The novelist and philanthropist has given up voting rights in Amazon, but her huge wealth gives her significant power.
"The book is full of techniques which stretch the boundaries of non-fiction, and the result is a lopsided and misleading portrait." That was one Amazon reviewer's one-star verdict on The Everything Store by Brad Stone, a 2013 history of the Seattle-based online shopping behemoth.
Many authors would not feel the need to respond specifically, as Stone later would, to even so scathing a reviewer. Then again, most Amazon reviewers are not MacKenzie Scott, then known as MacKenzie Bezos, one of Amazon's earliest employees and also the wife of its founder Jeff Bezos.
This elegant 921-word rebuke was a rare foray into the limelight for Scott, who has largely shied away from public attention both before and after announcing her divorce in 2019 with coordinated his-and-hers statements on Twitter.
Unlike Jeff Bezos and his girlfriend Lauren Sanchez, who hopped on jets to attend red carpets for film festivals and celebrity-packed events before Covid-19 brought an abrupt end to socialising, Scott has not been pictured in public since the separation.
And yet her first move after that made a bold statement. Having walked away with 4 per cent of the company, now worth US$53 billion ($73.8 billion), the 50-year-old novelist showed little interest in getting back into the boardroom, allowing Bezos to retain the voting rights to her 19.7 million shares.
The same year, however, she pledged to donate half her fortune – and unlike many peers to make the same promise, she immediately began doing so in large amounts. One philanthropy adviser described her total disbursement for 2020 of US$6 billion ($8.3 billion) as "one of the biggest annual distributions by a living individual" to working charities.
Following up on the commitment I made last year to give away the majority of my wealth in my lifetime: https://t.co/Ocb8eU5UR1. (Note my Medium account is under my new last name -- changed back to middle name I grew up with, after my grandfather Scott.)— MacKenzie Scott (@mackenziescott) July 28, 2020
According to Jon Reily, who worked at Amazon in the Nineties and then returned in 2010 to run its Kindle division, that duality is characteristic of Scott. Though she had stepped back from day to day work by the time he arrived, she was known to Amazon's coders and a regular at company picnics.
"She was always somebody behind the scenes; you never saw her," Reily says. "I would say she's a down to earth person. [Jeff] was a super geeky guy and she was the kind of person you would think would be married to him."
In those days, Scott kept Amazon's books, wrote the cheques and is said to have helped negotiate one of its earliest contracts over coffee in the Starbucks inside the company's local Barnes and Noble. She had supported Bezos when he suggested throwing in their cushy life in New York to risk it all on a book-selling start-up, even driving across the country while he feverishly typed on his laptop.
One place where she did maintain a public profile was as a writer. In 2006, her first novel The Testing of Luther Albright, about the disintegration of a successful dambuilder's home life, won awards and was praised by Beloved author Toni Morrison (who had taught her at Princeton). Her second book, 2013's Traps, was about four women on a road trip to Las Vegas.
Scott's other public persona, says Reily, came out when supporting the couple's social and charitable interests. He remembers her at the forefront of projects such as Amazon's 2016 purchase and conversion of a Seattle Travelodge into a homeless shelter, or their US$2.5 million ($3.4 million) donation to a successful referendum campaign to legalise gay marriage in the state.
"What made the Bezos family socially responsible was her," Reily says. "Jeff's a super nice guy. I'm not saying he's not a great guy, but for the richest person on the planet, he doesn't give a lot of money away and never has."
Indeed, Bezos has resisted years of pressure to sign up to the Giving Pledge, a philanthropic initiative started by Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet in 2010. The goal was to inspire billionaires to give away their wealth by getting famous philanthropists such as Mark Zuckerberg and Larry Ellison to make a public commitment.
To some extent, it worked: the pledge began with 40 members and now has 220. On the other hand, research by Chuck Collins, director of the Program on Inequality and the Common Good at the left-leaning Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC, suggests that givers are not giving very quickly. Among pledgers who were billionaires in 2010, only one in six actually reduced their net worth, and most had dropped money into a private family foundation.
Not so for Scott. "MacKenzie Scott has put the billionaire boys' club to shame," says Collins now. "She's dug more deeply and meaningfully than her ex-husband, who only recently moved money to a foundation to address climate change."
Eschewing the foundation approach, Scott put her professional skills to the task of handing out cash to the right people. Her team of advisers investigated charities across the US, whether focused on food, giving loans or helping with schooling. When they decided which organisations they would be giving gifts to, Scott and her team would call the charities to let them know they would be handing them money upfront without strings attached.
"The responses from people who took the calls often included personal stories and tears," Scott wrote on her personal Medium blog in December 2020.
"These were non-profit veterans from all backgrounds and backstories, talking to us from cars and cabins and Covid-packed houses all over the country – a retired army general, the president of a tribal college recalling her first teaching job on her reservation, a loan fund founder sitting in the makeshift workspace between her washer and dryer from which she had launched her initiative years ago. Their stories and tears invariably made me and my teammates cry."
Tellingly, she also shared her dismay at how major companies – not naming any in particular – were able to thrive in the Covid-19 pandemic, which had struck families who were already struggling like "a wrecking ball". Meanwhile, she added, "it has substantially increased the wealth of billionaires".
As Reily puts it: "She's giving more money away from the Bezos fortune since she's been independent than the two of them did in the previous 20 years… it seems characteristic that the giving spirit of that marriage went with her."
Somewhere in between looking after her four children and hunting down charities to donate to, Scott found time for love. Last week it emerged that she had quietly married Dan Jewett, a chemistry teacher who worked at the US$38,000-a-year Lakeside school in Seattle, where her children are enrolled.
Scott added Jewett to her Giving Pledge page, along with a picture of the couple smiling. "Recognising how much I have to learn from those unlike me has led me to a partner similarly inclined," Jewett wrote.
"I have seen many ways that MacKenzie has seen her efforts enhanced when she acts on the belief that those with common values, but different perspectives, strengths, and experiences are essential to effecting positive change."
Jewett, who was no longer listed on the school's most recent directory as of last week, did not share any details about when the couple's romance started, nor when they were married. Still, Scott's Amazon author page hinted the pair are living with Scott and her children in Seattle.
As the news broke, an Amazon spokesman had a statement from Bezos prepared: "Dan is such a great guy, and I am happy and excited for the both of them."