Jeff Bezos at 54 is the new world’s richest man (not counting the stinking rich corrupt politicians in Nigeria). And with a net worth of more than $100 billion he can no longer afford to be obscure.
On Friday, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and his wife, MacKenzie, made public their $33 million donation to a nonprofit that provides college scholarships to so-called Dreamers, young immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children. In October, he received an award for a donation to a marriage equality campaign.
Almost all Africans, especially Nigerians shop online at amazon.com (America), amazon.co.uk (England) and amazon.de (Germany) to mention a few. Most African shoppers would get to know the billionaire behind the business for the first time here.
In Seattle, Bezos rubbed elbows last weekend with Halle Berry, Chris Hemsworth and other Hollywood celebrities at an after-party for the Golden Globes. In December, he walked the red carpet, along with Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, at a screening of “The Post” in Washington.
Jennifer Cast, an Amazon executive who solicited the donation from him, said at the event that they could have donated anonymously to the campaign. “But just as critical as the money was Jeff’s offer to let us publicly acknowledge their gifts,” she said.
“By allowing us to take their donation public,” she added, “the world quickly knew that Jeff Bezos supported marriage equality.”
The appearances and actions are a new look for Bezos.
As he was shaping Amazon into one of the world’s most valuable companies, Mr. Bezos developed a reputation as a brilliant but mysterious and coldblooded corporate titan. He preferred to hunker down in Amazon’s hometown, Seattle, at least partly because he thought it was better for Amazon’s growing business, largely avoiding public causes and the black-tie circuit.
Amazon, now a behemoth valued at more than $600 billion, has become one of the faces of “big tech,” along with Apple, Alphabet’s Google and Facebook. These companies are facing a backlash. Amazon is under the microscope for what critics say is its corrosive effect on jobs and competition, and Mr. Bezos has become a bête noire for President Trump, who repeatedly singles out him and Amazon for scorn on Twitter.
“People are starting to get scared of Amazon,” said Steve Case, a co-founder of America Online, who recently started an investment fund focused on start-ups in underserved areas, with Mr. Bezos among its contributors. “If Jeff continues to hang out in Seattle, he’s going to get a lot more incoming. Even for just defense reasons, he has to now play offense.”
Bezos’ portfolio of other ventures has thrust him farther into the spotlight. In October 2013, he bought The Washington Post for $250 million, jump-starting a renaissance of the paper. In 2016, Mr. Bezos bought a $23 million home in Washington, one of the city’s most expensive, which is undergoing extensive renovations to make it a suitable party spot for the city’s political class. Nearby neighbors include former President Barack Obama and his family, and Mr. Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner.
Bezos’ space start-up, Blue Origin, is also making its efforts more public, giving him another stage. The company is trying to rescue Earth by helping to move pollution-belching heavy industries off the planet.
“He’s getting thanked at the Golden Globes and targeted by presidential tweet tantrums — not even Steve Jobs had that kind of pop-culture currency,” said Margaret O’Mara, a professor of history at the University of Washington, who curated a museum exhibit in Seattle endowed by Mr. Bezos.
In a statement, Drew Herdener, an Amazon spokesman, said, “Jeff loves what he is doing, at Amazon, Blue Origin and The Washington Post, and he enjoys sharing his enthusiasm in public as he works with the teams to build and invent.”
But interviews with more than 30 people who know Mr. Bezos, most of whom declined to be identified to protect their relationships with him, revealed his awareness of the growing opposition to Amazon and his growing comfort with being in the public eye.
Mr. Bezos, they said, accepts the probability of greater government scrutiny of Amazon. The chief executive has advised Amazon executives to conduct themselves so that they can pass any legal or regulatory test.
The investor Warren E. Buffett, who has known Mr. Bezos since the 1990s, said the cautionary tale of Microsoft, which faced a landmark antitrust case by the government that decade, must loom in Mr. Bezos’ mind. Microsoft, by far the most dominant technology company at the time, lost its footing after the case, opening an unexpected opportunity for competitors.
“You’re going to get a lot of scrutiny if you’re disrupting other people’s livelihoods,” Mr. Buffett said.
Some of the people who know Mr. Bezos said his new public face was for business expediency. Others believe it is a result of personal growth.
But they all said it was clear that Mr. Bezos and Amazon were trying to go beyond his tech persona to show the world his other sides.
By late 2015, a few months after Mr. Trump announced his campaign for president, he started his Twitter broadsides against Mr. Bezos, which often coincided with critical coverage of the candidate in The Washington Post.
“The @washingtonpost loses money (a deduction) and gives owner @JeffBezos power to screw public on low taxation of @Amazon!” he tweeted in December that year. “Big tax shelter.”
Bezos responded by offering to launch the future president of the United States into space on a Blue Origin rocket.
[KH + NYtimes Report]