John A. Sobrato and the Art of Making a Difference

recent sampling: The Sobratos Donate $20 Million To The New Packard Children’s Hospital Addition To Be Called The Sobrato Pavillion … The Sobratos Donate $5 Million To Build The Sobrato Pavillion at the Valley Medical Center (which is the largest donation ever to a general hospital west of the Mississippi) … The Sobrato Cancer Center at VMC (a most important addition, opened 2009, on a floor in the new Specialty Center Building) , … The Sobratos Donate Hundreds of Millions of Dollars to the Community Foundation Silicon Valley … The Sobratos Build and Maintain Three Centers for Non-Profits That House 65 Non-Profit Organizations … The Sobratos Help Build Schools and Training Centers…

  I believe in Positive Role Models and here is clearly a shining example unlike any other. From a tiny seed comes a Giant sequoia tree, something that is far bigger, beyond imagination or belief. One’s life can be like that, too, how we can help shape infrastructures and benefit others along the way, that makes such a difference in other people’s lives. In this regard, leading by example and helping make this a better world, John A. Sobrato is truly a giant among giants, a champion among champions. This is not your typical story, but again, this is not your typical person.

  It’s about making a difference in this world we live in. How fortunate are we? You couldn’t begin to imagine. Our Silicon Valley would not be a fraction of what it is today had it not been, and continues to be, because of John A. Sobrato, the Sobrato Organization, the Sobrato Family Foundation, the Sobrato Foundation … and especially the Family Sobrato, John A. and his wife Sue, their son, John Michael, their daughters, Sheri and Lisa, and Lisa’s husband Matt Sonsini. They all work diligently together, committed to serving and contributing back to our community.

The Sobrato Family Learning Commons at Saint Francis High School.

  To answer the question, “I am but one person, what difference can I make?” - If you were to listen to John, an only child of immigrant parents, who became a selfmade multi-billionaire, and does so much for community, you will be amazed. What do you attribute your success to? He said he was lucky, that one thing after another just fell into place.

  I believe he was referring to the love of his family and the work ethic that was instilled in him from an early age. He is persistent and committed to what he believes in: excellence, quality and service. He grew up going to school at the Palo Alto Military Academy (now Harker School), Bellarmine College Prep and then Santa Clara University (graduating with Honors with a degree in Business), where he was also a classmate and lifelong friend of, yet, another great Positive Role Model, Father Paul Locatelli, who for half a century was that for Santa Clara University, Silicon Valley and The Vatican.

  John worked his entire life, as a youngster and all through school. His real estate career began also at an early age; in fact, it was when he was a student at Santa Clara University and he began working with Nick Carter & Co. Part-time, he devoted three days to his class schedule and three days to his work schedule, working in real estate. It was at age 21, while still a student at Santa Clara University, John became the youngest to enter the Millionaires Club in Palo Alto Real Estate. He did this by selling Eichler Homes (“and that was a lot of homes, at $20,000 a home”).

The Sobrato Center for Humanities & The Arts at Bellarmine College Prep.

  I believe John made his own luck - and throughout our entire conversation, he was focused not at all on himself, but on serving, and helping benefit our families, causes and community – which he has been doing for many years (more than half a century himself), and is still very actively doing today, as much as is humanly possible.

  I was excited and looking forward to having this one hour talk with John. I arrived early, for which I am grateful – this allowed me time to admire all the framed portraits of their buildings that adorned all their walls, from top to bottom. Each and every one is absolutely beautiful. The framed pictures were hanging there as if displaying one’s own family, indeed so proud of each and every child.

  I want to add, too, that John is an extremely humble man. He is all about what’s good for community – and helping to make a difference. He was concerned at the time when I called him about too much publicity – he was about to be honored by 1,200 of our greatest community leaders with the distinguished David Packard Award at Joint Venture Silicon Valley and was about to be written up in the Business Journal. He asked if I could please possibly wait, for he felt it was a bit much at this one time. It was I who asked for this article, not he.

  He came to meet with me punctually at 2pm, flanked by important meetings before ours and then again right after. As busy as he was, he was as gracious as could be. He looks like a movie star, he may be 72 years old, but his looks defy his age and he has so much energy. He had a smile on his face throughout our talk. What really lit up his face, though, was when we started talking about his family and the Non-Profit projects they have done and are doing. There are indeed many, and he is grateful for and proud of them all.

  It is so apparent, everything is very close to his heart. To say he cares, is an understatement – it is a passion. And to him it is not about just giving, it’s about a gift being used in a way that will serve them, perpetually, over time. Our needs today are greater than ever. I often say to the many wonderful Non-Profits, who all do so much: “Where would we be without you?” Shudder that thought. So many of the Non-Profits have been, and are, supported in a very large way by the Sobrato Family Foundation, and so I say again: “Where would we be without this generosity and devoted hard work?” Again, shudder that thought. Indeed, without this support, it would be a very different community world that we live in.

  John was selling residential real estate when he joined his mother in the development of some of the first tilt-up high technology buildings in the early 1960’s, after founding and running Midtown Realty in Palo Alto until 1973. It was then, in 1973, when he sold Midtown Realty and moved to Cupertino to concentrate on development, where he has been busy ever since.

  Silicon Valley was just being born and this became the beginning of what was to become an illustrious builder / developer career, par excellence. Imagine what it was like back then. I will not forget how John said, when he first started in the early 1960’s, how there was no Silicon Valley yet at that time, just orchards everywhere. He added, too, that it was Southern California, at the time, that was considerably ahead in the look of commercial buildings.

  A decade later, John visited Southern California to talk with and learn from the people in the industry, and he also took with him his 10 year-old son, John Michael, to absorb everything. Silicon Valley was about to be launched … and John M, would later become, and currently is, the CEO of The Sobrato Organization. Never too early … How purposeful and dedicated are they? Indeed, very … An interesting note: the three children, and all their children (the grandchildren), all become Board Members of the Sobrato Family Foundation and start attending all Board Meetings once they reach age 18.

  John went on to build many of Silicon Valley’s most beautiful buildings. He said that from all what he had learned, that he would pay more to have better materials that would provide for a better, more beautiful building … it was always about the quality … and that reputation has consistently followed him wherever he goes, in everything he does.

John went on to build many of Silicon Valley’s most beautiful buildings.

  In our conversation, John also made a point about contributing, that people think contributing means simply donating money. People don’t have to, it may not be in everyone’s means to do so, and that it is just as important to volunteer - that, indeed, it may be even more important. Can you imagine if more and more people were to get involved by volunteering, what a big positive difference it would make?

  What John A. Sobrato has done for our Silicon Valley these past 50 years goes well beyond words. The Sobrato Family Foundation, established in 1996, thankfully is in place to continue to help support our Non-Profit community for many years to come. This may be called the Sobrato Way … caring for community … and helping make our Silicon Valley a better place in which we live. What we can learn from all this is truly a masterpiece … and is namely John A. Sobrato and The Art of Making A Difference.


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