Sean Parker Tries Philanthropy to Clean Up His Rep

AP Photo
AP Photo

The irrepressible Sean Parker took to the Wall Street Journal editorial pages to announce that after building a $2.8 billion fortune, mostly from stealing music and selling peoples’ deepest secrets to marketers, he wants to reinvent his public reputation from that of a greedy loud-mouthed hacker to an old money philanthropist.

As the founder of Napster, former President of Facebook , and serial venture capitalist, Parker has been a “wild and crazy kinda guy.” As a 15-year-old, his hacking for fun and destructive mischief drew the attention of the FBI. To avoid jail time, he was forced to do community service with other teenage offenders at the local library in Virginia. He then developed an early version of a Web crawler that gained him praise from the CIA. Parker then founded Napster and helped 60 million users steal billions of dollars of artists’ music rights before a bankruptcy filing. He landed on his feet as President of Facebook, until one of his parties with underage company interns was busted for cocaine.

Parker justifies his youthful indiscretions as expressions of the hacker life that spawned the barons of modern computer technology. He claims the antiestablishment movement is about “radical transparency, sniffing out vulnerabilities in systems, and a desire to hack complex problems using elegant technological and social solutions.” Parker adds: Once you adopt the mind-set of a hacker, it’s hard to let it go.

He describes his fellow hack elite as “mostly awkward and introverted, more interested in ideas than in making money or running companies, hackers are generally reluctant empire-builders.” But Parker did make his confession from none other than the pages of the establishment’s premier financial publication, the Wall Street Journal.

Parker comments that he and his billionaire class achieved success before turning 40 but still consider themselves outsiders that “never fully integrated with establishment institutions or aspired to participate in elite society, choosing instead the company of their peers.” He laments that we were underprepared for the enormous responsibility that has been handed to us—“a burden they never dreamed of carrying.”

But it seems the burden Parker is most concerned about is the vicious blow back after he spent $10 million in June 2013 to stage his wedding with “300+ guests in Lord of the Rings-inspired attire and transforming a Big Sur hotel’s redwood-filled backyard into a fantastical forest sanctuary for the ceremony.” From Parker’s efforts to publicize the event to build his public persona, the State of California Department of Environmental Protection learned that the wedding had torn up one of the most pristine natural habitats in the state. Parker was hit with a $2.5 million fine, the largest in state history.

Rather than apologize, Sean Parker penned a 9,000+ word piece, about 20 pages single-spaced in Microsoft Word, for TechCrunch to defend his wedding, explaining his deep love of Tolkien and the redwoods, criticizing the press for mis-characterizing the level of damage done to the nature reserve, and generally lashing out at the caustic state of journalism and privacy in the age of social media.

According to Parker: “[B]logs attack you, do their damage, and then move on to their next target. Now, because of the permanence of the Internet and the ease of Google, these vicious online attacks leave behind a reputational stain that is very difficult to wash out.”

Two years later and obviously not enjoying the Facebook character assassination he helped make possible, a 35-year-old Parker told The San Francisco Chronicle he intends to give away most of his $2.8 billion fortune during his lifetime. He complimented the “Giving Pledge” promise made by fellow billionaires Bill Gates and Warren Buffett to give away at least half their fortunes — “a good starting point.” But in an act of one-upmanship, Parker said, “Giving Pledge is not aggressive enough.”

Parker is putting his money where his mouth with a $600 million Sean N. Parker Foundation endowment. He just gave UCS $4.5 million to combat malaria and $24 million to the Stanford’s Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy Research at Stanford.

Parker is at the high end of philanthropic big tech givers that includes GoPro camera founder Nicholas Woodman, 39, and wife Jill, who gave $500 million; Google co-founders Sergey Brin, 41, and Larry Page, 41, who gave $382 million and $177 million, respectively; eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, 47, and wife Pam, who gave $180 million; and founder Marc Benioff, 50, and wife Lynne, who gave $154 million.

Parker criticized many of his hacker peers for ditching the aggressive, disruptive mind-set once they get involved in the philanthropic world for fear of “tarnishing their brand.” Whatever Sean Parker’s motivation is for reinventing himself through philanthropy, he definitely intends to do it big and loud.


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