Sonoma Gives: Sebastopol couple makes a case for philanthropy
Ben Cushman has been fortunate over the years, turning a liberal arts degree into a successful career helping budding companies grow their brands. Starting with small donations to gay rights organizations, he and his husband, George Tuttle, have made philanthropy a priority after retiring to Sonoma County.
Cushman, 60, serves on nonprofit boards, worked to get Sonoma Academy on strong footing and, with Tuttle, has channeled a portion of their estate to causes they champion: relieving the suffering of those who are hungry, need medical care, or lack shelter, as well as supporting institutions that promote education and civil rights.
In 1975, soon after earning a bachelor’s degree from Hampshire College in Massachusetts, Cushman moved to San Francisco and entered the management program at Macy’s, where he set about learning the ropes of retail store and buying operations. He left in 1978 to become director of national accounts at Silicon Valley-based Atari, then a leading marketer of computers and video games. When he left two years later, sales had grown from $3 million to more than $40 million.
He couldn’t have picked a better place to land next: VisiCorp, which one year earlier had released the first spreadsheet computer program, VisiCalc. Widely considered today to be the first “killer app” for microcomputers, VisiCalc was the defining tool that changed the machines from playthings into serious business tools.
In his four years at the company, from 1980 to 1984, Cushman grew sales from less than $1 million to more than $30 million.
Somehow, the New England gentleman had ended up imbued with the kind of marketing “right stuff” that most Silicon Valley MBAs only dream about.
And in each succeeding position, Cushman continued to achieve outsize results.
“I was drawn to companies positioned for high growth,” he said, “companies that grew quickly.” As senior vice president and COO of SuperCuts, he managed operations through 500 percent growth; while president and CEO of HomeChef, he developed a business plan, attracted venture capital funding and led a successful early roll-out.
Less than a decade after moving to San Francisco, Cushman met corporate attorney George Tuttle. Born and raised in Detroit, Tuttle earned a law degree from Yale and, like Cushman, moved to San Francisco to begin his career.
The couple has now been together for nearly three decades. “We married in 2008,” Cushman said, “but we had also been registered domestic partners in San Francisco, and later we were California registered domestic partners. My parents live in Vermont, where they were involved in civil union efforts, so we went back there and had a civil union. We tried everything.”
In 2005, after both were retired, they moved from San Francisco to Sonoma County. “We’ve had property on the Laguna north of Sebastopol for many years,” Cushman said. “We’ve done a lot to the house, which we used as a weekend getaway. After we were both retired, we decided to consolidate. We sold our house in the city and moved here full time.
“It’s peaceful here. We grow grapes, raise honeybees. We have some goats, a llama and dogs. It’s a fairly quiet life, but I’m active in nonprofit board work, which brings me to New York six or eight times a year.”
Both men enjoy exploring the world. “Africa is high on the list,” Cushman says, “particularly southern Africa. We’ve made a few trips there, a month at a shot. We also like southwest Asia: Burma, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand. We went to Iceland this past summer. That was wonderful.”
We asked Cushman to talk about why and how philanthropy plays a role in their lives.
Q: When did you first realize the value of giving? Describe the circumstances.
I’d say it started around the personal stakes we both had in gay civil rights issues, a deeply personal interest in advancing the civil rights of us and our people. Over the years, as we grew into a position of being able to be more generous, our giving broadened to include other causes that are important to us - particularly civil rights writ large, education, health, and hunger. It boils down to human services, education and civil rights.
At some point we realized that we needed to get more organized about it, that our philanthropy would have more impact if we had greater focus and aligned our personal interests and commitment with specific organizations. Over the years we’ve shortened the list of people we give to, so we now give more in absolute dollars to those on a shorter list
Q: Why do you give?
I’d say it’s gratitude for what we have, and an appreciation of the urgent short- and long-term needs of others, a sense that we need to help others where and how we can.