The former wife of Jeff Bezos is working on giving away most of her fortune. But rising Amazon stock means she has a whole lot more to give away.
MacKenzie Scott first landed on Forbes’ list of the World’s Billionaires a year ago, with a $36 billion fortune made up of shares in Amazon that she received in her mid-2019 divorce from Jeff Bezos. She was the 22nd richest person in the world and the fourth richest woman on the list.
Now, as Forbes releases our 2021 list of the world’s wealthiest, Scott, at 50 years old, is still ranked No. 22. But she’s worth $53 billion—almost 50% more than a year ago, as a result of a nearly 66% increase in the value of Amazon stock. And that’s after she set a new bar for philanthropic giving in 2020 by rapidly distributing $5.8 billion in donations to nonprofit groups. Her fatter fortune makes her the third richest woman in the world, behind L’Oreal heir Françoise Bettencourt Meyers, who’s worth $73.6 billion, and Walmart heir Alice Walton, worth $61.8 billion.
To put Scott’s 2020 charitable giving in context: The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the largest private foundation in the U.S. with a $49.8 billion endowment and 1,602 employees, made $5.1 billion in grants in 2019. Scott’s philanthropic effort doesn’t have its own website, and it’s not clear how many people she’s employed to research organizations and distribute grants. She is working with nonprofit firm Bridgespan, which advises nonprofits and philanthropists.
Scott—who announced she’d changed her last name from Bezos to her middle name in July—hasn’t given an interview since she and Jeff Bezos divorced. But in May 2019 she did sign the Giving Pledge, a promise to give away at least half her fortune to charitable causes during her life or after she dies.
In her Giving Pledge letter, she wrote, “My approach to philanthropy will continue to be thoughtful. It will take time and effort and care. But I won’t wait. And I will keep at it until the safe is empty.” Her biggest challenge could very well be the ongoing effort to empty the safe when the money inside it keeps multiplying. (In March this year, a new Giving Pledge letter appeared on the pledge’s website from Scott’s new husband, Dan Jewett, a teacher at the private school in Seattle that her children have attended.)
Scott’s donations have helped 500 organizations across the U.S., including Puerto Rico, from historically Black colleges and universities to the national food bank nonprofit Feeding America. “This pandemic has been a wrecking ball in the lives of Americans already struggling,” she wrote on Medium in December as part of her announcement that she gave nearly $4.2 billion to 384 organizations over four months: “Economic losses and health outcomes alike have been worse for women, for people of color, and for people living in poverty. Meanwhile, [the pandemic] has substantially increased the wealth of billionaires.”
Scott wrote that after her first major giving drive in July 2020, she asked her advisors to accelerate her philanthropy to help people suffering from the pandemic. She wanted to give “special attention to those operating in communities facing high projected food insecurity, high measures of racial inequity, high local poverty rates, and low access to philanthropic capital.”
Philanthropy is not Scott’s sole passion. At age 6, she wrote her first book, The Book Worm, a 142-page novel. She graduated from high school a year early and studied at Princeton, where she majored in English. Her thesis advisor was Nobel-Prize winning novelist Toni Morrison. Upon graduation, she joined the hedge fund D.E. Shaw and started dating Jeff Bezos. They both quit the firm to move to Seattle and launch Amazon.com in 1994. An early employee told Forbes in 2019 that Scott “did just about everything” to help get Amazon off the ground. Nick Hanauer, an early investor in Amazon, concurred. “MacKenzie was an equal partner to Jeff in the early days,” he told Forbes in 2019.
Scott went back to her writing, however, and published her first novel, The Testing of Luther Albright, in 2005. Eight years later, she published another novel, Traps. The reclusive billionaire did not respond to Forbes’ request for an interview.
She wrote in her December post on Medium that she’d been reading a lot of poems by Emily Dickinson: “As the winter of 2020 approached, I might have expected one of [Dickinson’s poems on death] to keep floating to mind, but instead it was her writing on hope: ‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers,’it begins, ‘/ That perches in the soul / And sings the song without the words / And never stops — at all -’”