The Son of Immigrants: The Personal Forces Behind a Private Equity Guy's Giving

 photo: Motortion Films/shutterstock

photo: Motortion Films/shutterstock

Jean-Pierre (“J.P.”) Conte joined Bay Area private equity firm Genstar Capital in 1995 and has been chairman and managing director since 1997. The Colgate and Harvard graduate began his career at Chase Manhattan Bank in 1985 before moving west. Conte is now in his mid-50s, and like many Wall Street donors we write about, is starting to free up more bandwidth—and capital—for philanthropy.

Conte gives through several avenues, including through the Conte First Generation Fund, which provides assistance to current or college-bound students who are the first in their families to go to college. First generation students today are often immigrants or the children of immigrant families. As we often discuss, these young people can face a range of challenges when it comes to getting a college degree and quite a few foundations and major donors back efforts to help them achieve their dreams.

I recently spoke with Conte about how he’s giving for first-generation students and for education broadly, as well as the deeply personal forces behind his philanthropy.

Conte begins with a word we hear a lot from deep-pocketed donors who decide to give back: gratitude. His family’s immigrant story strongly motivates his philanthropy. Conte’s mother Isabel left Cuba when she was 20 after her family gave her a gift to spend the weekend in Miami. When she arrived, however, she took a train to New York and never looked back. Conte’s father Pierre, meanwhile, grew up in Nazi-occupied France and left after World War II. In New York, Pierre started working as a tailor and went on to become the top salesman at Paul Stuart, the clothing brand, amassing Wall Street contacts who later helped guide Conte through interviews and internships.

Conte himself grew up in Brooklyn and New Jersey before going to college and business school. He calls it the typical American Dream story. “I’ve had wonderful educational opportunities and a really exciting life so far. I got into the business world and took some of that initiative, drive and creativity to help build Genstar Capital from $100 million of assets under management to a top decile private equity firm with over $10 billion of assets under management. It’s been an incredible journey.”

However, the impact of last decade’s recession struck a chord with him. He felt that the same dream he and his family experienced was at risk for others in our country. “There was so much negative energy at the time during the Great Recession,” he explains, “and so I wanted to create some positive energy for our country and myself.”

On the heels of these events, he established the Conte Task Force on Immigration Reform at the Hoover Institution. Conte is on the Hoover Board of Overseers. He explains that the initiative began with the theory that legal immigration has been an incredible job creator and an economic engine of growth for America. The initiative is co-chaired by Edward Lazear and Tim Kane, and “aims to improve immigration policies by providing innovative ideas and economic data proving that immigration has been and will continue to be a piston of economic growth for the USA.”

When I asked Conte how he feels about his work on immigration given the current climate, he told me that this is, indeed, a tough time to promote positive reform; however, he believes the economic benefit of immigration is indisputable, and ultimately, rational economic policies will prevail.

The Conte First Generation Fund is involved with 11 universities with which he has personal connections, including his own alma maters Harvard and Colgate University. 

Over time, like many philanthropists we cover, Conte has refined and deepened his interests. His focus on helping kids access higher education has now evolved to ensuring educational equity overall. He recently launched the J-P Conte Family Foundation, which focuses on three issues: educational equity for young people, protecting the environment, and upholding freedom.

Conte explains that while college kids need help, another issue is actually getting high school students into college in the first place. “California has one of the lowest matriculation rates of high school to four-year colleges, which is so hard to believe, thinking about the power of California’s economy,” Conte says. As a response, he got involved at the high school level, particularly through 10,000 Degrees in Sonoma County, which helps students from low-income backgrounds get to and through college and SEO, a free eight-year academic program that prepares low-income public high school students to get to and through college and support them with internships.

Conte says that SEO has a successful history in New York with strong support from the local finance community. And he’s lent support to SEO with the hopes that the organization will develop strong roots in the Bay Area, as well.

Conte is also focused on making sure underprivileged youth have access to the same career development opportunities he had, including the internships which are so important for building a resume and making professional contacts. Genstar and seven other private equity firms signed up to offer internships for SEO kids and Conte himself currently volunteers as a mentor. He describes the whole experience as “super-fun.”

The Conte Family Foundation also made a major gift to the neurology department of UCSF and has engaged in other community projects. Conte has a passion for the environment, as well, and works with the Pepperwood Preserve, an ecological research institute that educates communities, governments and young people on environmental challenges in Northern California. Last year, he was part of a group of private equity investors that raised over $10 million to help Puerto Rico recover from Hurricane Irma.

The Conte Family Foundation is open to people getting in touch and Conte tells me that the foundation will launch a website in the coming weeks, allowing more accessibility for grantseekers. 

Conte, only in his mid-50s, is someone to watch carefully as his philanthropy deepens in the coming years.