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Saving the bay and beyond

From funding research to investing in new technology, Wendy Schmidt has emerged as a global leader in protecting our marine environments.

In 2013, right before San Francisco hosted the America’s Cup, Wendy Schmidt purchased a 1935 Sparkman & Stephens 56-foot schooner. “I bought it during that period because it was fun and there was a lot of activity [in the local sailing community],” recalls the longtime Atherton resident and philanthropist. Although she has since moved the historic wooden boat to the East Coast for restoration, her excursions on the Bay left an indelible impression.

The most profound view I have of the Bay is from sailing,” says Schmidt. “When you get into the middle of that body of water on a boat — no engine, no noise, you’re just on the water — you’re very connected to where you are and you’re aware of everything around you. You can’t hear one sound out of San Francisco here, Oakland over there, the bridges, the cars, the millions of people. You hear nothing. That’s profound because that’s the natural state of the place.”

Shortly after conjuring this tranquil scene, the conversation pivots to weightier matters: threats to the world’s marine environments and her efforts to fight them. The Ocean Conservancy estimates that 8 million metric tons of plastic enter the oceans annually. Plastics have been discovered in more than 60 percent of all seabirds and 100 percent of seaturtle species, who confuse plastic items for food. In March, a 15-foot whale in the Philippines died with 88 pounds of plastic trash inside its body — nearly half of it plastic bags.


— Wendy Schmidt

Schmidt’s philanthropic focus on plastics can be traced to her nascent sailing days. Her first regatta was the St. Maarten’s Heineken Regatta in 2009, when she raced aboard an 80-foot boat. “I remember being on a beach there at an awards ceremony and being up to our ankles in trash, mostly plastics,” she says.

The next year, she co-founded 11th Hour Racing, which works with the sailing community and maritime industries on sustainability initiatives. When the America’s Cup came to San Francisco, Schmidt was part of the organizing committee. “We were successful in creating the first plastic-free race village,” she says, noting the presence of refillable water bottles and compostable food packaging. In April, it was announced that 11th Hour Racing has linked up with the around-the-world Ocean Race, which is next scheduled for 2021. The campaign includes collecting oceanographic and microplastics data, and exploring renewable-energy systems on the IMOCA 60 and VO65 class boats.

Through their foundations and personal giving, Schmidt and her husband, Eric — the former executive chairman of Google and its parent company Alphabet Inc. — have undertaken strategic philanthropy that totals more than $900 million. The Schmidt Family Foundation, which opens its new Menlo Park headquarters this month, includes the 11th Hour Project, its grant-making arm; Impact Investing, funding businesses and solutions that address global sustainability challenges; and Schmidt Marine Technology Partners, a program based on a venture philanthropy model that fosters innovation to solve ocean health problems. The trio is made up of other entities, many of which home in on environmental and educational concerns.

In 2016, Schmidt became the lead philanthropic partner for the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy initiative, funding two Innovation Prizes — one for the development of material sand another for the development of packaging. “We’ve become so reliant on plastics,” she says. “The frightening thing is how quickly all of our activities have escalated. Only in the last 70 years have we even had this material.” (High-density polyethylene was invented in 1953, and plastic started becoming more widely used in the 1960s.)

Schmidt has nothing against plastics per se. “I don’t like to condemn plastic because it’s very useful,” she explains. “But it’s become a throwaway material, and it’s being overused. What the Ellen MacArthur Foundation talks about that I prescribe to deeply is: Let’s keep the value of the plastics in the economy and out of the environment. If you’re going to make it, find a way to remake it and remake it and remake it.

Take Menlo Park-based BioCellection, a Schmidt Marine Technology Partners’ grantee. The startup has created a process that converts plastic waste — the unrecyclable stuff that usually ends up in our landfills and oceans — into materials that can then be used to make new products. “We just believed that new recycling could exist,” says CEO Miranda Wang, who has known her BioCellection co-founder, Jeanny Yao, since their high school recycling club days in Vancouver, Canada.

Wang and Yao were introduced to Schmidt in 2016, when they were still students at the University of Pennsylvania and University of Toronto, respectively, and had recently launched BioCellection. “Wendy has always been a champion of our work and supported us in the very early stages of development,” says Wang. She and Yao have since secured funding from myriad angel investors, as well as received grants such as the 2018 Pritzker Emerging Environmental Genius Award last fall and the Toyota Mother of Invention prize earlier this year.

It’s not only bold innovators and entrepreneurs who have benefited from Schmidt’s benevolence. Last summer, Schmidt joined with other philanthropists in Santa Barbara, where she also has a house, to support the local efforts of the Surfrider Foundation’s Ocean Friendly Restaurants, led bystudents from UC Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science and Management. The national program encourages sustainable choices within the restaurant industry. That includes eliminating Styrofoam, plastic bags and bottles; implementing recycling; providing straws only upon request; and conserving water.

“It would be really wonderful to think that most coastal towns and cities could understand that connection between the way we’re running our business on land and what is happening in our ocean,” says Schmidt. “I love that this idea of Ocean Friendly Restaurants is opening the door into that kind of awareness.” (In the Bay Area, Cala in San Francisco, Sam’s Chowder House in Half Moon Bay and Johnston’s Saltbox in San Carlos are among the establishments on the Ocean Friendly Restaurants list.)

Dr. Douglas McCauley, an assistant professor in UCSB’s department of ecology, evolution and marine biology who is also involved in the Ocean Friendly Restaurants program, met Schmidt in 2015 when they served on a Dreamforce panel together. “Wendy very early on — arguably, earlier than almost anybody else in the ocean space — recognized this problem of plastic pollution as a growing and significant threat to ocean life,” he observes. “She was really a leader in trying to galvanize more research and more action.

Schmidt has been invited to present all over the world, and following one of her lectures at UCSB she and McCauley had a discussion about decreased federal funding for research. McCauley recounts Schmidt’s response: “This is not a moment for environmental scientists to feel like they’re not being supported,” she told him. “This is not a moment for us to step away from funding ocean science and environmental science work.” In May, the Environmental Solutions Fellowship Program — funded by Schmidt, and awarded to 21 graduate students and 11 undergraduate students at UCSB — launched.

Schmidt is keenly aware of the importance of private philanthropy in protecting our planet. “When you see the problem and you see the potential solutions, and you know that the capital that you put into this is high-risk, that’s OK,” says Schmidt. “I don’t think the answer to the problem is any silver bullet. There just isn’t one thing. We’re going to have to try everything. And it’s really very encouraging right now because we’re seeing movement here. The world is finally waking up to what the problem looks like.”