Brian Sheth’s Giving Philosophy Looks Forward and to The Past

Brian Sheth’s Giving Philosophy Looks Forward and to The Past

While building a career that has made him one of the heaviest hitters in the realm of private equity and technology investing, Brian Sheth has simultaneously fashioned a philanthropic vocation that is powerful and far-reaching. From low-key roles, like serving on the board of directors of the Grammy Museum, to becoming one of the world’s most high-profile activists on environmental issues, Brian Sheth has moved to the forefront of philanthropic engagement in recent years.

No less an authority than Jane Goodall, the famed primatologist, anthropologist, environmental activist, and United Nations Messenger of Peace said this about Sheth: “In all my years as a conservationist, I have never met a supremely successful businessman who devotes more time and is as passionate as Brian about saving our planet.”

His approach, especially with regards to the environment in the era of global climate change, is rooted in both his personal history and skills he developed as an innovative investor, which are naturally built on keeping a keen eye on the trends that will shape the future.

“In a real dollar term, every billion dollars that we invest in environmental preservation has about a 110x return … investing in our wilderness and our wildlife,” said Sheth at a public forum during the 2017 Milken Institute Global Conference. “Not just clean water, clean air, and clean food—which are all pretty important—but actually direct benefits to folks in terms of arable farmland, soil preservation, things like that.”

This realization has led Sheth—working closely with his wife Adria—to support a wide range of causes, especially in the fields of education and wildlife conservation. The pinnacle of this work is the Sangreal Foundation, of which Adria serves as president, and which is a philanthropic powerhouse funding projects all around the world, while remaining extremely active in Austin, Texas.

“We Can Never Have Enough of Nature”

The organization’s name, like the effort itself, has deep roots from Sheth’s childhood.

“One of my favorite books from when I was a kid was The Once and Future King by T. H. White, and ‘sangreal’ in the book is the term for the Holy Grail. I was fascinated by this idea of a quest, and the quest as articulated by the book was less about the achievement of finding the Grail and more about giving purpose to the people,” Sheth explained in an interview with Soledad O’Brien that was published in Worth in 2016. “For my wife, it’s really focusing on kids’ welfare and education. For me, it’s habitat conservation and species preservation.”

That dedication to the environment was sparked during his childhood in Massachusetts, where he grew up not far from Walden Pond in Acton. Sheth explored the woods there, usually with his best buddy Wes Sechrest—who ultimately took the path that Sheth once considered when he became a biologist. Today, Sechrest is not only an adjunct faculty member of the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences at Texas A&M University but also the chief scientist and CEO of Re:wild, formerly Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC)—which he and Sheth founded together in 2008. It was created to help protect endangered species—and crucially their habitats—by coordinating the efforts of scientists, conservationists, and private industry stakeholders. It now has partnerships in over 50 countries and has helped create more than 30 protected areas hosting over 150 endangered species.

This, and the work of the Sheth Sangreal Foundation, was unleashed by childhood experiences of rambling through woodlands intertwining with being introduced to global environmental leaders like Jacques-Yves Cousteau and Goodall through mass media.

Sheth captured this dynamic in a 2017 piece he wrote for HuffPost entitled “Leadership Lessons From Jane Goodall: Investors Can Learn A Lot From The Iconic Conservationist.”

“I remember the first time I watched the National Geographic film about Jane’s groundbreaking work with chimpanzees in Tanzania. I could not know then that Jane—the woman who fearlessly interacted with chimpanzees, who became accepted into their natural habitat, and who fundamentally changed the way I (and millions of others) viewed the relationship between humans and animals—would become my cherished friend,” Sheth wrote. “Jane’s message of hope and her tireless advocacy for animals and the planet have inspired generations of people and organizations … Jane’s leadership as a voice for species who cannot talk, for young people who will inherit the planet, and for the communities who are at the forefront of the conservation battle, make her a rare leader and sage of our time.”

Community Is Always at the Core

All of Sheth’s philanthropy is, at some level, rooted in the concept of community.

This radiates out from Austin, Texas—which he and his family have called home for years—to the world we all share. As he explained in the Worth interview: “We haven’t found another planet, yet, that has any life on it. And the clean air that we breathe, the clean water that we drink, all the things that we sometimes take for granted come from the biodiversity that is on the planet.”

This sense of community was cultivated during his undergraduate years at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, as were the analytical skills that are the foundation of his professional career.

“I joined something called the University City Hospitality Coalition and ended up on the board when I was the director of the Newman Center, which is the Catholic student center. Because of that, I saw some of the challenges of running soup kitchens and food banks in a poor part of a relatively poor city, Philadelphia. It started to give me an impression of what worked and what didn’t work in nonprofits and got me thinking about them from an organizational design standpoint,” Sheth reminisced to O’Brien. “If you fast-forward almost a decade, I started to recognize that part of what I could bring to the philanthropic projects and passions that I had was not just the checks that I was going to write but perhaps some of the things that made the firm that my partner and I started successful. Specifically, we were very good at organizational design and change management and being focused on setting priorities and staying on mission.”

The Sheths, via the Sheth Sangreal Foundation, have continued to support UPenn, including contributing to Penn Arts and Sciences and the Netter Center for Community Partnerships (UPenn’s “primary vehicle for advancing civic and community engagement”). The Foundation also endowed the Betty J. Costanza Women’s Track & Field coaching position, the first varsity coaching position endowed in a woman’s name in the institution’s history.

After relocating to Austin, the Sheths continued to anchor their charitable giving close to home.

This was just highlighted during the 2021 severe winter weather crisis that gripped Texas. The Sheth Sangreal Foundation contributed over $1 million to direct aid organizations, such as the emergency donation drive by the Austin Area Urban League, and was able to source a half-million packs of Flow Hydration boxed water packets for the community.

Months earlier, the foundation matched donations up to $1 million to the All Together ATX Fund—which had been set up by the Austin Community Foundation and the United Way for Greater Austin—to provide aid to people experiencing upheavals due to the coronavirus pandemic.

And in 2019, the foundation donated $3 million to the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Austin Area for the construction of its new 32,000-square-foot Home Club, now a hub for after-school activities that includes a STEM learning center, library, arts facilities, and indoor and outdoor athletic amenities. The Sheths also committed to providing $1 million in annual funding for the next 10 years to anchor operating expenses at what is officially known as the Sheth Family Campus.

Other local Austin charitable entities that have benefitted from the Sheth Sangreal Foundation include the St. Stephen’s Episcopal School Emerging Scholars Fund, the Helping Hand Home for Children, and the Austin Children’s Shelter.

Creating “A World Where We Can Live in Harmony with Nature”

This kind of diverse philanthropic giving fulfills one aspect of the Sheth Sangreal Foundation’s mission, which is supporting education. The other core undertaking is, quite literally, saving the planet.

The recent disaster in Texas was an example of this dynamic that struck literally close to home. An unusual weather pattern—featuring polar air driven much farther south than “normal” in a complex chain reaction very likely amplified by global warming—overwhelmed the local infrastructure. And this in an “advanced” nation and, specifically, a region synonymous with the energy industry.

“Whether you’re rich or you’re poor, whether you’re American or Indian or Chinese, this is the one issue that’s going to affect all of us. The world is interconnected. I think that that’s the number one challenge of our time,” Sheth mused in the Worth interview years before the Texas disaster. “And if you go to parts of the world where they’ve had tremendous environmental degradation, you do realize that it has a very, very large impact on the quality of life. I would argue even bigger than the impact of economics.”

Re:wild (formerly called Global Wildlife Conservation)

One of the first steps in taking on the environmental threats facing us all was Sheth’s cofounding of Re:wild, formerly known as GWC. It is not simply dedicated to saving endangered species but, indirectly, to preserving ecosystems that are vital to the long-term sustainability of the planet’s atmosphere.

“The problem with global warming is one of a numerator and a denominator. The numerator is certainly emissions; it’s certainly greenhouse gases. But the denominator is how do you eradicate them [and that] is what all the primary forests do for us, and what I think is very frustrating for us in science is that there isn’t nearly the focus on preserving the forests and preserving this area that’s going to protect us all from a climate change perspective,” Sheth continued in the Worth interview. “This really goes to this concept of biodiversity that every conservation biologist embraces. We have this library of life, it involves animals, it involves plants, it involves soil structures, and they’re all interrelated … the reality is the plants, the flora, the fauna, the soil, marine or terrestrial, they’re all interconnected.”

Although the initial impetus for founding Re:wild with his childhood friend wasn’t directly related to climate activism, it quickly became a parallel goal. It has moved, as a science-based effort, from its focus on saving specific species to one that creates deep relationships with local organizations that are the foundation of conserving habitat.

“When Wes first came to me—at the time he was a professor at the University of Virginia, but he was very keen on creating an NGO that was focused on research and a science-based approach to conservation—he was very thoughtful about the design for GWC and how he was going to maximize the resources that he was going to get,” Sheth explains in the Worth interview. “It began with Dr. Sechrest and some of his colleagues at various universities putting together one of the first comprehensive lists of species that were at risk of extinction … I think that is all very important, but from our perspective at GWC it starts with animals, it starts with the plants and it starts with the land. If you don’t preserve those you won’t have the opportunity to go upstream and protect things like culture and lifestyle.”

A recent offshoot of working “upstream” is Earth Alliance, a coalition between GWC, the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, and the Emerson Collective (founded by Laurene Powell Jobs). The three organizations, all founded by individuals with significant financial resources and dedicated in part to climate issues and wildlife preservation, came together in 2019 “to help address the urgent threats to our planet’s life support systems … in response to a growing climate crisis and staggering loss of biodiversity threatening the stability of life on Earth.”

The plan is for Earth Alliance to provide direct funding and media production to support the work of grassroots efforts in regions threatened by biodiversity loss and climate change. As DiCaprio put it at the new organization was announced: “Laurene and Brian are incredible civic leaders who share my passion and understanding of the urgency and scale of the challenges we face. I am proud to partner with them to form this new larger, nimble platform that shares resources and expertise while identifying the best programs to drive real change around the planet.”

The Sheth Sangreal Foundation

Such an effort is one large puzzle piece that, for the Sheths, is ultimately anchored by the operations of the Sheth Sangreal Foundation, which is dedicated to forging partnerships around the world. It supports everything from enhanced educational opportunities to protecting obscure species and, by extension, their habitat.

“The foundation has a detailed website, though it prefers to seek out organizations with which to partner. The charity supports select nonprofits through its children and conservation initiatives [and supports] a range of educational and youth organizations [and] states that by ‘supporting groups that do everything from preparing American students for college to building new schools in Africa, the Sangreal Foundation is helping children around the world prepare for full, healthy lives as members of our global community,’” reported Inside Philanthropy in 2018.

The foundation has funded a diverse range of projects, including Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium, the Discovery Museum (in Sheth’s hometown of Acton, MA), Devil Ark (dedicated to saving Australia’s Tasmanian devil), Fundaeco (which supports sustainable community development in Central America), ProAves (a Colombian conservation organization), and the arts-orientated AMA Center in Anguilla.

This wide diversity of charitable giving mirrors the biodiversity that the Sheth Sangreal Foundation was created in large part to preserve on a global level. The approach is rooted in both Sheth’s business background—let’s say his left-brain linear thinking—and those more holistic right-brain forces. In the public forum at the Milken Institute Sheth explained the dual roots of his philanthropy.

“It sounds very dispassionate [but] it was kind of a data exercise. We and our partners … had a lot of early success—go figure, investing in software turned out to be a good idea—and it was my thirtieth birthday and my son had just been born and I said ‘my legacy to him can’t just be the financial success of what we’ve done.’ My parents, even though we didn’t have any money growing up, were very charitable—maybe not philanthropic—but charitable in the way that they spent their time and volunteered,” Sheth related. “So, I spent a lot of time focusing on different areas that were of interest to me. When I was looking at many of the world’s problems, so many of them kept coming back to the degradation of the environment. So, then I put my investor hat on and said, ‘well, where can I make the biggest impact?’”

That was the beginning of a journey that continues today, one in which partnerships are forged with organizations that can’t get the attention of the world’s media—much less bring millions of dollars in resources to bear. The Sheth Sangreal Foundation acts as a multiplier that spreads preservation and opportunity around the globe.

Jason Lee is a blogger dedicated to the topic of sustainability. He provides guidance to entrepreneurs, innovators, and businesses on utilizing technology to advance sustainability, boost economic prosperity, and enhance human well-being. He features eco-friendly startups and offers advice for sustainable living with the goal of promoting positive change through technology.