Building Community

John A. and Susan Sobrato have created a culture of philanthropy built on a passion for education

Long before the rise of the technology industry, John A. Sobrato played a leading role in building Silicon Valley, first as a successful young residential broker and later as the founder of one of California’s most successful real estate development firms.

Today, John and Susan Sobrato are among Silicon Valley’s most recognized philanthropists. With their son and two daughters, the Sobratos have made nearly $315 million in gifts of cash and real estate in the past 18 years for education, economic opportunities, and essential human services.

Their mission is to make Silicon Valley — which has been home to four generations of successful Sobratos — a place of opportunity for all residents. The key, they believe, is access to education.

“Although there is a great deal of wealth in the Valley, the disparity between the rich and poor is dramatic and growing,” wrote John A., Susan and their son, John M. when they became the first multi-generational family to sign the Giving Pledge. They have committed to giving away 100 percent of their wealth during their lifetimes. “Many people don’t have the needed skills and education to succeed in today’s economy or have other challenges that hold them back.”

Early days in San Francisco

John’s parents met in Italy and immigrated to San Francisco, where they had their only child. His father opened John’s Rendezvous restaurant in North Beach. After his father’s death, John’s mother, Ann, sold the restaurant, invested the proceeds in property and discovered her passion for real estate. She also showed John what it meant to serve others and give back, sometimes taking him along when she volunteered in the dining room at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in Redwood City.

John graduated from Bellarmine College Preparatory, a Jesuit high school in San Jose, and was the first in his family to attend college. While studying at Santa Clara University, he began selling Eichler homes in Palo Alto three days a week. He and Sue met at a mutual friend’s wedding and, shortly after John graduated with a business degree in 1960, they married.

At Midtown Realty, John, his mother and his partner Carl E. Berg built some of the first tilt-ups for the area’s growing electronics industry. The Sobrato Organization, founded in 1979, would go on to build and lease offices for many of Silicon Valley’s most iconic firms, from Apple to Yahoo! “I guess I was in the right place at the right time,” Sobrato says.

Giving back

At home, John and Sue instilled in their children the value of giving back to the Valley that brought them success. They passed on a family culture of giving back established by John’s mother and today, the Sobratos’ son and two daughters are teaching their own children about giving.

“They don’t think twice about it,” Sue Sobrato said of her children. “It’s just something you do. To me, they’ve always been very excited about it.”

The family’s philanthropy has focused on low-income, underserved communities and for two decades, they have invested in education, which they see as the key to breaking cycles of poverty.

“Most of our family has been touched by a Jesuit education,” John Sobrato said. “We were taught the concept of giving back. And you have a social responsibility to give back some of your success.”

Last month, John and Sue received the 2015 Spirit of Silicon Valley Lifetime Achievement Award from the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, which is presented annually to outstanding community leaders based on impeccable ethics, business excellence, and community engagement. In addition, the Sobrato Organization last month was honored as the top corporate philanthropist for the fourth year in a row by the Silicon Valley Business Journal.

Sobrato enjoys taking a hands-on role in select projects. Recently, he created the Founder’s Circle for a new Cristo Rey high school in San Jose and is co-chair of the board of trustees. He also played a key role in the creation of a new $35 million state-of-the-art clinic for Ravenswood Family Health Center in East Palo Alto.

“It’s fun getting involved,” Sobrato said. “I like to use my network to grow these projects. They will last way beyond my lifetime and it’s important to have a whole village of supporters.”

Contact Info

Office of Development

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2130 Fulton Street
Lone Mountain Rossi
3rd Floor
San Francisco, CA 94117-1080
(415) 422-5623