Mem­oir talks can­didly about wealth

San Francisco Chronicle - - DATEBOOK - By Brandon Yu Brandon Yu is a Bay Area free­lance writer.

Months ago, when Jen­nifer Risher was gear­ing up for her new book, “We Need to Talk: A Mem­oir About Wealth,” ini­tially set for re­lease in May, she knew she would be of­fer­ing a can­did look around what she saw as the uni­ver­sal con­ver­sa­tional taboo of money.

Then the pan­demic hit, and her book re­lease was pushed back to Septem­ber. Now amid an en­tirely new land­scape, it makes her book per­haps even more un­com­fort­able, but all the more nec­es­sary dur­ing what has been an eco­nom­i­cally dev­as­tat­ing year for many Amer­i­cans.

In “We Need to Talk,” Risher chron­i­cles her re­la­tion­ship with money af­ter she fell into great for­tune, join­ing Mi­crosoft in its early days and, on her first day there, meet­ing her fu­ture hus­band, David Risher, who would go on to be­come a head of a startup known as Ama­zon. The cur­rent cli­mate makes Risher’s hon­esty about the na­ture of her fam­ily’s wealth es­pe­cially strik­ing — Risher’s hus­band was once Ama­zon’s sec­ond­in­com­mand, be­hind CEO and founder Jeff Be­zos, whose sky­rock­et­ing for­tune has of­ten served as the pri­mary ex­am­ple cri­tiquing the na­tion’s wealth dis­par­ity.

Yet most of the wealthy, Risher says, ex­ist out­side our imag­i­na­tions of greed and ex­cess.

“Eight out of 10 peo­ple with wealth grew up mid­dle class or poor, so they are you, and they’re hid­den in plain sight,” Risher says. “They’re more or­di­nary than the stereo­type.”

In­deed, much of the book re­volves around Risher’s largely quo­tid­ian anx­i­eties as she strug­gles to come to terms with her grow­ing riches. Break­ing the si­lence around money, big and small, she says, can help build a more eq­ui­table coun­try.

Risher, who lives in San Fran­cisco, spoke by phone from Napa — her fam­ily es­caped the city early in the pan­demic, as “is typ­i­cal of my de­mo­graphic,” she ad­mit­ted — about her new book and what needs to be done to al­le­vi­ate in­come in­equal­ity.

Q: Did you have a par­tic­u­lar au­di­ence in mind for this book?

A: I re­ally was writ­ing to help mil­lions of Amer­i­cans who are like me — who have more money than they had grow­ing up, or who have more money than their ex­tended fam­ily, or who have more money than their friends. I’m hop­ing that by shar­ing my story it could help other peo­ple to un­der­stand their own.

Q: Do you worry that your book might be off­putting to many readers who are not rich or fi­nan­cially se­cure?

A: I do want to get us out of an “us ver­sus them” mind­set. … We all have a money story, and we all have a re­la­tion­ship with money. It doesn’t mat­ter how much is in your bank ac­count. It’s un­com­fort­able to talk about, so my goal is to help us get un­com­fort­able and have those con­ver­sa­tions.

And then there’s this other group of peo­ple — and we’re in the mil­lions — who re­ally have been su­per lucky, and we’re not talk­ing to each other, ei­ther. … And when there’s a large in­flu­en­tial seg­ment of the pop­u­la­tion that feels iso­lated and es­tranged, they’re prob­a­bly not at their most gen­er­ous and em­pa­thetic and they’re prob­a­bly not hold­ing them­selves ac­count­able or in­spired to make change.

Q: You in­di­cate to­ward the end of the book that you sym­pa­thize with the re­frain that “bil­lion­aires shouldn’t ex­ist.” As the wealth gap widens and bil­lion­aires get richer, should they be held re­spon­si­ble for the in­equities in the coun­try?

A: Well, “they” is lump­ing them all to­gether into one per­son. They have money in com­mon — that’s all. It’s a group of in­di­vid­u­als. When I think about what needs to hap­pen, it’s some­thing at a govern­ment level. Phi­lan­thropy is won­der­ful, but it’s a small drop in the bucket when you look at the money that needs to be spent on the struc­tures that help our whole so­ci­ety.

Q: What do you think should be done at a struc­tural govern­ment level to al­le­vi­ate eco­nomic in­equal­i­ties? A:

There def­i­nitely has to be a shift in our think­ing at the govern­ment level, eco­nom­i­cally. I want to pay more taxes — let’s put a struc­ture in place that al­lows me to do that and al­lows us to buoy ev­ery­one in this coun­try.

Q: In May, you and your hus­band started the HALFMYDAF ini­tia­tive, which asks the wealthy to give half of the money in their donor­ad­vised fund to nonprofits of their choice by this month. What was the mo­ti­va­tion there?

A: We re­al­ized our money can go fur­ther if we had peo­ple join us. At the same time, we also re­al­ized that there’s a lot of money sit­ting in donor­ad­vised funds — $120 bil­lion in fact — and our goal was re­ally to in­spire giv­ing. So we put up $1 mil­lion in the form of match­ing grants to any non­profit that any­one wanted to give to.

Q: Did you learn any­thing about your re­la­tion­ship to money through writ­ing the book?

A: I still drive around the block look­ing for free park­ing on the street. I still find my­self think­ing, “Well, I can’t buy those rasp­ber­ries, cause they’re way too ex­pen­sive.” It’s re­ally hard to get rid of those things that are in­stilled in child­hood, and I won­der if you can re­ally get rid of them.

I don’t think money has changed me as much as I’d have ex­pected. In fact, I don’t think it’s changed me at all. It’s re­vealed more of who I am, and then I have to kind of look at that.

“We Need to Talk: A Mem­oir About Wealth” By Jen­nifer Risher (Xeno Books; 280 pages; $26.95)

Kelly Vorves

Jen­nifer Risher

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