Atherton couple's $50 million donation is part of pledge to give away half their wealth

Mark and Mary Stevens of Atherton funded USC brain research program

Mark and Mary Stevens, the Atherton couple who have given $50 million to the University of Southern California's Neuroimaging and Informatics Institute, are among 129 billionaires worldwide who have signed the Giving Pledge started by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, promising to give away at least half their wealth.

The couple's donation, announced by USC on March 25, "promises to improve the lives of millions of people worldwide" by speeding the "translation of basic research into new therapies, preventions and cures for brain injury and disease, including Alzheimer's, schizophrenia and traumatic brain injury," the university said in its announcement.

The institute will be renamed the USC Mark and Mary Stevens Neuroimaging and Informatics Institute.

Mark Stevens, who has worked as a venture capitalist for Sequoia Fund and is now with S-Cubed, said the impetus for the donation was "multi-faceted." He has been a longtime supporter of USC, where he is a trustee and an alumnus. He and his wife also funded the USC Stevens Center for Innovation and the Stevens Academic Center for student-athletes. "This gift was aimed at the medical research aspect of the university," he said.

Neurological research, Mr. Stevens said, "is the next big great frontier of medical research." Scientists have learned a great deal about other aspects of human health, he said, but are only now getting to really understand the human brain. Advances in medicine have allowed people to live longer, but more people are being diagnosed with brain diseases such as Alzheimer's and autism. Brain injuries from high-impact sports have also recently become more widely recognized, he said.

In addition, the Stevenses have experienced neurological diseases in their own family -- his father has Alzheimer's and one of his three children is dyslexic. "It touches not just the old, it touches the young and the middle aged," he said.

"It made a pretty compelling case for our gift."

The gift also helps fulfill a promise made in the statement the Stevenses made when they agreed to the Giving Pledge.

"We as a family have embraced philanthropy as a true value," Mr. Stevens said. In their giving pledge statement, the Stevenses say they realized they had "more wealth" than they "would ever need and began to think about what to do about it." They realized, their pledge statement says, that there are limited things one can do with money: "1) give it to your kids (we have three), 2) let the government take it from you and redistribute it, 3) spend with reckless abandon or 4) donate virtually all of it to causes and organizations that we feel could make a difference in the world."

They chose the last option, their statement says, because "the first option would inhibit our children's dreams and motivations; the second option is very inefficient; the third option is not part of our DNA. We are thrilled to devote a significant portion of our future time and energy to option four."

Locally, the family has donated to schools attended by their three children, 17-year-old twin boys and a 13-year-old daughter, who now attend Menlo School and Sacred Heart Prep, and who previously attended Las Lomitas district schools and the Charles Armstrong School. In addition to donating to USC, the Stevenses have donated to Mary's alma mater, Santa Clara University, as well as to other health related causes, including the Palo Alto Medical Foundation's Sunnyvale Center for oncology and general medicine in honor of Father Paul Locatelli, former president of Santa Clara University.

Mark Stevens grew up near USC in Culver City. He has bachelor's degrees in economics and electrical engineering and a master's degree in computer engineering from USC, and an MBA from Harvard University.

Mary Mathews Stevens grew up in Portland, Oregon, moving to California to attend Santa Clara University, where she played soccer and received a bachelor's degree in finance. She is now on the university's board of trustees. Ms. Stevens spent 14 years in the commercial real estate business.

"Both of us grew up in middle class homes ... where commitment, hard work, strong values and common sense framed the foundation of our early years," their Giving Pledge statement says.

In fact, an Almanac reader says Ms. Stevens, at the time Mary Mathews, lived down the street from them in Portland in the 1970s. "Mary was our first paper 'boy' and also provided babysitting services," the reader says.

Mr. Stevens says the couple met "in the office lobby of Sequoia Capital."

The neuroimaging institute the Stevenses are supporting works with scientists around the world to further understanding of the brain's structure and function in health and disease. The institute's interdisciplinary teams were among the first to map the spread of Alzheimer's disease in the living human brain and to create digital 3-D and 4-D brain imaging that examine the effects of neurological diseases, according to USC's announcement of the gift.

The institute, and its neuroimaging laboratory, has been at USC since 2013, but it is more than 30 years old. The announcement says it has the world's largest repository of healthy and diseased brain images, along with medical and cognitive data from diverse populations around the globe.

The institute works closely with the USC's engineering school as well as faculty in biology, genetics, biostatistics, computer science, mathematics, pharmacology and other disciplines.

USC President C. L. Max Nikias said the gift enhances the Stevens' "already spectacular philanthropic legacy."

"Their gifts have made a lasting impact in areas ranging from student scholarship and athletics to engineering and innovation, and now to medicine and the life sciences," the announcement said.

Mr. Stevens has been on the USC Board of Trustees since 2001. He co-chairs the board's investment committee, serves on the executive and finance committees, and serves on the boards of the USC Health System and the school of engineering.

Mr. Stevens said he hopes the gift "will serve to further the university's leadership position in the medical sciences in the coming decades."

Ms. Stevens said she hopes the donation "will enable researchers and clinicians at USC and throughout the world to expand the understanding of the human brain to enable new ways to treat, prevent and cure brain disorders such as Alzheimer's, autism, traumatic brain injury and childhood-learning challenges."

What is democracy worth to you?
Support local journalism.


7 people like this
Posted by Kim Walsh
a resident of another community
on Mar 26, 2015 at 2:05 pm

What an amazing gift from a truly caring, generous, and down to earth family~WOW!!!!

2 people like this
Posted by Susan Bird
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Mar 28, 2015 at 11:39 am

I am so proud of Mary and Mark. We need more people like this!!

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

Stay informed

Get daily headlines sent straight to your inbox.

What gives you hope?
By Sherry Listgarten | 22 comments | 3,583 views

Shake Shack to open doors at San Mateo's Hillsdale Shopping Center this weekend
By Elena Kadvany | 1 comment | 1,511 views

‘Twas the Night Before Christmas
By Cheryl Bac | 0 comments | 603 views

Premarital and Couples: What feeling is not allowed, and what do you use in its place?
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 531 views


The holidays are here!

From live music to a visit with Santa, here's a look at some local holiday activities to help you get into the spirit of the season.