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Sobrato Family: Giving Back With An Impact

Sue and John A. Sobrato

Silicon Valley is known the world over as a place where dreams become reality and where global technology enterprises are born in someone’s garage. It has a social and business ethos that supports innovation and entrepreneurship. The Sobrato family has been a part of that Silicon Valley tradition and spirit for over five decades and they have played a pivotal role in shaping it. Led by the current family patriarch, John A. Sobrato, the entire family is respected for both their business success and their commitment to giving back to their community.

The Sobrato family’s impact on Northern California dates back to the 1920s when John Mossimo Sobrato, after serving in the U.S. Army, worked as a dishwasher until he saved enough to open his own restaurant in North Beach. It was called John’s Rendezvous, and it became quite popular. In 1938, he met and married Ann, and John Albert was born that same year. John A. helped out in the restaurant at times, but his father discouraged him from the restaurant business, telling him it was too hard. John Mossimo died of cancer, when John A. was just 12 years old.

With a child to support, John’s mother sold the restaurant, took English classes, and went into real estate on the peninsula. John attended Saint Joseph’s Parochial School in Menlo Park and Bellarmine College Preparatory. After Bellarmine, he enrolled at Santa Clara University as an engineering major, but quickly decided he was better suited to business. While he was still a junior in college, John started selling Eichler houses in Palo Alto three days a week and arranged classes so he only had to attend school three days per week. He had discovered his calling.

At about the same time, while attending a friend’s wedding, John struck up a conversation with the attractive woman in front of him in the buffet line. Her name was Sue Reece, and before long she would become Sue Sobrato. After his graduation from Santa Clara in 1960, Sue and John were married. The following year with his mother, John A. developed their first build-to-suit facility for Lockheed; this was the beginning of what would become the Sobrato Organization, a family-run firm, known to this day for its hands-on approach and enduring partnerships. Their major office buildings in the Valley include the iconic Apple headquarters in Cupertino, the Siebel campus now Sony Campus in San Mateo and Nvidia campus in Santa Clara. Sobratos have developed 175 offices including buildings for Netflix, EMC, VeriSign, Yahoo! and the Palo Alto Medical Foundation.

As the Sobrato business thrived, John and Sue were able to turn some of that success into another passion they shared–giving back to their community. Giving back is part of the Sobrato ethic; part of the Sobrato family mission–giving back with an impact. John and Sue have a very deep and authentic commitment to philanthropy. They are active, passionate philanthropists, they do not just sit at home and write a check and go about business. Spurred by their interest in improving education, health care, human services and other community programs, the Sobratos have provided significant grants to nonprofit organizations totaling nearly $380 million throughout the Valley.

As Sue tells it, “Our children feel it is just as important as we do; they want to give back and that is part of our Catholic tradition. If you are fortunate and you can do it, then do it. And now it’s happening with our grandchildren. They are giving back. What we do makes me very proud of our family.”

John and Sue’s generosity is not only about doing the right thing; it is about results–very Silicon Valley. They want to know, in detail, how their giving is making a difference and to how many people, over how long a time, in as many ways as can be measured. They study and scrutinize for as long as it takes before deciding to contribute. It’s more than philanthropy; it’s truly “venture philanthropy,” and John demands a return on investment.

“Although there is a great deal of wealth in the Valley, the disparity between the rich and poor is dramatic and growing. Many people don’t have the needed skills and education to succeed in today’s economy or have other challenges that hold them back,” said John.

Much of John and Sue’s family giving has been to education, including the new Cristo Rey San Jose Jesuit High School in downtown San Jose, buildings at Bellarmine, Saint Francis High School, and at the Latino College Preparatory Academy, Santa Clara University, and recently the Drexel School System, which was developed to revitalize and transform Catholic Elementary Schools in the Diocese of San Jose. And now the Sobratos are making another investment in the Drexel Schools with a $25 million bequest of their estate. With this gift, the largest gift ever received in the history of the Diocese of San Jose, they are setting a challenge for others to say this: “Come join us in this to make Catholic Elementary Education thrive into the 21st century and beyond.”

Busier than ever, John and Sue still find time to do the things they love away from the office, like traveling, spending time on their boat, fishing, water skiing, snow skiing and other activities with their five grandsons and two granddaughters. It always comes back to family and community, “With great wealth comes responsibility to give back and lend a hand,” says John.