A Growing Niche in Alumni Giving: Nurturing Entrepreneurs on Campus

One of the biggest gaps in philanthropy we've noticed is that surprisingly few funders are focused on fostering job creation and economic growth. While funders pour a fortune into preparing young people for jobs through education and workforce development projects, very little money goes toward nurturing the entrepreneurs who play a major role in creating jobs. (The Kauffmann Foundation has long been the most active funder in this space.) 

Lately, though, that seems be changing. We're noticing quite a number of funders interested in arming people with business skills and fostering entrepreneurship. Whether it's Warren Buffett's “Grow Your Own Business Challenge," a competition which fields promising business ideas from youth, to a recent social entrepreneurship gift I wrote about at Santa Clara University, some funders have been putting down some big bucks towards entrepreneurship. 

To be sure, young people and students aren't the only focus of entrepreneurship funding. There's a growing push these days to help low-income women start businesses as a path to economic security, as we've reported. But there's no question that college campuses are great places to cultivate budding entrepreneurs, and this is emerging as a distinctive niche of alumni giving. 

Related: Millions to Foster Social Entrepreneurship on a California Campus. Will More Follow?

It's worth noting the profile of some of these funders. Tech guy Kevin O'Leary, a "shark" on ABC's Shark Tank, has made entrepreneurship a philanthropic priority, and supports teenage entrepreneurs. Then there's Jeff Miller, who, along with his family, gave $25 million to Santa Clara in that gift I wrote about to foster social entrepreneurship. Or consider somebody like Michael Vlock, a venture capitalist, who two years ago made a $1 million gift to his alma mater, Hampshire College, to support startups by students and recent graduates of the college.

Earlier this year, three Princeton grads established a fund at that university to seed startups and support "entrepreneurship the Princeton way." (Whatever that means.) Last year, a gift was made to the University of Chicago Law School aimed at helping its students learn about entrepreneurship, both in social ventures and traditional businesses. Also last year, the University of Utah received a $12 million gift from a mining entrepreneur, Pierre Lassonde, to build a campus center to support student entrepreneurs. Such a center is also being built at NYU, supported by the entrepreneur Mark Leslie. 

Recently, Carnegie Mellon University received $31 million from alumnus and venture capitalist James R. Swartz and his wife Susan to create the Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship. Swartz got his undergraduate degree from Harvard University before getting his M.S. in Industrial Administration from Carnegie Mellon University. The gift includes $13 million in permanent endowment funds which will fund scholarships and fellowships for students, a faculty chair, entrepreneurs-in-residence, and an executive director and staff for the center. An additional $18 million is earmarked for other projects, including $10 million contributed last year toward entrepreneurship activities in a new building in the David A. Tepper Quadrangle.

By the way, the name David Tepper should ring a bell for some IP readers. We've written about the prominent billionaire and Carnegie Mellon alum before, and the more than $125 million he's given to his alma mater over the years.

But back to Swartz—here, we have yet another tech guy who's given big for entrepreneurship of late. Swartz is founding partner of Accel Partners in Palo Alto, which has invested in tech companies such as Facebook, Dropbox, and Etsy. Alumni donors with these kinds of backgrounds are especially interested in supporting young entrepreneurs and helping them develop the skills and connections they need to succeed. That's one more reason for campus development offices to make a special effort to track their entrepreneurial alumni, who can give back in more ways than one. 

Swartz, in fact, has a history of doing just that at Carnegie Mellon, which is the site of the James R. Swartz Entrepreneurial Program. The program provides "coursework in entrepreneurship, mentoring, hands-on experiences and networking" and also involves "a mentored summer internship with a top-tier, VC-backed startup within the high-tech, high-growth environment of California’s Silicon Valley and San Francisco." Carnegie Mellon is also home to the James R. Swartz Entrepreneurial Leadership Series, which brings leading entrepreneurs to campus.

As we often say at IP, past giving in higher education often predicts future giving. It's worth re-emphasizing that much of Swartz's philanthropy at Carnegie Mellon has involved entrepreneurship.