Ex-Microsoft chief Ballmer fights Detroit poverty

Ballmer, a Detroit native, is looking for an executive director to run his foundation’s Detroit office

Stephanie Steinberg, and Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit — Former Microsoft CEO and Los Angeles Clippers owner Steve Ballmer and his wife are opening a Detroit office and looking for an executive director for his philanthropic organization that’s dedicated to fighting poverty, according to a job posting.

Steve Ballmer, former CEO of Microsoft, addresses a plenary session entitled "Civic Engagement: Understanding Government by the Numbers" on the third day of the National Governors Association's meeting Saturday, July 15, 2017, in Providence, R.I. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)

Ballmer and wife Connie, who has been active in nonprofit work, founded the Bellevue, Washington-based Ballmer Group to back groups and initiatives “designed for those who are disproportionately likely to remain in poverty,” mostly children and families, according to the organization’s website.

The job posting states that the executive director “will establish Ballmer Group’s presence in Detroit, build out and implement a strategy and extend its social investing in the region.”

The Ballmers, who Forbes estimates are worth $32.4 billion, had focused their efforts in Washington state and Los Angeles County. But they are now adding Detroit, which has the worst poverty rate in the country and which fits their description of having neighborhoods that “have suffered from systematic neglect.”

The job posting states that the executive director will be focused on alleviating poverty “in a city where the Ballmer family has deep roots.”

Now a Bellevue, Washington resident, Ballmer, 61, was born in Detroit, where his father worked as a manager at Ford Motor Co. He grew up in Oakland County and was valedictorian at Detroit Country Day School.

Ballmer still has family in the Detroit area and returns at least once a year, Ballmer Group spokeswoman Christine Heenan said Friday.

“Detroit is where he’s from and grew up, and he maintains a strong affiliation and a desire to give back,” she said.

Heenan could not share the number of employees the Detroit office plans to hire or how much money will be allocated to Detroit.

“That’s something they’re going to determine with the local person they hire,” she said. “It will be guided by local needs.”

Detroit already has plenty of philanthropic groups, but the addition of the Ballmers will be invaluable, said Rip Rapson, CEO and president of the Kresge Foundation that invests in part in human services and Detroit-focused initiatives.

“I think the Ballmers are such great people. To have their energy and commitment is unequivocally good news for Detroit,” Rapson said. “They are very serious with how they combat problems and only take on problems they can make a difference in.”

The Ballmers’ move to open an office here is “big news,” agreed Rishi Moudgil, executive director of the GreenLight Fund, a national philanthropic organization that works to reduce poverty in Detroit.

“We welcome new interest in combating a lot of the issues we’re trying to deal with in the city, and as long as it’s done effectively and responsibly, I think it’s a great addition for the city,” said Moudgil, who launched the GreenLight Detroit office in March.

Though both organizations are focused on addressing poverty, Moudgil said he doesn’t view the Ballmer Group as competition.

“To be effective, to lift up the community ... we need capital, but we also need people that are willing to work across lines, willing to listen, and that help is always welcome,” he said.

Ballmer being a native Detroiter is only a bonus, Moudgil added.

“He’s shown an affinity toward the city,” he said, “and the fact he wants to put more of his resources toward the city is great.”

The Ballmers have shown an interest in building up effective programs “with serious resources,” according to Inside Philanthropy, a publication the reports on charitable groups.

They want to invest in effective nonprofit initiatives that have been “starved” of money, “making it difficult to build the infrastructure for program innovation and scale,” according to the Ballmer Group website.

The Ballmers also target their giving to help increase “public funding dedicated to the development and implementation of the most effective services” in certain regions and nationwide.

The former Microsoft executive visited Detroit last September during Detroit Homecoming, an event that encourages native Metro Detroiters to return to the area. During that week, Ballmer joked about plans Quicken Loans Chairman Dan Gilbert showed him for a development at the former J.L. Hudson’s site on Woodward.

“He showed me the Hudson’s plan. There was a freaking Apple store in it. Boy, was I pissed,” he said in September.

Ballmer served as Microsoft CEO from 2000 to 2014 and bought the Clippers in 2014 for $2 billion.

At the September event, Ballmer told Crain’s Associate Publisher Ron Fournier that he planned to donate a large portion of his wealth, and that Detroit will “very likely” benefit from his philanthropy.

Greater Detroit is going to be “an area of growth and focus,” Heenan said.

“They’re really very much at the starting gate,” she added. “They look forward to learning more from those working locally, to creating economic mobility and to growing their presence over time.”

Steve Ballmer’s connection to the region will improve the organization’s investments here, Kresge’s Rapson said.

“Whenever someone comes in fully equipped with a personal history to the city, the work will be that much more connected, that much more personal and that much more effective,” he said.


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Twitter: @Steph_Steinberg