Turning Life into Legacy A conversation with…Jack, 47, former tech whiz kid, security expert, self-made billionaire, cancer survivor, and fiercely determined philanthropist, Aberdeen, MD

Jack thought he had everything. A billionaire from his internet software company, he had success, family, financial freedom – but then one day his world changed. When all alone and a half a world away he learned he had cancer, everything he knew about life suddenly was turned upside down. 

“I’m a baby boomer and I would say I’m pretty typical of my generation. We all had depression era parents, and that, along with WWII shaped how they looked at things, including their expectations for their kids…which no doubt shaped how we looked at things. We  spent the early part of our adult lives trying to carve out a niche for ourselves, while at the same time – and I’m only half-joking when I say this – finding some deeper meaning to life. At some point, though, I guess I just bailed on the whole deeper meaning thing and went full throttle in the pursuit of my career.

And what I carved out for myself, wasn’t just a niche, it was…I don’t know…an empire. I wasn’t much of a student but I guess I was a geek, even if I didn’t know what that meant then. I was hooked on technology and was good with numbers, so when I got out of junior college I got a job as a software developer  but what was really a turn on for me was online transactions.  I just knew that someday everyone would be buying stuff online.  And being the boy genius I was, I taught myself the finer points of online transactions and then created and patented a totally new and entirely revolutionary piece of internet security software that is still the backbone of the system used by some of the largest online retailers in the world to protect their transactions.

Then, rather than, you know, taking my zillions, retiring at 40, and buying an island someplace, I decided to mix my freaky talent for security with my love of travel and became – a I don’t mean to brag when I say this – one of the two or three highest-priced and most in-demand financial security consultants in the world.  I had major international banking clients on four different continents, most of whom had assets in the trillions, and they paid me…well, let’s just say they paid me very well. For a while there I was living like a king, traveling the globe without a care.  I mean it…I thought I was (expletive) bulletproof. 

But one day on a flight to Zurich, I felt a lump on the side of my throat and was having trouble swallowing.  And like that – poof – my life, my world, everything changed.  Everything.  A doctor in Switzerland did a biopsy and said I had stage two esophageal cancer.  It rocked me…shook me to my core.  All I could think about was my family.  I wanted to be with them. I thought of Emily and the kids. I could see their faces and hear their voices. 

"I started thinking about all that 'meaning-of-life' stuff I used to contemplate when I was a kid."On the flight home I started thinking about all that “meaning-of-life” stuff I used to contemplate when I was a kid, but blew off.  Peggy Lee had a song my parents used to play…Is That All There Is?  I thought it was pretty hokey.  But it popped into my head and I got to thinking about my legacy, and how the kids and even the world would view me after I was gone.  Would I matter in death? Seriously,if only by degree?

Cancer does that to you, man.  It takes your list of priorities, slaps you in the face, and forces you to realize you’ve been walking around with your damn list upside down.  That’s why for the past six or seven years, when someone meets me and asks what I do, I tell ‘em proudly I give away money for a living.  My cancer taught me time is short. It scared me into waking up and realizing there was a chance I could have only been known as the guy who made it possible for you to buy, I don’t know, a bunch of smoked oysters on Amazon or some beat up old lava lamp on eBay and know your transaction was safe. Hell, that wasn’t what I wanted.  I wanted my legacy to be something more lasting…more important – and I still do.

So I hired professionals to help me create a giving strategy that would be a family affair.  Emily, the girls and I developed a mission for our charitable giving. My advisors suggested I use my entrepreneurial skills and focus on social enterprise investments….money behind small companies and initiatives that were not only consistent with my family’s mission, but had a chance to do good and effect change in the world…But I went one step further. I told my financial advisors to review my portfolio and make sure that none of my investments were supporting any entity or any corporation whose work contradicted our mission. If I was going to be true to our mission I wanted to be true in all of our investments.

I used to be a computer geek, but now I guess you could say I’m a philanthropy geek. I mean it. I can tell you all about…impact investing, donor-advised funds, mission related investing. I’m a living, breathing example of how to make money make a real difference in the world…and bring a family closer together. Sure, I thought I was “master of the universe” back before my cancer.  But now maybe the universe is telling me something about who I really am…or can be. And you better know I’ve been listening. “ 

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