doles out hugs and how are yous. She is clearly in her element. “Felicia came here and she didn’t hide,” confirms Williams. “A lot of folks who come here, come once a year to work. She’s made this place her home almost, and the people her home. She came in and didn’t ask for favors. She didn’t say I’m so-and-so, and I’m better than they are. … She is here because she wants to make this a better world. She exerts all that she has by putting herself on the line: ‘I will do this. I will not talk it; I will walk it.’ Therefore, when she talks and walks, she is also saying, ‘I have the courage to face people I don’t know. These are strangers. But I’m here. I’m present. I’m with you.’”
For Horowitz, “Glide is like a philosophy, and it’s a philosophy I grew up with,” she says. “It’s part of my DNA, so I’ve always been involved with Glide.” She proceeds to share stories about her maternal grandmother, affectionately referred to as Madea. The portmanteau, Horowitz explains, means “mother dearest” or “mother dear.” (Her real name was Geneva Smith Lynch.) Madea was born in Texas in 1911 and, at age 23, moved to Louisiana—“the very deep, segregated South,” Horowitz notes. Madea was the person who, after a tragedy in the community, would attend to the grieving family members, providing support as needed.
Madea served as a model for Horowitz’s mother, who everyone calls Nana. As a kid growing up in Southern California, Horowitz remembers accompanying her mom on visits to the local hospitals, playing jacks in the waiting rooms. “My mother wasn’t part of the protest; she wasn’t part of the outcry. She was with the family,” says Horowitz. “My mom wasn’t a doctor or an architect. But she saved lives, and she helped rebuild communities.” There was, for instance, the high-profile case of Ron Settles. In 1981, the morning after his arrest on a speeding violation, the California State University, Long Beach football player was found hanging in his jail cell. “[Nana] was there when word hit,” Horowitz adds. “She and my sister got in the car and went to the home of the survivors to see what they needed to do to help this family rebuild and get through this tragedy.”
Today, Horowitz is carrying on Madea’s and Nana’s community-focused legacy. In 2012, Andreessen Horowitz—the Sand Hill Road firm that her husband Ben co-founded in 2009 with Marc Andreessen and that was an early investor in companies such as Facebook, Twitter and Airbnb—announced that its general partners would be donating at least half of their venture capital earnings to various causes. “We believe that there is greatness everywhere, but not opportunity,” she says of the couple’s reason for giving. In addition to Glide, beneficiaries of the Horowitzes’ charity include Stanford Hospital; Ben’s alma mater, Columbia University; Sacred Heart Preparatory in Atherton, which one of their daughters graduated from; Santa Clara-based Via Services; and the American Jewish World Service. The proceeds from Ben’s 2014 book, The Hard Thing About Hard Things, are earmarked wholly for the latter.
Horowitz’s hands-on work with the organization has taken her all over the world, as she advocates on behalf of marginalized groups—including the sex workers in Cambodia, the transgender community in Uganda and disenfranchised Haitians in the Dominican Republic. “I am always impressed by how much it means to the people that we serve that we show up to hear their stories rather than just sending a check in the mail,” she remarks. Robert Bank, president and CEO of AJWS, has traveled with Horowitz on several trips for the nonprofit. “She’s open and embracing of others,” he says. “People circle around Felicia.” In Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, they met with members of CODECOT, a group of indigenous midwives whose mission is to reduce maternal and neonatal mortality. In Patna, India, in the state of Bihar—where 70 percent of the people are living in poverty—she connected with IZAD, an organization whose goal is to empower those who are socially excluded and who face discrimination—for example, those facing barriers to getting work, obtaining titles for land, and receiving basic services such as education and health care. “These are not small things,” Bank continues. “These are serious human rights issues, impacting thousands of people’s lives. Whether you call it community-building, networking or advocacy, she is impacting social change.”
Felicia Wiley was born in Compton, Calif., the youngest of five children. Her parents, John and Loretta, had moved west from Shreveport, La., in 1955. In California, her father worked on banana boats before landing a job at Hollywood Tire Company. “Back then, there was a big racial line,” says Horowitz, pointing to the racially restrictive housing covenants that were meant to perpetuate segregation. “But he would come home and share with me these stories of when he would change the tire or offer service to a white person, and how kindly they treated him—they gave him a quarter or 50 cents for a tip—how they looked him in the eye. He always shared those stories with me. So I didn’t grow up in this black/white world because my parents painted this picture of their experiences where there was diversity and people wanted to include us in their world. I didn’t hear the war stories from them. And so I just had a unique upbringing where it wasn’t all doom and gloom. It was filled with hope.” (Despite her parents’ efforts to shield her and her siblings from racial discord, she acknowledges, “I know there was a lot of drama.”)
When she was 5 years old, the family moved to the neighboring city of Carson. “There was this church called Southwood Baptist Church,” Horowitz recalls. “It wasn’t as big as Glide; it was very small. But they would have people come in who looked nothing like me to teach reading, writing, community involvement. And there was no money really. There were no fancy lunches or Juicy Juice boxes. But the fact that they showed up changed the trajectory of my entire life. Because in the community, there was drugs; there was prostitution; there was gang violence. Compton is just five or six streets away. So I was really lucky that those people were part of the outreach.”
In earning her bachelor’s degree in communication from the University of Southern California, she became the first person in her family to graduate from college. Soon after, she married Ben, whom she had met on a blind date in the summer of 1986. “I kind of thought it was an episode of punk’d when he opened the door,” she quips. “It’s this white boy, Jewish boy, with a black eye from a fight that day. But he was also a math and science genius. So I’m thinking: Who am I supposed to be meeting?” He managed to make quite an impression on her: “I had never met anyone who looked so far into the future, who was talking about things that I couldn’t even wrap my brain around. It was just so second nature to him. The conversation was always interesting, and it just never ended.”
The couple has been married now for 28 years and has raised three children: Jules, 27; Mariah, 25; and Sophia, 22. As the topic of her kids comes up, she reflects on how Jules’ experience at USC—where he started film school in the fall and is thriving—sharply contrasts her own. Horowitz admits that she struggled academically as an undergrad, and didn’t fit in socially. Those feelings of being an outsider have informed her philanthropy: Simply put, she is motivated by the idea that everyone’s voice should be heard, that everyone should feel welcome and wanted. That mindset applies from Glide to Silicon Valley. “I am not an expert on diversity and inclusion,” she says, “but I believe if any industry—whether it’s tech, finance, media, medicine, law, journalism or anything else—understood and engaged with underrepresented groups in a better and more meaningful way, they would hire across the spectrum regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation or class.”
If Horowitz had a philanthropic mantra, it might be: “It’s not splitting the atom.” She utters the phrase to me on a number of occasions. “People get caught up in… ” She pauses for a few seconds. “It’s like double Dutch. Where do I jump in? How do I help? It’s not that complicated.”
In the middle of our cover shoot at the Rosewood hotel in Menlo Park, Horowitz breaks out into song and dance—a spot-on rendition of the lyrics and choreography for Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies.” At one point, she runs over to the bar to say hello to Vinod Khosla, the Sun Microsystems co-founder-turned-venture capitalist. When she notices a man and his young daughter peering into the room—intrigued by the photo shoot and its subject—she greets them just as warmly as she did her good friend Khosla, asking the uniformed girl about her day and what school she attends.
On this September afternoon, Horowitz appears completely at ease in front of the camera, in large part because she has enlisted Arrik Weathers—who she’s been friends with for nearly 40 years—to act as her creative director and stylist for the shoot. As a Coldwell Banker real estate broker, Weathers’ typical weekday involves selling properties in Los Angeles and the Bay Area. He negotiated the deal on the Horowitzes’ current Atherton home, and it’s not uncommon for him to help clients with other aspects of their lives. “I know I can count on him for anything,” says Horowitz, “from finding a house we love to overseeing a successful photo shoot.” Weathers assembled the hair and makeup team, and flew into town the previous night to go over Horowitz’s wardrobe selections: a mix of designer pieces such as a sculptural black Alexander McQueen jacket and a crystal-encrusted Gucci eye brooch, along with garments by Nashona and Rahyma, lines that incorporate bold, patterned fabrics from Africa. Her ruffle-front green top was plucked from Menlo Park consignment shop Afterwards, and she scored her Rebecca Minkoff heels on sale for just 30 bucks. (Her philosophy on inclusion apparently extends to fashion.) A pair of gold leather pants, worn to basketball games at Oracle Arena, has been nicknamed her “Warriors pants.” Prior to the start of this season, she hosted a welcome to the Bay/birthday party for the team’s new superstar forward Kevin Durant—“not as a megafan,” says Horowitz, “but to make sure that he feels welcome in our community right away. At the end of the day, he’s you and me. He’s a human being.” (Her sentiment toward recent transplants, famous or not, is tied to her own memories of arriving in Silicon Valley 25 years ago: “We knew no one, had no money, had no assets, had no network. It’s like that Drake song, ‘Started from the bottom now we’re here.’” She speaks often of “creating portals,” or effecting opportunities and connections.) Horowitz is also a huge fan of the Oakland Raiders, noting that “Al Davis, the Raiders’ late owner, was a pioneer for civil rights in the NFL.” (He was the first owner in the modern era to hire an African-American head coach, Art Shell, and a female executive, Amy Trask.)
Fashion, sports, backyard barbecues, social issues—Horowitz’s interests are wide-ranging. She credits Radiolab, which she listens to in her Prius while commuting to Glide, with enlightening her about myriad topics, from science to world affairs. “If you were to ask me what I’m geeked up about right now,” she says in the middle of getting her hair styled by Trenee Coleman, “it’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” After reading Rebecca Skloot’s 2010 best-seller about an African-American woman who unknowingly became a pioneer for medical breakthroughs—in the 1950s, Lacks’ cells were used for scientific research without her knowledge—Horowitz promptly purchased copies for her friends and family. HBO Films is turning the book into a movie that will star Winfrey and is set to debut in 2017. Horowitz is also looking forward to next year’s Pharrell Williams-produced flick Hidden Figures, which centers on the contributions of a trio of black female mathematicians who worked at NASA during the space race era. “I’m just so excited that these stories about women who changed the trajectory of history are being told, and the contributions of African-Americans can be appreciated beyond sports and rap,” she says. “We’re talking medicine and space! And these aren’t the only stories. We’re just scratching the surface.”
Another current source of enthusiasm for Horowitz is Shaka Senghor’s newly launched campaign called #ISeeYou. She contacted the criminal-justice reform advocate on Facebook last year to ask if she could read the galleys for his memoir, Writing My Wrongs. She had heard about him through her husband, who learned of Senghor’s remarkable story of redemption from Winfrey. Convicted of murder, Senghor spent 19 years in prison. Following his release six years ago, he has become a public speaker, author and activist. His book, which was published in March, is a The New York Times best-seller. And he is now the director of strategy and innovation for Oakland-based #cut50, which aims to reduce the number of incarcerated individuals by 50 percent over the next decade.
The genesis for #ISeeYou was the Dallas police shootings in July. “We live in a country where we don’t adequately see each other,” says Senghor. “We rely on media or social media to tell us who other people are, instead of stepping out and asking: ‘Who is the person behind the police uniform? Who is the human being behind the title of teacher or doctor or VC?’ If we can have that conversation, we’ll start moving in a better direction.” Through a multimedia platform, the campaign encourages people to share personal experiences. “It’s such an important initiative because we are living in a time when we talk past each other instead of talking to each other,” says Horowitz, who is as an adviser to Senghor on the project. “#ISeeYou gives us an authentic opportunity to change the way we see each other, the way we respond to each other and treat each other by offering stories that tell the whole picture of who we are, instead of the media-generated snapshots that tend to divide us.”
Recently Horowitz invited me on a walking tour of the Tenderloin district—where Glide sits on the corner of Ellis and Taylor streets—led by her friend Del Seymour. Thirty years ago, after multiple drug-related felony convictions, Seymour arrived at Glide, initially to partake of the meal program. He went on to lead the bible study and is considered one of Glide’s many success stories (as is Chris Gardner, who Will Smith portrayed in the 2006 film The Pursuit of Happyness). “Just goes to show,” says Seymour, “who you are today isn’t necessarily who you are going to be tomorrow.”
On any given block, it’s not uncommon to hear a handful of different languages. As Horowitz walks past a line of mostly older Asian women queued up for food assistance, she makes a point to engage with them, complimenting a few on their colorful attire (she appreciates a good pattern!). At Saint Boniface Catholic Church, she guides me toward a section of pews that are essentially serving as beds. According to Seymour, a nonprofit rents space from the church during the daytime, allowing up to 200 people to sleep in the pews between 6am and 3pm, five days a week. “At the end of the day,” says Horowitz, “we’re all one circumstance away from needing these services. One circumstance. Lucky people, two or three. But most people are literally just one circumstance away from needing some kind of supportive service that is offered.”
During one of her morning shifts in the Glide prep kitchen, housed in the basement of the church, she is tasked with helping to assemble and bag 400 peanut butter sandwiches for the day’s lunch service. Before taking her place at the sandwich station, she weaves her way through the kitchen’s maze of metal tables, chatting with the staff and fellow volunteers. Chef Joann Adams, who Horowitz introduces to me as Mama Jo, has been cooking at Glide since 1992. She pats down a large tray of turkey meatloaf, readying it for the oven. Later, upon learning that it’s the first time that a group of employees from travel and expense management company Concur is volunteering, Horowitz lets out a spirited “Yeaaahhh!” in the newcomers’ direction. “What’s up Concur! Happy to have you here.”
While the kitchen is bustling on this particular day—the ideal number of people for a lunch shift is 15—just a few days prior, it was empty, says Horowitz. “I always make it my business to be here, especially if it’s raining because that’s when volunteers don’t come and there’s not a lot of people down here. But there’s still a lot of hungry people up there.” As she approaches a station where three young men from Concur are working side by side, she asks: “Have you guys been to Sunday service yet?” (Glide’s Sunday Celebrations are renowned for their rousing sermons and music.)
“No,” one of the men responds.
“So, 9am, I’ll see you all there?” she follows up.
“Do I get a front-row seat?”
“Next to me,” she tells them. “Come. There’s always a seat for you.”
Originally published in the November issue of Silicon Valley