MacKenzie Scott: America’s fairy godmother

MacKenzie Scott pledged to keep on giving money away till the safe was empty when she split from husband Jeff Bezos. That’s easier said than done when you own a chunk of Amazon.

In 2019, a new shell company was quietly set up in Delaware and named Lost Horse – after a Chinese folk tale about the vicissitudes of fortune. Soon after, reps began cold-calling charities and nonprofits across America offering multi-million-dollar donations from an anonymous donor.

Some recipients suspected the “mysterious overtures” were scams, says Forbes. To their delight, it turned out otherwise. Their secret benefactor was MacKenzie Scott who, in two years, has given away at least $12bn of her $52bn fortune in a laissez-faire fashion that puts other billionaires to shame.

Amazon’s first worker

Until her divorce from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos three years ago, Scott was largely unknown, says Fortune. A 52-year-old writer who studied under Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, she was famously the “first Amazon employee”. Now she is setting a new standard in the “giving” business.

Scott’s emissaries appear “out of nowhere with a huge cheque, without strings or fanfare”, and then vanish. That’s “revolutionary” in a world where “mega-donations” usually come with lots of strings attached.

Lost Horse has so far reached 1,257 groups, from little-known charities to organisations championing Scott’s favoured causes. She often homes in on grassroots arts and theatre companies – hovering somewhere in the shadows like a “fairy godmother”. Her only demand of recipients is that they maintain her privacy.

Her own life has taken some sharp turns, says The New York Times. Born into a life of Californian privilege in 1970 – her father, Jason Tuttle, was a San Francisco investment adviser, her mother, Holiday, a socialite fundraiser – MacKenzie was taken out of her smart Connecticut boarding school “after her family declared bankruptcy” and worked as a waitress to see herself through an English degree at Princeton.

Scott later claimed she knew she wanted to be a writer from the age of six. But as a young graduate in New York, she accepted a job in recruitment at hedge fund D.E. Shaw out of financial necessity and, in 1993, “married the man in the office next to hers” – Jeff Bezos. A year later the newlyweds moved to Seattle to “pursue his dream” of starting an online bookshop.

The move suited Scott, says CNBC. She enjoyed working part-time on the start-up with Jeff – remarking in a letter to Toni Morrison that Amazon was “an interesting business” – but now had time to work on a novel. It took her ten years to write The Testing of Luther Albright (2005) which won an American Book Award. During that time Scott also raised four children and lent support during Amazon’s explosive ascent through the fires of the dotcom boom and bust.

By the time her second novel, Traps, was published in 2013, the firm had cemented its position as the world’s dominant retail juggernaut. Scott disliked the glare of publicity that being married to the world’s richest man brought, however, and, in January 2019, she and Bezos jointly announced that they were divorcing. She adopted her middle name as a surname, but has since remarried a chemistry teacher.

Carry on giving

On taking control of her post-divorce fortune, which included a 4% stake in Amazon, Scott declared she was going to keep on giving “until the safe is empty”. Until recently that seemed an almost laughable proposition. As The Economist observed last November, Amazon shares have rallied some 95% since 2019, meaning “Scott’s safe is fuller now than it was when she began shovelling money out of the door”.

Still, after 28 years of rip-roaring growth, that may be changing. Last week, some $150bn was wiped off Amazon’s value after it reported its “slowest quarterly growth since 2001”, says The Daily Telegraph. The macro trends that propelled it to greatness – globalisation and a calm inflationary environment – have gone into reverse. If so, we can count on MacKenzie Scott taking the shift philosophically.

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