Billionaire Express: From Fast Chinese Food to Big-League Campus Giving


A new survey by Marts & Lundy, a fundraising consulting firm, reports that higher education gifts of more than $10 million totaled a record $6 billion last year, continuing an upward trend of recent years. Nearly 200 such gifts were made in 2016.

A big underlying driver, here, is the vast new wealth that's been created in recent decades, in industry after industry. There are more billionaires in the United States today than can fit on the Forbes 400 list‚ which had just 13 billionaires when it debuted in 1982. Now, more of these fortunes are being harnessed to philanthropy, and it's easy to be surprised when a billionaire you've never heard of appears, bearing eight- or nine-figure gifts. 

The latest example: Andrew and Peggy Cherng, who have amassed a net worth of $3.2 billion from their 2,000 or so Panda Express restaurants. Ever heard of them? Nope, we hadn't either. But recently, they made a $30 million gift to Caltech

The gift to the school, a favorite among wealthy donors, West Coasters like Gordon and Betty Moore and others, is the first major commitment the couple has made in what could become a sizable philanthropic career. 

The gift itself is interesting to look at. 

Naming a university department or building after a wealthy donor is one of the most common practices in philanthropy, a way for the recipient to say thanks and for the donor to cement their legacy. It’s a little different in this case, however. For one, Caltech doesn’t usually do it. In fact, according to the university, the Andrew and Peggy Cherng Department of Medical Engineering will be the first of its departments to be named and endowed. The motivation is also interesting, as the couple, both immigrants, agreed to it with the thinking that it would inspire others, particularly those in the Chinese community. 


The couple have run some philanthropic programs in the past via their Panda Express stores and employees, and they’ve made some donations, including $2.5 million to Cal Poly Pomona's Collins College of Hospitality Management in 2011. But this level of gift is new ground for them. 

The donation to Caltech endows its medical engineering department, which seeks to create cheaper and more effective medical devices and systems using engineering principles in healthcare settings. There’s also an interesting caveat that allows the department head to move a portion of funds quickly to advance emerging research.  

While the Cherngs say they were moved by the human impact the medical engineering school will have, the motivation seems to be more of a community donation than anything. There’s the component about inspiring other immigrants—Caltech’s in Pasadena, which, along with surrounding cities, is home to large Asian immigrant communities. Peggy Cherng, who has a background in electrical engineering, has also served on Caltech’s board since 2012, after friend and board chair David Lee suggested it. 

The Cherngs also have a soft spot for the city itself, viewing Panda Express and Caltech as two Pasadena institutions. It’s a way to give back to the place that has treated them well. The very first Panda Express restaurant, a sit-down place called Panda Inn, was in Pasadena and run by Andrew Cherng and his father.  

That’s another notable aspect of this couple’s wealth and philanthropy. For such a large fortune, Panda Express and the Cherngs’ emerging giving constitute a family affair, and the two have equal footing in the couple's endeavors. While the restaurant started with Andrew, when Peggy joined the family business, she used her engineering skills to develop new systems that paved the way for Panda Express to become the powerhouse it is today. It’s still a private company, and the couple are co-chairs and co-CEOs.

It will be interesting to see where the Cherngs turn next with their giving, considering this gift doesn’t necessarily mean that biomedical science will be their issue of choice. This will be a fortune to keep an eye on.