Arnold, who lives in Houston, has been giving his sophisticated product away for free — which helps explain why it has become one of the most widely used criminal justice programs in the country. His company, Arnold Ventures, developed the assessment tool — based on a statistical analysis of 750,000 historical cases around the country — as part of a slate of programs targeting social injustices.
“There’s so many unjust outcomes for people who have these criminal records. It’s not good for anybody. It’s not good for the individual. It’s not good for community safety. It’s not good for our economy. And, it costs a lot of money,” Arnold said in a Facebook clip explaining Arnold Venture’s support of criminal justice programs.
“We’re working to ensure that a record doesn’t become a lifetime of exclusion.”
His name may not be familiar in South Florida but Arnold — along with his wife, Laura, co-founder of a foundation that bears their names — have become influential voices on some hot-button social issues, particularly in Washington, DC.
And, like many wealthy donors, Arnold has earned plenty of supporters and detractors. Critics have questioned his motivations, saying his money is intended to advance a political agenda. The bail reform software has drawn criticism at both ends of the political spectrum, with one side charging it is too soft on criminals, the other saying it has built-in bias against minorities. His campaign to push Congress to lower drug costs made Arnold and his wife targets of the politically powerful pharmaceutical industry.
“Arnold is often portrayed as a philanthropist when in reality he’s increasingly funding lobbying efforts and political campaigns that advance his political agenda, “ said Nick McGee, a spokesperson for PhRMA, which represents large biopharmaceutical companies.
Supporters, on the other hand, insisted that Arnold’s philanthropic efforts within the pharmaceutical drug industry provide a necessary counterbalance to drug company lobbyists in a time of nonstop price hikes, prompting debate and boosting research projects that would otherwise lack funding.
Arnold emerged from one of the notorious corporate scandals in American history, the meltdown of notorious energy trader Enron. After the collapse, he built his own hedge fund, Centaurus Energy, and was successful enough to earn the title as the country’s youngest billionaire. He retired at the age of 38 to pursue his philanthropic efforts full time. According to Forbes, his net worth is $3.3 billion.
A Dallas, Texas, native raised by an accountant mother and lawyer father, Arnold’s entrepreneurial spirit was evident in childhood when he started his first company at age 14 buying hockey cards in Texas and selling them in Canada. Tragedy struck only a few years later with the death of Arnold’s father.
In 1995, Arnold graduated from Vanderbilt University, earning a degree in mathematics and economics in just three years. After graduation, he began his career at Enron working as an oil analyst before he was promoted to assistant trader. Within a year of working at Enron, at age 22, he was overseeing the trading of natural gas at the national gas desk.
He made the company three-quarters of a billion dollars in 2001. His colleagues lauded him for his number-crunching abilities and trading prowess, dubbing him the “king of natural gas.”
Shortly before its collapse, Enron rewarded Arnold’s hard work with an $8 million bonus — the largest bonus in the company’s history. While Enron’s collapse is often noted as one of the worst financial scandals in US history, it didn’t seem to tarnish Arnold’s reputation with investors.
In 2002, he used his bonus to fund Centaurus Energy, a Houston-based hedge fund specializing in trading energy products. The company proved wildly successful, yielding multibillion-dollar assets under his management. By 2007, his bets on natural gas at the hedge fund made him the youngest US billionaire at the age of 34.
In May of 2012, at the age of 38, Arnold announced his plans to retire and focus exclusively on philanthropy. Committed to giving away most of his fortune during his lifetime, he signed the Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett giving pledge.
He and Laura, an attorney and former oil company executive, founded the Laura and John Arnold Foundation in 2010. The billionaire couple’s limited liability company, Arnold Ventures, manages the philanthropic efforts of the foundation, along with other Arnold entities, like Action Now Initiative , and the Arnolds’ donor-advised fund. The company invests in efforts to balance societal inequities, addressing key issues in criminal justice, education, health and public finance.
Other philanthropic endeavors funded by Arnold include investments in solar farms and deepwater oil developments in the Gulf of Mexico, along with funding to investigate the scientific review process that informs the US Dietary Guidelines.
In 2019, Arnold also became the chairman of Houston’s 2026 bid for the FIFA World Cup.