He thumbed idly through the stack of letters, still preoccupied by his busy day as a partner with the venture capital firm Sequoia Capital. A newsletter caught his eye. It was from Parca, a local provider of services for people with developmental disabilities. He thought he'd take just a quick glance, but an article about a boy with Down Syndrome drew him in. He sat down to read, his mind drifting back to his boyhood in Boston and a neighbor boy, Brian, who had Down Syndrome.
"My parents loved Brian," he recalled with a smile. "He was always at our house. I remembered how welcoming and kind my mother and father were to Brian and how that was unusual then — in the 1940s — when children like him were often kept almost in hiding."
Memories of Brian turned to memories of his parents, people of modest means, neither of whom had more than a high school education. They both worked demanding jobs but always volunteered, always helped people in need.
A day later, Russell was standing in the Parca offices with a large check and list of questions about what he could do to help.
"It was an incredibly powerful experience," said Russell, a Portola Valley resident who, at 77, has all the exuberance and energy you'd expect of a man who took up golf at 70 and wonders aloud at what additional projects he could fit into his schedule.
The former medical technology executive still gets a little choked up remembering that day at Parca.
"I felt so good. To suddenly realize how I could make a difference — it was truly a catalyst."
A catalyst indeed. Over the next two decades, while running the go-go life of a VC and raising a son and two stepsons, Russell quietly became a one-man, philanthropic force of nature, providing superhuman levels of time and money to dozens of nonprofits and other organizations. Whether helping Native American students find their way from the reservation to his alma mater, Dartmouth College, or serving on the board of the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, or promoting environmental research through the Woods Hole Research Center, Russell's motivation to give seems to have been constrained neither by the type of cause nor the number of hours in a day.
Since he retired from Sequoia Capital seven years ago, one initiative in particular has captured his heart and dominated his time: Ravenswood Family Health Center, the East Palo Alto-based provider of free or low-cost primary medical care to the uninsured or underinsured. As a longtime donor and member of the board of directors, Russell has helped guide the nonprofit clinic from its early years.
"Gordon is an incredibly generous human being," Luisa Buada, Ravenswood's CEO, said. "He's always looking for an opportunity to give. He's simply one of the best board members you could have because he brings his many years of the private industry experience but is completely sensitive to the fact that as a nonprofit, with a consumer-majority board, we operate very differently from the for-profit sector. He engenders a lot of respect and gives a lot of respect back."
Describing the magnitude of the need and the sense of satisfaction that comes from helping people who would otherwise have few medical treatment options outside of the emergency room, Russell said, "I am absolutely blown away each time I go into the waiting room."
He matter-of-factly addresses the heated policy debates of the moment, the political questions about who should be insured or not insured, but still appears visibly troubled when contemplating how someone in his position could not help.
"I think people are, by nature, kind and generous givers," he said. "I think it comes down to a person's ability to get outside of themselves. Really, it is almost Biblical — think of the Good Samaritan. Would you be that person who stops to help? Why wouldn't you?"
It is as simple as his mother always said: "They need it; you have it. Give it."
Nearly everyone has "time, talent or treasure" that they can offer, he said. Without saying it directly, Russell suggested that seniors are especially well-situated to give of themselves.
"One of the few benefits — perhaps the only benefit — of getting older is that you gain some wisdom," he said with a smile. "What also changes as you get older is the degree of your self-interest. It is easier to see yourself as part of something greater."