Why This Venture Capitalist and His Wife Made a $50 Million Bet on Their Alma Mater

Billionaire couple John Doerr and his wife Ann recently gave their mutual alma mater Rice University $50 million towards a new leadership institute called the Doerr Institute for New Leaders.

We've written about venture capitalist John Doerr before. With a $3.4 billion fortune, Doerr has made investments in tech giants such as Google, Compaq, Amazon, and Uber. The couple's philanthropic vehicle, the Benificus Foundation, has a history of supporting education. They've bankrolled the NewSchools Venture Fund, which uses a venture philanthropy model to help reform education. In addition, Ann chairs the board of the online learning giant Khan Academy, and this isn't the first time the couple has supported Rice, either. Oh, and the couple are Giving Pledge signatories.

Still, what explains this recent huge bet—the largest single gift ever given to Rice—by the Doerrs?

For starters, this is another example of a gift by a husband and wife who both attended the same university. Not only do both Doerr and Ann have bachelor's degrees in electrical engineering from Rice, they stuck around and got their master's degrees at the institution as well. We've written before that an alumni couple often means double the loyalty. The Doerrs both got their start at Rice; Ann served in various engineering and management positions after graduating, as did Doerr. If university development offices don't have a way of tracking double alumni couples, they better get on it.

Another component here is a $15 million gift that the Doerrs gave Rice several years ago to establish the Rice Center for Engineering Leadership (RCEL). RCEL has the goal of educating and developing Rice engineers to become "inspiring leaders, exceptional team members, and bold entrepreneurs." Given the couple's background, it makes sense that they'd make a bet in this area. But in some ways, this gift appears to have laid the framework for this latest big bet on engineering.

We see this happen often in our coverage of higher education giving, when a donor first gives in an area he or she is familiar with, and then later expands into other areas. It's also worth noting how sometimes an initial effort can be built upon and refined down the line. I recently wrote about a donor who initially funded a poetry series, and later doubled down to establish a full-fledged center dedicated to poetry and the arts.

Related: Behind a Poetry Gift: Alumni Loyalty Still Matters, Even When a Funder Is Into a Lot

In this case, the Doerrs waded into leadership as it related to engineering students, and were clearly happy with the way their money was spent. Now this latest $50 million effort focuses on a broader effort to arm students with crucial leadership skills. It's also worth noting that the new Doerr Institute for New Leaders will focus on cultural and global diversity and inclusion, which is aimed at helping students understand and compete in an increasingly changing world. Therein, too, lies a lesson: Don't assume your top prospects have narrow interests. John Doerr may be a tech leader and the couple's past big Rice gift was tech-focused, but clearly the couple has other concerns. We see that a lot. 

There's one other factor I should mention in the Doerrs' gift here. The Doerr Institute for New Leaders will be be led by Retired Brig. Gen. Tom Kolditz, who has headed leadership training programs at Yale and West Point. Kolditz has a top-notch pedigree, and it's a good reminder that donors are sold not just by exciting new projects and initiatives, but by those who are tapped to spearhead them. This might seem more apparent in, say, an area like medicine, or the exciting research of a star scientist, but it applies here, too.