Doing Well by Doing Good: An Interview with Angel Investor and Philanthropist, Ron Conway


An angel investor, Ron is often described as one of Silicon Valley's "super angels". His wealth and giving is a reminder that tech entrepreneurs aren't the only ones capable of large-scale philanthropy; the sector's investors are also involved. I had the chance to connect with Ron at the peak of the tech bubble in 1999. 17 years after this first interaction, he is still the same: always looking for innovation and disruption. He is spending his life seeking and helping entrepreneurs build the next Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest. But doing good was always part of his own journey...

As an angel investor, you've met with hundreds of entrepreneurs a year. What are some of the most innovative ways you've seen entrepreneurs leveraging business to create social impact?

  • Jack Dorsey, founder of Twitter and Square, started the StartSmall foundation at Square to support small businesses throughout the United States. He personally gave back a large portion of his stock to seed the foundation.
  • Mark Benioff, founder and CEO of Salesforce, created the Salesforce Foundation by creating the 1-1-1 philanthropy model in which a company donates 1% of their shares to a foundation, 1% of the company's product to non-profits, and 1% of its employees time to volunteer. This arguably has been the most successful and impactful corporate philanthropic effort I have seen. We at SV Angel support this model and encourage all of our portfolio founders to adopt it.
  • Airbnb in times of crisis like Hurricane Sandy initiated a platform that allows easy accessibility to listings for people displaced from their homes.
  • Facebook created their 'Safety Check' tool to allow you to confirm you're safe during a disaster.

You've been an active angel investor since the 1990s. In the nineties, was the tech community as involved in philanthropic initiatives as it is now? How has it changed?

Back then, there were fewer causes to donate to. Most companies organized drives for United Way and let them distribute to the charities. Since the nineties, founders have wanted to personalize their philanthropy to fit their company's culture, per #1 above.

You're a board member of the San Francisco Citizens Initiative for Technology and Innovation ( What are you most excited about in terms of civic innovation in the Bay Area?

I started sfCiti because I believed that technology companies needed to take a "One City" approach and build a shared sense of community and civic responsibility in San Francisco. I am most proud of what sfCiti has accomplished with the "Circle the Schools" program, which engages companies to enter into long-term partnerships with San Francisco public schools, using an adopt-a-school model. sfCiti's "One City Forum" series also regularly convenes members to meet one another and learn about issues important to San Francisco.

What can other major cities learn from San Francisco with regards to civic action?

Cities like New York have already followed San Francisco and have started similar organizations like sfCiti; New York has TECH NYC.

What is the greatest lesson you've learned so far as an angel investor?

I learned to invest in people and to follow my gut. Things we look for in our founders are:

  • Decisiveness: Often tested in building the team. You have to make decisions. As long as you're making decisions you're making progress and moral stays good.
  • Don't procrastinate: Trust your gut and make decisions.
  • Founders need to 'move fast' but 'sweat logistics'... the devil is in the details. They need to be reliable and responsive.
  • Founders need to have a clear vision so that the whole team understands direction and mission. They need to be good listeners, strong willed but flexible.
  • Passion

Finally, do you think by doing good, you're more successful?

I believe that we all have a responsibility to give back. No one becomes successful without lots of hard work, support from others, and a little luck. Giving back creates a virtuous cycle that makes everyone more successful.