Give Early, Give Big: A Historic Alumni Donation Flips the Script

On the surface, a $25 million donation from Kevin Chou and his wife, Dr. Connie Chen, to the University of California Berkeley Haas School of Business seems like a rather conventional gift.

Chou is a Berkeley-Haas alumni. Chen is “excited about bringing together students from all backgrounds.” The school will name its new academic building Connie & Kevin Chou Hall.

Here's the kicker: Chou is 36 years old. In a higher education space dominated by baby boomer and silent generation donors, Chou is abnormally young. In fact, the donation represents the largest personal gift to UC Berkeley by an alumnus under the age of 40—no small feat considering the school's illustrious history and impressive cadre of alumni.

Add it up, and the gift is encouraging news not just for the school, but for university fundraising departments all across the country. Just consider Chou's journey from Berkeley-Haas alumni to donor.

Berkeley made a powerful impression on him when he arrived from his hometown of Moorpark, California. “The diversity and academic challenges at Berkeley instilled in me the tenacity that has sustained me through the highs and lows of my entrepreneurial career,” he says.

After graduating in 2002, he co-founded San Francisco-based mobile game company Kabam. In 2013, Kabam signed an $18 million contract with UC Berkeley that included the naming rights to Kabam Field at California Memorial Stadium. And in late 2016, he sold the majority of Kabam's assets to a South Korean firm in an $800 million deal.

His recent gift with his wife Connie aims to inspire current and future Haas students to become entrepreneurs.

Chou's story stands in contrast to those of other 30-somethings and their tech brethren who aren't particularly active in the higher ed space. Why is that? The most obvious culprit is their youth, but there are other factors at play, too. 

Many tech donors with mountains of cash and a desire to give back are understandably drawn to sexier causes. And quite a few embrace effective altruism, which advocates giving to do the most good in the world, starting with saving lives. Young donors looking to make a splash—or a life-and-death difference—can be forgiven for temporarily passing on a capital project at their alma mater.

This dynamic will change as these donors age. Many will have children of their own and will come to appreciate the value of their college experience. The older one gets, it seems, the more one appreciates institutions that endure over time and foster opportunity over generations. 

It's worth noting, though, that Chou has long appreciated his alma mater. He's one of 176 Berkeley entrepreneurs who have signed the Berkeley Founders’ Pledge, a personal, non-binding pledge to give a portion of the value of their venture to support the university’s schools and programs, if and when they have a liquidity event.

Right now, Chou is unique—a donor under 40 committed to giving early and big—but don't be surprised if more young UC Berkeley grads step forward with large gifts in the not-so-distant future. 

Of the gift by Chou and Chen, Berkeley-Haas Dean Rich Lyons said: “What makes this gift so special is that these are two people in their 30s—an extraordinary time in life to be making a commitment to an institution that Kevin says has had so much of an impact on his life,” he said. “Their donation is going to have a catalytic effect on generations of donors to come."