Steve Hilton

n Steven Hilton’s office, there is a vivid reminder of his days catching waves at UC Santa Barbara: an Al Merrick shaped long surfboard, brightly painted with porpoises and waves. It is a stark contrast to the dramatic views from his 10th floor office building on Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles and the impact he is trying to make around the world.
Steve Hilton
Hilton, who is the grandson of hotel baron Conrad Hilton, is the president and CEO of the $2 billion Hilton Foundation, which makes more than $100 million in charitable grants around the world. From his days as a surfer at UC Santa Barbara, Hilton has taken a nontraditional road in a family made famous and wealthy from being hospitable.

Today the Hilton Foundation, one of the 25 largest family foundations in the U.S., is engaged in an eclectic mix of philanthropy. Conrad Hilton’s deep religious views and his ties to the Catholic Church have led to major support for Catholic nuns around the world.
Since 1986 the Foundation has donated more than $75 million to Catholic Sisters projects around the world.
At the same time, the Hilton Foundation has been a major donor to projects to end homelessness in Los Angeles County.

What’s more, the Foundation has spent more than $80 million over the last two decades on clean water projects in West Africa, while its $7 million project in Ethiopia hopes to provide clean water to 360,000 villagers.

For Steven Hilton the mission is clear — follow the guiding spirit of Conrad Hilton, who left his entire fortune to the Hilton Foundation. (A court later decided to give Steven Hilton’s father, Barron Hilton, one-third of the estate, but much of that portion will revert to the Foundation upon Barron’s death. When that occurs, the Hilton Foundation could rise to one of the top 10 foundations in the country in terms of asset size.)
Steve Hilton
Quoting from Conrad’s will, Steven explained the driving mission of the Foundation: “Our fellow men deserve to be loved and encouraged — never to be abandoned to wander alone in poverty and darkness.”
His own philanthropic spirit can be traced to his days at UC Santa Barbara, Steven recently recalled. He was attending college in Switzerland when he was convinced by boyhood friends to join them as students at UC Santa Barbara. He was familiar with the coastal campus. As a Southern California surfer, he had often visited the beaches of Santa Barbara. He arrived at UC Santa Barbara in 1970, just months after the burning of the Bank of America. It was a time of great social unrest that focused on the war in Vietnam, black civil rights, Chicano rights, women’s liberation and, in Santa Barbara, the birth of the environmental movement.

Steven remembers riding his bicycle out to where protestors were blocking the runways of the Santa Barbara Airport to protest the war and recalled “that was powerful for me to be at UCSB at that point in time in U.S. history. You had seismic forces change the entire culture and values of America.”

“It had a powerful influence on my sense of social justice and humanitarian causes. It was woven into all those issues.”

But his road to running one of the country’s largest and most influential foundations was neither straight nor narrow. After graduating from UC Santa Barbara in 1974, Steven travelled, worked in aquaculture in Hawaii (and surfed), earned an MBA from UCLA and spent five years working for the Hilton Hotel chain. In 1983, he went to work for the Foundation as a program assistant, a glamorous title for an entry-level clerk. From there he worked his way through the organization and was named president in 1998 and CEO in 2005.

Steve Hilton
Today much of his attention and visible excitement is in planning a new campus for the Hilton Foundation.

The 70-acre site in the Agoura Hills north of Los Angeles will prepare the Foundation for the time it will double in size and staff. Citing his UC Santa Barbara influences, Steven plans to build a “Platinum Plus” LEED certified green building.

Even as he presides over a mammoth foundation with projects as diverse as assisting children affected or infected by HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa and grants to find a cure for multiple sclerosis, Steven is humble in his assessment of the Foundation’s impact. While the Foundation’s grants will mean thousands of homeless in Los Angeles will have shelter, and potentially millions of Africans will be saved, “the world’s ills are so vast, you have to be careful not to overestimate what you can accomplish. Appreciate what you can do and realize there is far more you can’t do,” Steven said.

Steven stays connected with UC Santa Barbara through the funding of graduate student fellowships in international humanitarian studies.

And yes, he still finds time to surf the Southern California coast, though that Al Merrick board stays put in his office.

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