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Canva’s billionaire co-founder plans to give away most of her fortune

MELANIE PERKINS

Web Summit - ENX_6504-CC BY 2.0

Dolors Massot - published on 01/06/22

"[I]t has never felt like our money, we’ve always felt that we’re purely custodians of it,” Melanie Perkins says.

Melanie Perkins has unusual talent combined with business savvy: she learned to use graphic design and apps, and realized that creating an easy design system to use on the internet would have a future.

Estimates of her fortune fluctuate with the market, but by all accounts it’s over $5 billion. Bloomberg recently released this month the list of the “people and ideas that defined global business in 2021.” It includes a lot of big names — including Perkins. She’s co-founder of Canva, which allows users to create graphic designs for free (in its simplest version), from social media posts and memes to resumes or professional presentations.

Catholic education

Perkins, 34 years old, is Australian. She was born in Perth and today lives in Sydney. She went to high school at Sacred Heart College in Perth and went to college at the University of Western Australia.

She says her idea came from observing a need. She told Irish Tech News:

The Canva journey started back in 2007, while I was studying at the University of Western Australia. At the time I was teaching students how to use programs like InDesign and Photoshop. Students found the programs hard to learn, and harder to use. I imagined the future of design would be entirely different. It would be online, collaborative and very simple.

Perkins got the idea of taking the next step and creating a great new product. At the time, it was just a dream; she and Cliff Obrecht, another cofounder of the company, were just university students at the time with no funding and without the technical or entrepreneurial knowledge needed to create the product and the company.

However, what Melanie and her then friend and fellow student (now husband) did have was determination. They took the plunge and created their first design startup called Fusion Books. It was an easy online platform for designing high school yearbooks. That turned out to be a success, and gave them wings for the next step: Canva.

However, they needed funding. She told Irish Tech News: 

Finding the right people for both took two years but there is always a lot of rejection for entrepreneurs in their early days. But every time we got a hard question or a reason why people wouldn’t invest, we stayed focused on what we could change. (…) You just have to keep going. The normal thing to do after your 100th, 80th or even 20th ‘no’ would be to stop, but you just have to persevere.

A key person in getting Canvas off the ground was Cameron Adams, an ex-Google employee who brought the technical expertise they needed.

As a result of their work together, Perkins and Obrecht fell in love. Today they are married and continue to work together at Canva. But neither he nor she considers that they have amassed a fortune just for themselves.

Melanie Perkins and her husband want to do as much good as possible with their money. “Billions upon billions of dollars is more than anyone needs in their entire lifetime by a longshot,” she told Sydney Morning Herald. “We truly feel like it is a huge responsibility, one that weighs really heavily upon us, and doing the most good we can do is something that we think about a lot.”

Money to people via mobile

Besides trying to do good by the way they run their business (explained in a post on the Canva website), they plan on donating much of their fortune to people in need. They explain on the website:

Something that moves us deeply is inequality. There are 711 million people who live in extreme poverty on less than $1.90 a day, which means they have to make unfathomable decisions between basic human needs, for themselves and their families.

While there are many ways of addressing this problem, the Canva cofounders have decided to work with GiveDirectly to donate directly to people in need, which “enables recipients to buy what they need, and have a consistent and predictable source of income, which enables them to invest in themselves and their children.”

The pilot program will consist of distributing $10 million to people in need in Southern Africa, “using mobile payments to reach those in need.”

This reflects the couple’s attitude towards their wealth: “It has felt strange when people refer to us as ‘billionaires’ as it has never felt like our money, we’ve always felt that we’re purely custodians of it,” Perkins says.

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