Change the World

Small acts of kindness from some of the world's richest men

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Corporate America can seem harsh and cold. Companies maximize profit to keep shareholders happy, and CEOs get rich at the expense of the average American worker.

But for all the mercenary aims that motivate the business world, big business does like to demonstrate the size of its charitable heart. Donating a majority of personal wealth to philanthropic organizations is a move more billionaires are making, as is giving large sums to major institutions that focus on initiatives like health and education.

Maybe you think it is all just PR.

If so, among the corporate elites, the more surprising charitable impulses are revealed in sometimes random, often minor acts of kindness. Here are examples from eight CEOs who went beyond the calculated charitable giving expected of corporate America and through small acts of kindness forged a personal connection with another human being.

This story is part of NBCU's Share Kindness. Follow the series on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. #ShareKindness

Bill Gates' secret Secret Santa

Bill Gates, aka Secret Santa?

Depending on fluctuations in the value of Microsoft shares, Microsoft founder Bill Gates is on any given day the world's richest man. And he is more known than any other market giant for his charitable work through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. But his altruism isn't limited to improving health care and access to education around the world. Sometimes Gates finds time to participate in Reddit's Secret Santa gift exchange.

In 2013, Time reported that out of 120,000 people participating in the program, one Reddit user was shocked to discover her covert gift-giver was Bill Gates. The billionaire sent her a stuffed animal cow to represent the real cow he had donated in her name to Heifer International, a charity that works to eradicate poverty by providing families with tools to build their livelihood, such as seeds and livestock, and promotes education.

The gift was perfect, 24-year-old recipient Rachel wrote in an excited blog post on RedditGifts.

"It makes me so happy that he was able to donate to a charity on my behalf that helped people with both needs and educational benefits," she wrote. "Nailed it, Bill!"

Warren Buffett and the Dairy Queen kid

Warren Buffett eats a Dairy Queen ice cream bar prior to the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting in Omaha, Nebraska.
Daniel Acker | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Sometimes it takes an employee that a CEO didn't even know existed to remind the big guy of the little things and the little people who work throughout his organization.

When Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett heard that a 19-year-old Dairy Queen employee — Berkshire owns the fast-food chain — had gone above and beyond his duties, Buffett picked up the phone.

Joey Prusak, 19, had given $20 out of his own wallet to a blind customer after that customer dropped $20 and the money was taken by a woman who refused to return it. The young boy's act of kindness went viral when another customer saw it and posted it on social media.

"Warren Buffett called me this morning, and we talked for about 10 minutes," Prusak told the press back in 2013. "I go, 'What I would like to know is why you're calling here?' He goes 'I just wanted to call and thank you for all that you did. It means a lot to me,'" Prusak said. Prusak was also invited to attend the Berkshire Hathaway shareholder meeting in 2014 as Buffett's special guest.

Mitchell Modell's guardian Angel

The television show "Undercover Boss" often focuses on the story of an employee who inspires their employer. And yes, it's "reality" TV. But putting cynicism aside, among the most poignant examples was when Mitchell Modell, the CEO of the sporting goods company, shaved his head and donned a walrus mustache in order to disguise himself as a new employee who had to undergo training with a sales associate named Angel.

Angel impressed Mitchell with her enthusiasm and dedication, providing tips on customer service and positive encouragement to her "new employee" all day. When Modell learned she was living in a homeless shelter with her three children, he said he felt sick.

At the end of the episode, Mitchell revealed himself to Angel and announced he was promoting her to assistant manager — a $14,000 annual raise. He also gave her a check for $250,000 to help her move out of the homeless shelter.

"I want you to move out of there immediately, like tonight," Modell said. Shocked and overwhelmed, Angel fell to the ground in tears.

Got milk? Ask Mitt Romney

Presidential candidate Mitt Romney greets an honor guard who was greeting an 'Honor Flight' of WWII and Korean War veterans returning from a visit to Washington, DC, September 26, 2012.
Mandel Ngan | AFP | Getty Images

The former CEO of Bain Capital and past Republican presidential nominee wasn't always perceived as warm and caring on the campaign trail.

But in 1994, while campaigning for the U.S. Senate against Edward "Ted" Kennedy, Mitt Romney visited a shelter for homeless veterans in Boston. When he asked the shelter director Ken Smith what his largest challenge was, Smith said milk. It was difficult to afford enough milk for all the veterans. Romney joked that Smith should teach the veterans to milk cows. The press jumped on that comment, vilifying Romney for his callousness.

A week later Smith received a call from his shelter's milk supplier. An anonymous donor had agreed to pay half the shelter's milk costs for the next several years. It wasn't until years later that Smith found out Romney was the anonymous donor, paying the costs out of his own pocket.

"No press releases, no media attention, no 'Look at what I am doing for homeless veterans,'" Smith wrote in a post for Veterans Today. "Just him doing something that was good, and his generosity helped thousands of veterans who were homeless with nourishment every day."

Getting a lift from Steve Jobs

The late Steve Jobs, former CEO of Apple, at the opening of the Apple Store on Fifth Avenue in New York on May 19, 2006
Michael Nagle | Getty Images

Steve Jobs was often called ruthless and cutthroat when it comes to business, but one man saw a different side of the former Apple CEO and co-founder when his car broke down in front of Jobs' house.

Tim Smith was driving home from a party at his girlfriend's house when his car stopped abruptly, he wrote on the question-and-answer site Quora. As he made his way back to his girlfriend's house to call AAA, he heard Jobs' wife, Laurene, come out of the house and offer him a beer. She later invited a friend of hers who was a mechanic to take a look at the car.

At that point, Steve Jobs came out of the house and made small talk with the group. When the mechanic friend needed to check the car's progress, Jobs got into the front seat and tried to crank the engine. When that didn't work, the Steve and Laurene invited Smith to use their phone to contact AAA.

The experience made Smith realize that even Steve Jobs was a normal person.

"You don't often get close to people like the Jobs, much less in a ridiculous situation like this, where you realize that they are just really good people," Smith wrote. "They're normal, funny, charitable, real people. Not the people the press talks about. Steve is not the maniacal business and design despot the media loves to portray — well, he is, but not always. These were real, nice people."

Marc Benioff and the Zen art of house sharing

Buddhist monks listen as Marc Benioff, chairman and chief executive officer of Inc., not pictured, speaks during the DreamForce Conference in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2016.
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Salesforce CEO and chairman Marc Benioff has a well-known passion for mindfulness and meditation practice — the company's new Salesforce Tower features a meditation zone on every floor. For his company's most recent Dreamforce convention, Benioff invited a group of monks from France to lead on-demand meditation. The monks obliged out of gratitude to Benioff.

It's not new for monks to come to Dreamforce (pictured here listening to a presentation from the Salesforce CEO) to stay at Benioff's home in San Francisco, but the French monks who came this year were motivated by another act of hospitality from Benioff, with another of his personal properties.

"Our teacher is a well-known Zen master. He had a stroke two years ago. He was in care in Bordeaux, which is near where we live. And Marc offered to let us use his house, which is close to the hospital, so that our teacher could live there and get world-class stroke treatment," Brother Phap Luu told CNBC. "So coming here is a way to thank him for his generosity."

The power of Frank Blake's pen

Frank Blake, then-CEO of Home Depot, greets Team Depot associates as the prepare for the renovation of the New England Center for Homeless Veterans by The Home Depot Foundation on October 6, 2011 in Boston.
Darren McCollester | WireImage | Getty Images

Frank Blake was brought in as Home Depot's CEO in 2007, right as the financial crisis struck. In the face of declining real estate and retail markets, Blake decided to revitalize Home Depot by creating a new emphasis on customer service and an employee-centric corporate culture. That began with acts of kindness from the CEO himself.

Every Sunday, Blake hand-wrote thank-you cards to various employees at the more than 2,000 Home Depot stores in the United States, Canada, Mexico and China. He thanked them for their hard work, acknowledged their achievements and applauded their efforts to improve the customer experience.

Blake's inspiration came from his time serving on the staff of then-Vice President George H. W. Bush.

"As a staff member, I remember the feeling of getting a note from the vice president of the United States saying 'nice job' on something. That makes a difference," Blake (pictured here greeting 'Team Depot' associates in 2011 at the renovation of the New England Center for Homeless Veterans) told Institutional Investor.

Michael Bloomberg's 'above and beyond'

New York Mayor City Michael Bloomberg speaks at the unveiling of a custom made World Trade Center inspired motorcycle in front of the 9/11 Memorial Preview Site on October 5, 2011 in New York City.
Getty Images

When planes struck the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, Michael Bloomberg was not yet mayor of New York City. Instead, he was CEO of his namesake company, which housed hundreds of employees at its Manhattan headquarters.

While the Bloomberg building was not near the area, three of his employees were inside the World Trade Center. They didn't make it out.

Bloomberg sent his private jet to France for the parents of one of the victims and repeatedly called to check up on them, The New York Times reported.

"Michael tried to give us his home number, and I said I didn't want it," Stephen Alderman, whose son had died, told the Times. "That was going above and beyond."