Scott Oki helped build Microsoft and developed a portfolio of Puget Sound golf courses. Philanthropy, however, has remained constant in his life.
When Scott Oki calls to mind the modest means from which he grew up, he does so with a blended sense of wonderment and pride.
Born in Seattle and raised in a tenement apartment building near the corner of 14th Avenue and East Yesler Way, Oki shared a three-room apartment (kitchen, living room, and bedroom) with his parents, brother, sister, and grandmother. Oki’s dad, Bob, worked for the U.S. Postal Service; his mom, Kim, was a secretary at the Federal Housing Administration.
“I didn’t grow up with money,” Oki recently recalled in a conference room at Oki Developments headquarters, located in a small office park surrounded by trees, and just a few blocks from downtown Bellevue. It was a Friday morning, and Oki — who appears years younger than his actual age of 69, is deeply tanned, and extremely fit — was dressed comfortably in shorts, a golf shirt, and a light windbreaker as he recalled his family’s lean beginnings.
“We didn’t even have a bathroom to ourselves. It was a shared bathroom, one on each floor of this apartment complex. I still remember just how dirty the bathroom always was. When it came time to do our weekly baths, my mom would bring the Brillo pads and stuff like that to make sure everything was clean.”
Forbes once estimated Oki’s wealth at $750 million, a figure Oki has described as inflated. Still, Oki worked at Microsoft between 1982 and 1992 (he founded the company’s International Division, and eventually was promoted to senior vice president of sales, marketing, and service), and left the company at age 43, a wealthy man.
Like many would-be retirees, Oki turned his attention to golf, but with a slightly different twist. He wanted to build golf courses, not just play on them. He quashed any notion of early retirement and, instead, founded Oki Golf in 1994. The company developed 11 courses throughout the Pacific Northwest (including on the Eastside, in Newcastle, Sammamish, and Redmond). Last year, he sold Oki Golf’s portfolio of greens and fairways for $137 million.
Oki hasn’t worked at Microsoft for 25 years, but at least one thread remains: The Oki Foundation, a private charitable organization largely focused on children’s health, welfare, and education. Oki and his wife, Laurie, created the foundation in 1987, halfway through his tenure working at the Redmond software company.
Today, he’s known as much for his philanthropy — The Oki Foundation donations have helped Boy Scouts of America, Boys and Girls Clubs, Seattle Children’s Hospital, Seattle Children’s Theatre, United Way, University of Washington, YWCA, and other organizations — as he is for his early tech industry career and golf course developments.
Oki discussed the organization’s history, philanthropic hits and misses, and its future.
425 Business: You weren’t even 40 years old when The Oki Foundation was created, correct?
Scott Oki: Correct. Microsoft had just gone public. At that time, I was just reflecting on this one financial event and what kind of impact it had on me — how lucky, really, I have been through my life — and certainly with this financial happening with Microsoft. That led me to say, “OK, I need to give back.” My parents had always given back. Not money. But they gave back a bunch of their time because they never had money to give. I felt that I needed to establish a receptacle that, in future years, could help benefit those less fortunate. I didn’t know at the time where it was going to go. I hadn’t given it much thought because I was working insane hours at Microsoft.
425 Business: Did you ever consider waiting until you left Microsoft before you started The Oki Foundation? It seems like a lot to take on while you are still working.
OKI: I never really did think about it. I don’t know why. A lot of other people — in fact, I would say virtually all — waited until they left Microsoft. I don’t remember when Bill (Gates) or Paul (Allen) started their foundations, but it wasn’t until well after Laurie and I started ours.
425 Business: Do you remember the first significant donation The Oki Foundation made?
OKI: Oh, yeah. It was to Seattle Children’s Hospital (in 1993 for the Circle of Care campaign). Bill’s mom, Mary Gates, and (Seattle Children’s Hospital Foundation head) Doug Picha visited Laurie and I at our home. They said, “We would like you to consider a $1 million unrestricted gift to benefit Seattle Children’s Hospital.” I didn’t know it at the time, (but an unrestricted donation) was unheard of. A lot of people will give $1 million or maybe even more to set up trusts, bequests, and things like that (with) certain restrictions. (Mary and Doug wanted) to use (our $1 million) to encourage 100 other donors to make a $10,000 matching gift to Seattle Children’s Hospital, and specifically for uncompensated care. Seattle Children’s Hospital has a long history of never turning away a child that needs medical attention. So, it was one of those things that just tugged at the heart. How could we say no? Anything that we could help do through The Oki Foundation, we were all ears.
425 Business: What was your initial reaction to the ask?
OKI: Honestly, back in those days, our net worth really wasn’t very much. We had never given a large gift like that. But at the end of the day, we basically said (laughing), “Well, if we need more money, I can always go to work.” As it turns out, Microsoft was really successful, and Laurie and I weren’t that concerned.
Also, Mary Gates was asking. She had a huge influence. She was, in many ways, kind of a rock star in the local community. I knew when she was asking, we should listen.
As it happens, our $1 million donation raised $11.4 million because those donors, many of whom had never made a gift before, started thinking about setting up trusts and things like that. Fast-forward a few years, the (Circle of Care) campaign was so successful. It was discussed at the Woodmark Forum, which was comprised of the largest and probably most prestigious children’s hospitals across North America and Canada. Those hospitals also wanted to do something similar. Over the years, over $8 billion has been raised through the Circle of Care efforts.
425 Business: In the 30 years since The Oki Foundation has been in existence, have your charitable interests evolved? Or have the issues and your interests remained the same?
OKI: It’s largely been focused on things that deal with children. Not solely. But primarily. I think a big part of it is that we had children. But we’ve also had the benefit of having traveled the world. There are a lot of places where children just don’t have the benefits or the luxuries that we take for granted.
(Around the year 2000) our kids were very young, and we took a train trip through India. During the day, there were excursions around the countryside. As soon as you were outside the confines of the train and you saw how people lived, you noticed these cardboard cities. Alexander (my oldest child) cried for three days. He couldn’t understand how kids and people could live in those kinds of conditions.
425 Business: We often talk about the donations that have the most impact. But were there any donations The Oki Foundation made over the years that didn’t work out as you wanted?
OKI: Sure. One was See Your Impact, which I believe is still a very cool idea. The idea is simple.
Ten dollars to us is nothing, but it is life-changing to someone halfway around the world. Ten dollars buys a bed net. Forty dollars buys a clean water kit. Seventy dollars buys an outhouse.
See Your Impact was this idea of allowing people to make tiny gifts like that. The organizations would basically take a photo, write a little story, route it back to us, and we would route it back to the donor. So, you are seeing the human life that your $10 is impacting. Hopefully, you would want to do it again, and maybe even tell other people.
The problem was that if it blossomed and became a big thing, those organizations wouldn’t have the capacity to take the photos and then to write the little story. See Your Impact is one that is in hibernation, but I believe will blossom again in a slightly different form.
425 BUSINESS: How has the local philanthropic environment changed over the years? Has philanthropy grown along with Microsoft, Boeing, Amazon, and other local companies?
OKI: I would like to believe that overall philanthropy has blossomed. I’m hoping that when we see Bill Gates and Paul Allen giving, literally, billions of dollars, it doesn’t have the influence of, say, “Well, those guys are taking care of it. I don’t need to give.” I’m also hopeful that individuals that do have much higher levels of net worth are thinking much more seriously about being philanthropists, about giving rather than getting.
425 BUSINESS: What can you tell me about The Oki Foundation in terms of the number of employees, annual budget, and annual donations?
OKI: Well, The Oki Foundation has five unpaid employees: Laurie, me, and our three kids (laughing). It probably always will be that way.
The corpus in the foundation, (that’s something) we don’t disclose. There’s a reason we have chosen to do it that way. If we were to park money in the foundation, the type of investing we could do probably would be limited. We couldn’t really be as aggressive as we might want to be. If it’s held in our personal investment accounts, we can be as aggressive as we want to be. So, that’s one of the reasons.
The second reason is we don’t necessarily want to discourage people from asking us to consider different types of giving. If we were to simply say this is the corpus of the foundation, and they have some project that is going to take up half of it, they probably wouldn’t come asking because we have a lot of things, a lot of interests, that we are still connected to and involved with.
425 BUSINESS: What does the future look like for The Oki Foundation?
OKI: You know, I am getting old. I’ve said this for a few years now, but I’m trying to retire (laughing). It hasn’t happened yet. Laurie and I are empty nesters now. I would like to travel some more. I do have a bucket list of things that I would like to do, personally. I think that doing things to benefit those in need will always be a part of it. How we go about doing that — whether it’s through current organizations that we have a longstanding affiliation with, or whether it’s new organizations — I don’t know.