Editor’s Note: San Jose Legends is a new series that tells remarkable stories of the historic and legendary people who helped shape and transform our city.
Silicon Valley philanthropist John Sobrato is aware that wealth has the ability to change people.
For Sobrato, 82, the son of Italian immigrants who first settled in San Francisco, it’s changed him for the better. In fact, he said, it’s part of his family business just as much as real estate is.
“That’s why I’m in real estate, and not the restaurant business,” Sobrato joked.
Sobrato began his career in real estate in 1957 in Palo Alto while a sophomore in college at Santa Clara University, following in his mother’s footsteps. Just three years later and fresh out of college, the mother-son duo landed their first big investment: a 14,000 square foot building for aerospace company Lockheed.
His real estate empire soon expanded when he partnered with longtime friend Carl Berg, 83, himself a Silicon Valley powerhouse real estate investor. They worked together in a Palo Alto firm called Midtown Realty that John founded in 1960 the same year he graduated from Santa Clara University. Berg has since moved on to venture capital while Sobrato has stayed in real estate development, an area he considers his career passion.
Sobrato’s firm has built or developed dozens of now well-known Silicon Valley buildings, such as Apple’s former Cupertino campus, the 500,000-square-foot Nvidia campus and the 18-story, 388,000-square foot Sobrato Office Tower, and offices for Netflix, EMC, VeriSign, Yahoo! and the Palo Alto Medical Foundation.
Sobrato is the 297th richest person in the world in 2021 according to Bloomberg and the 14th richest person in Silicon Valley in 2019 according to numbers from Forbes. His family’s net worth is an estimated $8.8 billion.
“We were in the right place at the right time,” he said.
Sobrato has used his massive wealth to do a world of good in Silicon Valley. He founded the Sobrato Organization, a real estate and philanthropic firm, in 1979.
Sobrato’s daughter, Lisa Sobrato Sonsini, spun off a charity, Sobrato Philanthropies, from the original organization with her father’s blessing in 1996. According to its website, Sobrato Philanthropies has given away more than $644 million. It leases office space in San Jose, Milpitas and Redwood City to other Bay Area nonprofits.
“The design of the organization from the beginning has always been a way to bring our family together,” Sobrato Sonsini said.
He has also sponsored different hospitals, including a pavilion at the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose which opened in 2017 and a prominent Sobrato Pavilion at the Lucille Packard Childrens’ Hospital, which opened in 2018.
Sobrato’s organization dabbles in many different causes, from homelessness to education.
One of the Sobrato Organization’s signature programs, the Sobrato Early Academic Language model, or SEAL, teaches English to Spanish-speaking elementary school kids to ensure they’re academically literate by third grade.
SEAL started in 2012 in five schools and has now expanded to more than 50,000 students in 100 schools across the state. Schools foot two-thirds of the bill—$3,000 per student—while the Sobrato Organization pays the rest.
“It’s a very lively, active classroom,” Sobrato said.
The surest way out of poverty
Sobrato has increased his education advocacy over the years, including an investment in Cristo Rey San Jose Jesuit High School, a private Catholic high school in San Jose’s east side.
There, students not only get a classroom education but are also given internship and trade opportunities with some of Silicon Valley’s biggest tech names like HP and Cisco.
“I really think education is the surest way out of poverty,” Sobrato said. “We’ve been very involved in charter schools. It’s something that I enjoy doing and it’s great to see these kids advance.”
Much of the proceeds from selling real estate has gone into the business’s charity work, which in turn gives the organization more money to give out as grants and donations.
“Now that we’re comfortable, the entire family believes that it’s our obligation to give back to our communities any way we can to make it a place of opportunity for everybody,” Sobrato said.
Helping the less fortunate
Sobrato said his other big philanthropic passion is helping people get housing.
He currently sits on the board of Destination: Home, a San Jose-based nonprofit committed to ending homelessness. While the homelessness crisis in the region can’t be solved in his lifetime, he said, it’s up to him and other philanthropists to ensure every homeless person is eventually housed so the region doesn’t remain “an area of haves and have-nots.”
“I don’t think we can only build our way out of the problem,” Sobrato said. “Philanthropy has to step up and help these people. We also need to move those with substance abuse and mental issues off our downtown streets because they are driving away customers. Our elected officials need to utilize Laura’s Law and obtain conservatorships to force these folks into treatment facilities where they can receive the care they need.”
Sobrato serves on a variety of boards, including Joint Venture Silicon Valley, a policy and economic think tank.
Russell Hancock, Joint Venture’s president and CEO, has known Sobrato for decades. Hancock said Sobrato is a “fixer,” and his passion to solve problems is what drives him.
“He’s moved by compassion,” Hancock said. “His Catholic faith means a great deal to him, and he understands his discipleship as a call to give, as a call to relieve the plight of the suffering and the poor.”
Sobrato lives with his wife Susan. They have three children: John Michael, Sheri Sobrato Brisson and Lisa Sobrato Sonsini, who are all active philanthropists and seven grandchildren.
A lot of what my grandmother brought up my father with—displaying a strong work ethic, being responsive to the needs of those around you, volunteering in soup kitchens — it was always made very clear that having both resource and opportunity, it’s our responsibility to give back,” Sobrato Sonsini said.
Sobrato has one more act of philanthropy in him.
The Sobrato family, along with over 200 other individuals, have signed The Giving Pledge, a promise among extremely wealthy individuals to donate most or all of their wealth to charitable causes once they die. Fellow billionaires Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett started the campaign in 2011 in hopes of encouraging more wealthy people to donate to charity.
Sobrato said he’s happy to do so, just like his parents and grandparents taught him.
“You get to a point where you go, ‘What are you going to do with all your money?,” he said. “Do something for mankind and reduce human suffering.”
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