Julie Packard: Philanthropy and pragmatism

Alumna talks about investing in passion, working to make change, and expanding world views through the Monterey Bay Aquarium

Julie Packard (Photo by Tom O'Neal/Monterey Bay Aquarium)

Alumna Julie Packard, executive director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, recently gave UC Santa Cruz a $1 million gift, establishing the Dean's Fund for Diversity in the Sciences. Her gift will support programs at UC Santa Cruz that help underrepresented minority students excel in the sciences and mathematics. (Photo by Tom O'Neal/Monterey Bay Aquarium)

On those early mornings in the 1970s when UC Santa Cruz biology professor William Doyle would load up his station wagon with students, Julie Packard remembers the fog of her sleep-deprived brain being almost as thick as the fog outside the car.

"There was no talking because everyone was barely conscious," says Packard. "It would be some ridiculously early hour. We would put on hip waders and walk across the beach in the beginning light."

There, Packard would join other students on their hands and knees, combing through the icy water of the intertidal zone, recording plants and animals as part of a study being done on the impact of humans on the environment along the Central California coast.

"When the tide went out, it was like the ocean was receding to reveal this hidden treasure," says the now 61-year-old Packard, her voice tinged with the lingering pleasure of those days. "It was like a treasure chest. You never knew what you would find."

"Julie excelled at everything," says Doyle, who was founding director of UC Santa Cruz's Institute of Marine Sciences (and is now 85). "She was able to synthesize and ask great questions. She had a wide-open, inquisitive mind."

It is that wide-open mind, nurtured by her father, the high-tech pioneer David Packard, that seems to be a hallmark of Packard's life.

It leads her on walks through the halls of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, where she is executive director, to observe whether visitors are absorbing the message of conservation or whether they're only seeing cute sea otters playing in their rocky pond.

It leads her to delight in the identification of plants as she hikes in the Sierra, to live in the countryside, and to believe that philanthropy shouldn't be based on a model of business outcomes but rather about investing in passionate people and new ideas.

"My philosophy is that you need to work to make a change," says Packard, who is on the board of the $6.5-billion David and Lucile Packard Foundation, which handed out $288 million in grants last year. "Whether you go to a protest march or write your senator or write a check. I think all of us need to engage."

Packard (Crown '74, biology; M.A. '78) is a tall, lithe woman who walks with an easy confidence. She has chin-length silver hair and intelligent brown eyes that don't miss much of what is going on around her. Still, her concentration is near total in conversation with someone.

Her stories tell of an upbringing that was more outdoorsy and down-to-earth than what might be imagined for the scion of the Hewlett-Packard fortune. She grew up amid apricot and plum orchards in the Santa Clara Valley, joining her father to plant a vegetable garden each year and traveling to the San Felipe Ranch east of San Jose on weekends, where she rode horses, herded cattle, and wandered the property's 28,539 acres of grassland and oak.

"I was very inquisitive. I was always asking a lot of questions about nature and spending a lot of time outdoors," Packard says.

It was natural then, when it came time for college, that Packard chose to study science at UC Santa Cruz, a college on the forefront of the environmental studies movement.

Arriving on campus in a battered old Ford Bronco from the family orchard, Packard was soon tromping through the Sierra on research expeditions, exploring the ocean's intertidal zone, and spending hours in the lab. Although Doyle described her as a "quiet leader" and urged her to get her Ph.D., Packard said she wasn't cut out for research and teaching.

"I was more interested in connecting science with environmental action and environmental solutions," she says.

And it was the ocean that interested Packard most. "The oceans are a huge part of life and, yet, no one was paying attention to them," she says.

With the Packard wealth and her family behind the undertaking—Packard's sister, Nancy Burnett, has a degree in marine biology and her father helped design the plant's pumps, filters, and tanks—Packard was soon at the helm of the newly built Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Last year, nearly 2 million people wandered through its halls, staring into the light-speckled depths of a kelp forest, watching jellyfish bloom into fanciful shapes, and connecting to the ocean's complex underwater world while, behind the scenes, scientists labored on research projects.

With 80,000 schoolchildren visiting each year and an innovative Seafood Watch program that helps consumers make environmentally conscious seafood choices, TripAdvisor named the facility "The Best Aquarium in the World," this year.

Meanwhile, the aquarium's sister organization in Moss Landing—the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), which still receives up to 80 percent of its funding from the Packard Foundation—remains at the forefront of ocean research including development of high-tech exploration equipment.

All of this is a concrete monument to the philanthropy and pragmatism that run deep in the Packard blood.

"My father was a very practical person and not really a dreamer," remembers Packard of the man who co-founded Hewlett-Packard. "He was always, 'Let's cut to the chase here, guys.' I value that about him."

Philanthropy, she says, was also an early value, inculcated even before David Packard grew wealthy.

"Having resources to share is a gift, an opportunity," Packard says of the ability to hand out millions of dollars to foundations and programs. "It's satisfying to be able to influence things you think are important."

But a big checkbook isn't the only answer, she says, leaning forward to make her point. Change can come from acts as simple as voting, from putting social media pressures on government, from volunteering, from standing up for what you believe. "I think all of us need to engage," she says.

This year, Packard also made her own $1 million gift to UC Santa Cruz to establish the Dean's Fund for Diversity in the Sciences, designed to support programs that will help underrepresented minority students excel in science and math. Packard believes it's critical for the sciences to reflect the diversity of California's population, especially with so many pivotal environmental decisions ahead. This year, 10 students already received scholarships to a summer research program on campus thanks to a portion of her gift.

Glancing at her watch, already a little behind schedule for a Bay Area meeting, Packard tells a final story about why the aquarium and the foundation's work are so important to her.

She was coming in from an outside deck at the aquarium, she says, when she held open the door for a woman and her pre-teen girl.

"I asked if she was having a good time, and the daughter came out the door with this wide-eyed look on her face," recounts Packard. "The woman said, 'This is my daughter's first time seeing the ocean.' And that was really special. That's about expanding our world view."