Lucky and Focused: A Lottery Winner Uses His Millions to Boost Hispanic Students

When Gilbert Cisneros struck it rich in 2010, thanks to a winning ticket in the California Mega Millions Lottery, he decided to give away the money — through philanthropy, that is. 

Before then, Cisneros had been a shipping and manufacturing manager for Frito-Lay, as well as a supply officer with the U.S. Navy. He also holds a B.A. in political science from George Washington University and an MBA from Regis University.

But when a winning ticket made him a new multimillionaire, Cisneros and his wife, Jacki, turned their efforts toward philanthropy, especially on behalf of higher education opportunities for Hispanic students. They began by giving to their alma maters, GWU and the University of Southern California, to endow scholarships for Hispanic students. This led to a partnership with the Hispanic Scholarship Foundation and the city of Pico Rivera, CA, to create the Generation First Degree Pico Rivera initiative. The goal of this program was to ensure that someone from every Hispanic household in the city completed a college degree.

Later in 2010, the couple established the Gilbert and Jacki Cisneros Foundation, endowing it with an initial $20 million. Since then, the funder has supported mentorship and math education programs for high school students, as well as congressional internships for Hispanic students.

We first stumbled upon this couple, and their laser-targeted philanthropy, when we reported on a big new effort to help immigrant students go to college, the so-called "DREAMers."

Related: The Big Money Behind a New College Fund for Immigrant "DREAMers"

This month, Gilbert Cisneros made one of his most generous donations ever to his alma mater, giving $7 million to establish the G.W. Cisneros Hispanic Leadership Institute, an institute designed to help more Hispanic students matriculate and graduate from top four-year colleges and universities. The new institute will offer a pre-college program to high school juniors, with priority given to those who are committed to leadership and service within the Hispanic community. The program will include a summer workshop in Washington, D.C., for students before their senior years, which will cover the fundamentals of selective college enrollment. The workshop also offers a series of activities designed to stimulate student interest in attending a top college or university.

Hispanics are the fastest-growing ethnic group in the U.S., and demographic projections have suggested that they will become the majority in some states, including California and Texas. However, higher educational achievement by Hispanic students has lagged, with fewer Hispanic students enrolling in four-year colleges and universities and opting instead for community colleges. Even among graduates of the nation's top high schools, many Hispanic students enroll in community colleges. This phenomenon of students with high potential failing to matriculate to selective universities is known as undermatching, something Cisneros hopes to address with this gift to GWU.

What's so interesting here is that while Cisneros is still a relative newcomer to philanthropy, and the issues of equity in higher ed, he and Jacki have zeroed in on one of the more pressing issues facing the nation. Their giving is as strategic as many of the professional foundations we cover. 

Funds from the $7 million gift will also establish the Cisneros Scholars Program, which will provide scholarships to GWU to a select group of students who demonstrate a commitment to service to the Hispanic commuity. GWU hopes to enroll 20 Cisneros Scholars within four years, granting each entering class scholarships worth $250,000 and renewable for four years.