Jim Fruchterman and Benetech are Silicon Valley treasures

I met

 Jim Fruchterman in his Palo Alto Benentech office in 2006 a few days after his MacArthur award was announced. I thought of him this morning when I read this inspirational story by Sharon Noguchi in the Mercury News.

This is the Mercury News column I wrote then:










Print Run Date: 





In my opinion




It’s easy to think of Silicon Valley as the new Barbary Coast.There’s the slippery sleaze of the Peeping Toms in Hewlett-Packard’s boardroom. And there’s the greedy grubbing of executives backdating stock options to line their bulging pockets.

Let’s just say bad actions are speaking louder than words about doing good by doing well. We’re certain there are decent people out there. But sometimes we could just use a clear sign.

Then out of the ooze of self-interest and corruption comes an antidote, a little something that proves not everybody has lost their minds in the pursuit of riches.

For me, it was Jim Fruchterman, a Palo Alto dad who this week won a MacArthur Fellowship. Maybe you know the MacArthur. It’s a $500,000, no-strings-attached award for those called genius in the a

And after winning, you know what Fruchterman did first?

“I went to a referee refresher course for AYSO.”

AYSO, as in kids soccer, for which Fruchterman is a long-time volunteer. Oh, and his first big expenditure? KQED challenge grant. Yep, he put up $1,000 to spur others to call in and donate to public radio.

Started non-profit

Neither of which won Fruchterman the MacArthur, an award granted this year to 25 people nationwide who have done remarkable things to help their fellow humans. Fruchterman, an engineer and entrepreneur, did his part in 1989 by forming the non-profit that became Benetech.

He didn’t start the start-up to make money. As a non-profit, the goal was to not make money. His idea: Take existing technology and transform it into products for those with disabilities or other disadvantages.

Genius. That’s the unofficial label that comes with the MacArthur. Fruchterman has no idea who nominated him for the award, but there are plenty of suspects.

Benetech, a two-dozen-person outfit, came up with a system that helps the blind read. They developed gear to find land mines in war-torn areas. They invented a better way for human rights organizations to store and document abuse investigations. The company survives on grants and donations and by selling its products at low cost to those who need them.

Fruchterman credits his co-workers with helping him win the award. But Fruchterman started it all when he began a transition from run-of-the-mill entrepreneur to chief executive of a company formed to help humanity.

Talks of loneliness

It was something Fruchterman said about his transformation that drew me to him.

“I’d like to help people not be as lonely as I was the first few years, ” he said Monday when the MacArthurs were announced. He says he felt like the only guy in Silicon Valley not trying to make a billion dollars.

In his cluttered California Avenue office a day later, Fruchterman tells me his Silicon Valley buddies just didn’t get Benetech when he started it. A company that doesn’t make a profit — on purpose? You mean, you don’t pocket a ton of money?

“If I pocket the money, ” he told them, “I go to jail.”

Sure Fruchterman is paid. He made $165,000 last year as CEO. That’s about one-eighth of Cisco chief executive John Chambers’ bonus.

Fruchterman lives comfortably. Further proof that maybe you need only so much to be comfortable. The $500,000 will be a nice cushion. Fruchterman says he has no specific plans for the windfall.

He has two kids in college, and the money will ease that worry. Some will broaden his travel for Benetech. Some will help free him up to write a book about his model of helping others. Beyond that, who knows?

My thought? It’s all going to a good cause.




Filed under Education Technology, Silicon Valley Business, Silicon Valley Life

3 responses to “Jim Fruchterman and Benetech are Silicon Valley treasures

  1. Thanks for the kind comments, Mike. The team has grown a little, and our users of Bookshare have grown a lot! Now over 200,000 students getting accessible books, compared to 3,000 when you did the interview.

  2. mikecassidy

    Jim, Pretty healthy growth curve. Congratulations.

  3. Glinda

    A nice tribute to Jim and the Benetech team. Their work effects positive change in the lives of so many people around the world.

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