August 6, 2022
From the Madrona Team
We are deeply saddened to share that Madrona founder and mentor to many, Tom Alberg, has passed away. Tom was simply an amazing person and a world class innovator who helped build countless leaders, companies, and impactful organizations with enduring value. He had immense vision and courage to take risks while not seeking the limelight or recognition for his personal impact. He embodied the best of his hometown Seattle and brought out the very best in others. He was an innovator for the region with reverberations around the globe.
Tom co-founded Madrona, helped to guide Amazon almost from Day One into one of the most impactful companies in the world, helped build Perkins Coie law firm and McCaw Cellular (ATT Wireless today). He saw the potential in Seattle and invested in making it a better and more vibrant community. And he loved to find and work with founders who had dreams of building lasting companies. He was a conservationist focused on saving open farmland, a supporter of those who need a leg up in life, a father, a husband, a grandfather, and a wonderful human being to everyone who met him.
Tom was an integral player in the growth of Seattle into a city with global relevance. He saw the opportunity in building a technology economy here when Seattle-based technology was defined by aerospace. He brought together his life experiences, deeply rooted in this region, with his belief in how the twin flywheels of innovation and community can work together to build brighter futures for so many people. Flywheels, How Cities Are Creating their Own Futures was published in 2021 to great acclaim as a visionary and practical look at the growth of cities.
Outside our region, Tom is best known for his early investment in Amazon during a time (1995) when buying anything online was considered risky and unlikely to succeed. Working with Jeff Bezos and the Amazon team, he helped to build one of the largest, most successful companies on the globe. Tom served on the Amazon board for 23 years, helping to shepherd the company through many key decisions and turning points.
Tom was a futurist – he was always looking forward and thinking long-term. He saw opportunity and understood that new technologies and approaches to civic life would change the world for the better. He brought this to Madrona every day and applied it to all areas of his life. He had great passion for the work he and his family did in the community – from building Oxbow Farms into a conservation and education hub focused on sustainability, to helping jumpstart the growth of the University of Washington Allen School of computer science, to partnering with the CEOs of major Seattle companies and former Governor Chris Gregoire to start Challenge Seattle – a hub for business and community leaders to focus on civic issues that impact the city and region. That group played a key role in helping Seattle and the State of Washington navigate the COVID pandemic.
Tom understood the importance of people and place. He believed that a city like Seattle needed a grand place for visitors to stay and experience the city – and he helped to build The Seattle Four Seasons, shepherding the Seattle Hotel Group with likeminded citizens to get the job done. He saw the opportunity to partner with winemaker Mike Januik and build connections between vineyards in Eastern Washington and a premier destination winery, Novelty Hill Januik, in Woodinville, WA. He also understood the need to help get businesses off the ground so that the next Amazon could be built here. Along with Bill Gates Sr. and Tom Cable, he started the TechAlliance and the Alliance of Angels. Today, more than twenty years after that first meeting, the Alliance of Angels has over 140 members and invests in 20 startups a year, helping companies such as DocuSign and Clarisonic (now part of Phillips) get started.
He was excited by new ideas and diverse perspectives, especially those that could change our personal and civic lives for the better. Chief among those ideas were self-driving cars which he saw as inevitable and capable of fixing Seattle’s traffic problem, enabling transportation for a broad swath of citizens, and supporting the Cascadia business corridor from Portland to Vancouver, BC. He helped to found ACES – a group dedicated to exploring alternative transportation options – to reduce congestion and manage vehicle growth. He also helped the Discovery Institute, founded by his college friends Bruce Chapman and George Gilder, conduct research and host events to discuss and debate policy issues in areas like technology, economics and education from a variety of perspectives.
Tom did all this work behind the scenes, away from the limelight. He wanted the founders and the leaders of the organizations he supported to shine while he helped them as a mentor and advisor. He came from a simple beginning in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle, a grandson of immigrants, and helped found and build many extraordinary companies and organizations that we can benefit from. And, that style of understated impact permeated how he served others.
To all of us at Madrona and those who interacted with him, we knew him to be a man who was determined to help, humble yet always expecting the best from himself and others. He was kind-hearted, and yet would help make the hard calls required in early-stage investing and large company strategic decisions. He mentored young investors and took the time to work with everyone at Madrona, freely sharing his time and wisdom. In short, he embodied Madrona’s values and was a core part of the strength of our family tree.
Tom has left an indelible imprint on greater Seattle, the broader innovation economy and everyone he met. We will miss him. We know his family deeply misses him. We know the community will truly miss his creativity and passion for innovation. And we are inspired to build on the foundation he established at Madrona and beyond for many decades to come.
Please offer memories on the Madrona Linked In page to be shared with the community and family. https://www.linkedin.com/company/madrona-venture-group #RememberingTomAlberg
The family asks for privacy and has requested that remembrances be made in the form of contributions to the non-profit Oxbow Farm & Conservation Center.
An additional great story about Tom was written by Geekwire which records the impact he has had on our region and beyond. (updated to story published August 6, 2021)
Tom was a hometown boy – growing up in Ballard, attending Ballard High School and working on the family farm known as the Oxbow property between Carnation and Duvall during the summers. He attended and graduated from Harvard undergrad and then acquired his JD in 1965 from Columbia Law School where he was editor of the Columbia Law Review. He spent several years at a law firm in NYC before returning to Seattle to join Perkins Coie Law firm. At Perkins he focused on technology clients as well as serving as the chief outside counsel for Boeing and Alaska Airlines.
His exposure to the technology world led to Craig McCaw asking him to join him, and Tom took a role at McCaw Cellular in 1990. That set him on his career building companies into global powerhouses. Tom became the president of Lin Broadcasting and helped to broker the sale of McCaw Cellular and then Lin to AT&T, creating AT&T Wireless. In 1995, after those transactions were closed, Tom, Jerry Grinstein, Paul Goodrich and Bill Ruckelshaus joined together to found Madrona. Later that year, Tom helped bring together the seed financing round for Amazon.com and then served on the board for 23 years. Today, Madrona is 27 years old and has greatly benefited from Tom’s wisdom and guidance over these many years.