When Jim Barksdale started school in Jackson, Miss., he had trouble learning to read. In the third grade he still stumbled over simple words. So his parents got him a private tutor, and that changed his life. He became a good student and later an exceptional corporate leader. When he sold Netscape, he pocketed $700 million. Last week he brought a big chunk of that money back to his home state.
Barksdale, 56, and his wife Sally gave $100 million to their alma mater, the University of Mississippi, to promote reading in the state that ranks last in literacy (a third of its adults can't read a sports story or a map). The couple's donation will provide every child from kindergarten through Grade 3 with the sort of help with reading that got Barksdale launched.
Their gift indicates that the expanding ranks of tech millionaires are outgrowing their reputation for stinginess. Following the lead of Microsoft's Bill Gates and wife Melinda, who have given away at least $17 billion in recent years, more technology moguls are making serious commitments to philanthropy. As the Barksdales show, many are using an entrepreneurial approach--hands-on, well informed, demanding--to make sure their gifts are used effectively.
Jim and Sally Barksdale had been thinking about ways they could promote literacy in Mississippi. Richard Thompson, the state superintendent of education, says he read about the Barksdales' interest in a newspaper, "so I called Jim up." After long conversations, a joint venture was created between Ole Miss, the state department of education and seven other state universities. The effort, says Barksdale, will attack illiteracy "at the source," in the early grades. It will also teach illiterate parents to read, so they can help their kids.
Like any good executive, Barksdale insists on accountability from those implementing his program. "If we don't see an improvement in five years, we'll move the endowment," he says. "It gives an incentive for everyone involved."
--By Anamaria Wilson