When Henry Hillman died last month at the age of 98, he left behind a towering legacy in both business and philanthropy.

He also left $800 million for the Hillman Family Foundations. If you’re wondering what that might mean for his beloved hometown of Pittsburgh—you’re not alone.

“We felt like we could take on real problems,” says David Roger, President of the Hillman Family Foundations. “Henry started thinking about guiding principles. One of the top ones was risk. It was very important to him to take risks. If we do, some should fail. If you’re not failing, you’re not taking enough risk.”

Hillman was more comfortable with risk than most. In the 1970s and ‘80s, he quietly invested in the nascent computer industry, and a venture capital firm called Kleiner Perkins in Menlo Park, California. This place would soon become known as Silicon Valley.

He also bet big on Pittsburgh when many others saw only post-industrial gloom. Major investments went into UPMC’s treatment and research powerhouse, the Hillman Cancer Center, the Hillman Center for Pediatric Transplantation at Children’s Hospital and the Hillman Center for Future-Generation Technologies at Carnegie Mellon University, among others.

“We’re interested in new ideas,” says Roger. “We’re interested in tapping into all the creativity and innovation that’s part of Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is the perfect urban laboratory. It’s the perfect size. It’s got enough scale. It’s a big city, but small enough to address issues head-on. You can use it as a prototype to demonstrate to others.”

$700 million will go to the Henry L. Hillman Foundation, which focuses primarily on the Pittsburgh region. An additional $105 million will be divided among the foundations created in the names of Hillman’s children and grandchildren. There are 18 foundations in all, currently valued at $435 million–soon to be more than $1.2 billion.

There are six areas where they see opportunities. For the most part, these are areas where they have already made strategic investments.

“We try to find where there’s an interesting new idea, and can expand its impact over time,” says Roger.

The local food economy is one.

“We made the seed grant to 412 Food Rescue, and just made another to expand the programming,” says Roger. “An emerging area that maybe local philanthropy hasn’t been looking at is school-based agriculture programs, like Edible Schoolyard. The goal is to educate the new generations about where their food comes from, about nutrition and about choices of how to live healthier lives.”

Technology was obviously a major interest of Hillman’s—in particular, how it is changing the labor force, and how it can be leveraged to fix major problems.

“One of these was Traffic21 at CMU,” says Roger. “It was really Henry’s idea. We have a lot of traffic congestion in our region—how can we use tech to fix it? If we could make traffic signals respond in real time, instead of having timing sequences, that could help. What if we did have more bike lanes? Would that make it less congested? It’s like a whole new era in transportation.”

At a time when newspapers and other traditional newsgathering media are struggling, the Hillman Foundation has tried to support experiments in journalism, like PublicSource.

Maternal and child health is another area where small investments can have big returns.

“There are a number of opportunities to improve the lives of pregnant, low-income women,” says Roger. “We have a persistently high child mortality rate. The Three Rivers Mothers’ Milk Bank—we made the seed grant in 2000. There’s one in West Virginia now. The benefits of mother’s milk are pretty significant, especially for low birth weight babies. Infant mortality is tied to low birth weight.

They also see lots of opportunities for neighborhood redevelopment.

“We did a project with the Millvale Community Library,” says Roger. “It’s part of an eco-district; (we’re) looking at stormwater management, food—there’s a direct-current micro-grid. It’s not a typical community library development.”

Another area of focus is something Roger calls the “Innovation Ecosystem 2.0.”

“We co-founded a project with The Heinz Endowments—we have a great, collegial foundation community in Pittsburgh,” he says. “We hired the Brookings Institution to come to Pittsburgh and help identify not just opportunities, but where are the gaps? What is the future economy of Pittsburgh? What is the future of employment? Are there areas in the life sciences that we haven’t explored yet? We’re just at the point where we’re ready to reveal the ‘deep dive.’”

The programs that currently depend on the Hillman Foundations won’t be forgotten or ignored.

“This is new funding,” says Roger. “While we’re moving in a new direction, our other grant-making programs will stay as they are.”

It could be two or three years before the Hillman estate is settled, notes Roger.

Hillman tended to avoid the spotlight, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the Hillman foundations will do the same.

“Elsie Hillman [his wife] was more in the public eye,” says Roger. “We have a bit of both. We took this position of Henry’s—that privacy was really him. It didn’t really extend to the Foundation. He was happy to get the recognition, but never sought it.”

Michael Machosky

Michael Machosky is a writer and journalist with 18 years of experience writing about everything from development news, food and film to art, travel, books and music. He lives in Greenfield with his wife, Shaunna, and 10-year old son.