Philanthropist profile: Heidi and Chad Carson

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Travel inspires Silicon Valley couple to focus their philanthropy on projects in Southeast Asia

From left: Heidi, Clay, Chad and Sophia Carson during their visit to Cambodia in 2008

Ever since she read Nelson DeMille’s book, “Up Country,” Heidi Carson wanted to explore Vietnam. The book’s description of the country and its history inspired her to learn more and see it in person. In 2008, she and her husband, Chad, booked the trip, and visited the markets and war memorials in Saigon, the UNESCO World Heritage city of Hoi An and Halong Bay near Hanoi.

After Vietnam, the Carsons traveled to nearby Cambodia. Though their time there was brief, the people, culture and history of the country fascinated Heidi and Chad. Upon their return home to Silicon Valley, Heidi read more about Cambodia, and learned troubling information about the harsh realities many Cambodians face.

“Maybe I had been living in a Silicon Valley bubble,” she said, “but I was stunned by what I discovered about the trafficking and exploitation of children in Cambodia and other parts of Southeast Asia. Having two young children, I felt my heart breaking with every article I read on this topic.”

Even though she and Chad had just returned home from Southeast Asia, Heidi said they had no inkling of the human trafficking problem or its magnitude.

“I desperately wanted to do something,” she said.

Aligning philanthropy with interest areas

The Carsons explored ways to use their philanthropy to support causes in Cambodia that reflected their interests. Heidi, the daughter of an immigrant, felt strongly about supporting education and job opportunities, as she had experienced how both can help people visualize a better future for themselves. Chad has always been passionate about the environment, he said, particularly the effects of climate change and loss of biodiversity on future generations.

Ultimately, they supported projects in education, economic support and sustainability in Cambodia with grants from their donor advised fund at SVCF:

Heidi and Chad Carson, center, with their children Sophia and Clay at a secondary school they supported in Cambodia in 2008.

  • They’ve supported the construction and operations of two secondary schools in rural Cambodia through World Assistance for Cambodia. The Carsons named the schools after their children: The Clay Alexander Carson School and The Sophia Noelle Carson School.
  • The Carsons have helped former street kids and their families through the Green Gecko Project in Siem Reap. The program provides education, health assistance, training, community development and other social support.
  • Through Conservation International, they have funded environmental sustainability and development projects for families living and working in and around the floating villages of Tonle Sap lake.

SVCF helped the Carsons research and vet organizations, as well as easily issue grants when the timing was right.

“SVCF provides us an enormous amount of financial flexibility,” Heidi said.

Lessons from international giving

The Carsons found that one advantage to donating internationally is how far a dollar can go in some areas to make a difference.

“We would probably not be able to fund the construction of an entire school in the United States,” Heidi said, “but in Cambodia it is much more within reach.

“For the equivalent of a nice new car or two in this country, we can help provide a secondary education to over 150 students who otherwise might only attain a primary school education,” she said.

The Carsons also learned to adjust some expectations when donating to international organizations. Heidi, a former startup product manager, and Chad, co-founder of Pepperdata, a big data startup, are both familiar with the Silicon Valley mindset, where businesses expect to see results in weeks or months.

“Large philanthropic efforts overseas may not yield results for years,“ Heidi said, “and even then, the results may not always be immediately tangible.”

She noted that she and Chad often rely on social media posts or emails from organizations they’ve funded to learn about the progress the initiatives are making, “sometimes little by little and sometimes in giant leaps.”

The Carsons said they are pleased they’ve been able to align their international giving with their passions.

“Through our philanthropy,” she said, “we’ve come to realize that educational opportunities, economic development and environmental sustainability all go hand-in-hand.”