The Billionaire’s Daughter Knows What You’re Thinking
Even as a young girl, Elizabeth R. Koch was keenly aware of her family’s extreme wealth.
“My beloved parents, they were paranoid about raising spoiled pieces of — you know — and so I heard about it a lot, and I could see how other people responded to us,” she said. “I sensed it everywhere,” she added. “I didn’t get that it was about the family. I’m just seeing that it’s about me. So I must be bad.”
She decided to dedicate her life to one pursuit: “To not be hated,” she said.
Ms. Koch, 47, is the daughter of Charles Koch, 87, the billionaire industrialist, climate change boogeyman and far-right political force. His wealth is estimated at roughly $66 billion. Ms. Koch is named after her mother, who goes by Liz. The family is close — everyone spent Christmas together in Las Vegas, staying at the Wynn resort and taking in a mentalist show. But Ms. Koch, at least by her account, has been driven to the brink of insanity by her last name.
In a 2007 essay for Smith Magazine, she described her young adulthood as “panic attacks and meltdowns and doctors and pharmaceuticals and terrifying my parents and staring down that dark well of nothing you do will ever be good enough you privileged waste of flesh.” A couple of years later, she lied to classmates at Syracuse University, where she was working on an M.F.A. in fiction, insisting that her name was pronounced “kotch,” no relation to those “cokes,” the ones they may have read sinister things about.
Ms. Koch’s anguish may strike you as entirely understandable. Money can be corrosive, especially for the generation that didn’t make it.
Or you may have the opposite reaction: It must be really, really hard — eye roll — to be an heiress to one of the biggest fortunes ever accumulated, who graduated from an Ivy League university (Princeton) and is now married to a successful biotech entrepreneur. They recently vacationed in Bali.
When Ms. Koch first came on my radar, I was firmly in the second camp.
A publicist named Scott Rowe had called to propose an article on Ms. Koch and her nonprofit organization, Unlikely Collaborators, which is all about self-investigation. According to its website, the organization is dedicated to the creation of “provocative experiences that help you face who you think you are.” The site adds, “Our experiences use a process of self-investigation that encompasses principles and practices from eastern and western thought, meditation, psychology, and neuroscience — designed to expand your understanding of self, others, and the whole damned world.”
Mr. Rowe kept pushing, telling me that Ms. Koch started Unlikely Collaborators in 2021 after emerging from years of depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, an eating disorder and a stint in a mental institution. Serious people have joined Unlikely Collaborators in leadership roles, including Lisa Gregorian, a former president of the Warner Bros. Television Group. So far, Unlikely Collaborators has given millions of dollars to various partners and earmarked at least $100 million for the next few years.
“Your perception is wrong,” Mr. Rowe said. “Just come meet her.”
Hugs, blankets and perception boxes
Unlikely Collaborators occupies a sunny loft in Santa Monica, Calif., a community once described as “where liberal ideology meets the sea.” On the afternoon I visited, candles flickered here and there. Someone had put out what looked like 20 pounds of charcuterie. Ms. Gregorian, the nonprofit’s president, was tucked into a stylish chair near Zach Goren, a former investment banker and private equity investor who is Ms. Koch’s finance and operations chief.
Suddenly, Ms. Koch stood before me with outstretched arms, soliciting a hug. “Before we begin,” she said, “would you like a blanket?”
I declined, and we settled into a conference room. I expected her to be guarded, in keeping with her father’s approach to the news media. Instead, she spoke excitedly for nearly two hours — telling me about her circuitous path to middle age, salting her sentences with profanity and referring to herself as a “privileged, pasty, white girl from the Midwest.” She talked about exploring “pain holes” with a therapist and going on two-week silent retreats. She insisted that she was “apolitical.”
Mostly, Ms. Koch wanted to explain something called the Perception Box, a term she trademarked in 2021. Unlikely Collaborators is built around the concept, which Ms. Koch wants to use to prompt a global movement of self-investigation.
“We all live inside an invisible but ever-present mental box — a Perception Box,” Ms. Koch began. “This box distorts our perceptions of everything and everyone around us. It distorts our ability to understand other people, to see them clearly, to connect with them. And it distorts our ability to really even know ourselves.”
She adjusted the blanket on her lap.
“Most of the external conflict, messiness and miscommunication in the world — in corporations, in relationships, in families, in every aspect of our lives — is caused by internal conflict,” Ms. Koch continued. “And most of the internal conflict is caused by unconscious beliefs that we have been carrying around since we are very young — like zero to 5 — and that we project on everyone around us.”
Unlikely Collaborators intends to help people become aware of their Perception Boxes through workshops, lectures and summits. (In 2021, Ms. Koch led a workshop for the Los Angeles chapter of the Red Cross. More recently, she has been offering a workshop titled “What I Think You Think About Me.”) Unlikely Collaborators also plans to publish books and, eventually, produce films with Perception Box themes.
In addition, Unlikely Collaborators invests in companies and nonprofit organizations that are aligned with its mission, Ms. Koch said. She helped fund and hopes to develop curriculum for Moral Courage College, which describes its purpose as training people to “lower their emotional defenses so that contentious issues can be turned into constructive conversations.” Millions of dollars have gone to SIY Global, a firm that provides mindfulness and emotional intelligence training. Ms. Koch and Unlikely Collaborators have also donated money to the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, which, among other things, conducts research into the mental health benefits of MDMA, the club drug popularly known as Ecstasy and Molly.
“I know this is a lot to throw at people,” Ms. Koch said, apparently reading my mind. “Let’s go back to Perception Box. That’s where it begins and ends.”
She jumped to her feet and started writing on a white board, calling out each word with a flourish in a demonstration of one of her workshops.
“I don’t matter.”
“I’m not good enough.”
She asked me to envision a person — a writer, perhaps. This person misses deadlines because they are “constantly worrying about making it perfect,” she said. “It has to be better. It has to be better. No, no, no. Not there yet.” That thinking can be painful and ultimately even professionally paralyzing.
“That person is running a Perception Box story in their head,” she said, “and it’s an obvious one: I’m not good enough.”
I grimaced and told her that I could be that writer.
“Who are you still trying to please, and who are you still rebelling against?” she asked me, now firmly in teacher-student mode.
I squirmed and thought about how it was really stupid of me to say no to that blanket.
“Probably Daddy,” I said, almost in a whisper.
She sighed and sat down.
“I have that issue too,” she said. “I’ve done a lot of work on it. A lot of love there. But, yeah.”
‘Hippy dippy woo-woo’
In 2009, Charles Koch was in the hospital. He was getting a shoulder replaced, and his daughter was at his bedside. She had become interested in neuroplasticity — the brain’s ability to change and reorganize thought patterns — and wanted to discuss her early findings.
“Are you sure you’re busy enough?” he said.
People who prattle on about “wellness” and self-investigation can be exhausting: Oh no, not another trendy product or program or yoga class or brain exercise or therapy or gauzy self-help book. McKinsey & Company estimates that wellness is a $1.5 trillion global industry, with annual growth of up to 10 percent. Sleep consultants. Ketamine clinics. Cleanses, detoxes, neutraceuticals. Meditation apps. Wellness tourism. Instagram influencers peddling holistic everything.
“Some of what I hear about in the wellness space makes my eyes roll,” said Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett, a neuroscientist and professor of psychology at Northeastern University. “As far as I can tell, Elizabeth is trying really hard to make sure everything she does is consistent with our best available guess of what’s going on scientifically.”
Dr. Barrett’s research lab at Northeastern has received grant funding from Unlikely Collaborators, and she is now a paid adviser to the organization.
The women got to know each other in 2018, when Ms. Koch invited Dr. Barrett to attend an Unlikely Collaborators retreat. Dr. Barrett had just written the book “How Emotions Are Made,” and Ms. Koch was formulating her Perception Box ideas, in part by funding research into emotions and consciousness. In 2014, Ms. Koch started Tiny Blue Dot, a research foundation, and hired Christof Koch (no relation) to run it; he is also a former president of the Allen Institute for Brain Science, where he continues to serve as a chief scientist, in Seattle.
Ms. Koch is self-conscious about coming across as one of those “hippy dippy woo-woo people,” as she put it. But there is also no way around it: Ms. Koch is a bit woo-woo, even by California standards. She seeks out the occasional shaman. As part of her own mental health journey, she has explored psychedelics as medicine. Psychedelics remain mostly illegal, but regulators are moving toward the approval of MDMA and psilocybin, the psychoactive component in magic mushrooms, as therapist-supervised treatments for post-traumatic stress and depression.
“When I did my own MDMA therapy, there were Looney Tunes characters coming out of my body,” Ms. Koch told me matter-of-factly. “The witch, Sylvester, that viking chick who sings the opera. When I was little and forming my Perception Box, I sucked them in somehow.”
This is the offspring of Charles Koch?
Mr. Koch declined to be interviewed. In an email, he said he was “delighted” and “couldn’t be more proud” that his daughter had “dedicated her life to making the world a better place for everyone.”
“We wanted our kids to discover their gifts and where they could passionately apply them to help others improve their lives,” he said. “For most of us, this takes time and involves struggle and trial and error. Our children were no exceptions.”
Life with father
Ms. Koch’s fascination — some might say obsession — with self identity and perception started when she was growing up in Wichita, Kan. She attended private school, as did her brother, Chase, who is two years younger. (He runs Koch Disruptive Technologies, a venture capital firm connected to Koch Industries, a constellation of businesses that include oil refineries, medical devices, fertilizer, chemicals, paper products and batteries.)
“It’s not like growing up in New York City, where a lot of people are wealthy,” she said. “We were very different in Wichita. I had so much fear that people would hate me.”
As an adult, she said, therapists helped her realize that much of what she was telling herself was not real. Most of her anguish, she explained, “had to do with my own stories about never being good enough, the ones I made up in my head — that’s where I got trapped.”
As she worked to untangle her knots, she did a lot of searching. She was an editor for a literary humor magazine called Opium. She tried to write a novel. (She’s still trying. “It’s about 1,400 pages with 24 major characters and 30 plot lines.”) She went to Peru to experience ayahuasca, the vomit-inducing hallucinogenic tea. Another time, she found herself at a nudist colony. In 2015, she started a book imprint called Catapult. “Cries for Help, Various” was its first title. (This month, Catapult shut down its online magazine and writing program to “ensure a successful future” for its core book business.)
Ms. Koch also dabbled in film finance, serving as an executive producer for “Beasts of No Nation,” starring Idris Elba, and “Harriet,” which was nominated for two Oscars.
I found her easygoing and upbeat. She laughed when I asked how much money she had inherited. (I pressed, and, Mr. Rowe, seated nearby, piped up with “no comment.”) One minute Ms. Koch was serious, talking about criminal justice reform, which is a focus of her father’s philanthropy, and the next she was frivolous, telling me about a design studio in Scotland that sells fancy wallpaper.
There was one exception to Ms. Koch’s sunny, let-it-all-hang-out demeanor: when I tried to dig into her relationship with her father, whom she calls Pop, and asked what direct role he might have played in her feeling “never good enough” from such a young age. During one of our conversations, she spoke about him pushing her to join the track team in the fourth grade and personally coaching her for a couple of years. “No matter where we went on vacation, he was getting me up at 5 a.m. to run,” she said. In the winter, sometimes while it was snowing, “he would be driving beside me in the car, and, like, usually playing some economics tape, trying to get me to learn while I was running.”
Were his expectations too high?
“There is no blame there,” she responded, with some steel in her voice. “I was just confused, and I was putting things together in a really distorted way. And then I had so much shame about it that I couldn’t talk about it.”
Mr. Koch said in an email, “When the kids were young, I pushed them to work hard and be the best them they could be. That’s the job of a parent — to help their children realize their full potential and live a life of meaning.”
No stranger to division
It is possible that Ms. Koch will turn Unlikely Collaborators and her Perception Box credo into a success. “This isn’t a three-to-five-year plan,” said Mr. Goren, the financial and operations chief. “She has a multi-decade vision.”
But she will never escape the Koch box. Some people will always want something from her that she is either uninterested or unwilling to give — allyship in a fight against her father’s politics, in particular his opposition to climate change laws.
“It’s Time to Hold Elizabeth Koch Accountable for Her Family’s Role in the Climate Crisis,” read a headline on a Medium article last year.
“She’s never said or done anything to distance herself from her family,” Hilary Plum, an author and academic, wrote in Fence, a nonprofit literary magazine. “Any Koch we want to work with must be a black sheep, an anti-Koch.”
Ms. Gregorian, the former Warner Bros. executive and Unlikely Collaborators president, knows that the Kochs are radioactive in certain circles. But because of that very reason, she said Ms. Koch was uniquely suited to lead conversations about bridging divides.
“Coming from Hollywood, so much of my world was manufactured authenticity — completely and utterly manufactured,” Ms. Gregorian said. “With Elizabeth, what you see is what you get, which is part of what gives her this incredible ability to connect with people.”
“I was skeptical when I met her,” Ms. Gregorian added. “And then I just opened up to her, as if she had hypnotized me.”