Why Is This Private Equity Billionaire Helping Build Charter Schools in Harlem?

Harlem Village Academies (HVA), a network of five charter schools in Harlem, New York, was founded in 2001 by Deborah Kenny, a former executive at Sesame Street Publishing and an educator with a master's from Teacher's College. HVA opened its first school in 2003 with the help of seed funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. HVA has since enlisted the help of a broad array of celebrities (John Legend among them) and Wall Street types, who have supported the organization through money and leadership. Perhaps HVA's most important backer from finance is the billionaire Jonathan Gray, head of global real estate at the Blackstone Group, who currently chairs the group's board and has given at least $10 million to the school since getting involved.

It's unclear how exactly Gray became associated with the charter school network, but he's one of many New York-area billionaires involved in charters and education reform, including Paul Singer, Larry Robbins, Paul Tudor Jones, and Stanley Druckenmiller, who also chairs Harlem Children's Zone. Gray's relationship and giving to HVA hasn't yet reached Druckenmiller-level numbers—we estimate that he's given around $100 million HCZ since 2006. But Gray has really ramped up his giving in recent years.

Consider that in 2012, Gray and his wife Mindy gave $10 million toward securing a new building in Harlem, which recently became Harlem Village Academies West Elementary School on 124th Street. Gray's real estate investment skills certainly came in handy, and he snagged the building which used to be a boys school at an auction. As he describes it in Bloomberg: "It was basically like a distressed real estate deal." When the building was acquired, Gray then was active in raising an additional $15 million toward renovations. Now there's an example of a board with some hustle. 

Explaining his decision to put money behind HVA, Gray said "it seems fundamentally unfair that children who live a couple of miles north of my own kids don’t have that same access. Geography should not be destiny when it comes to education.” Meanwhile, Gray's wife Mindy appears to be more influential on the health side of the couple's philanthropy—a large $25 million health gift went toward a cancer research center in 2012. She serves on the leadership council of Peer Health Exchange, a charity dedicated to giving teens a comprehensive health education. 

In addition to HVA, Gray is also a also a board member at Trinity School, which has received at least $3 million over the years. The couple has also supported their alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania.

It's worth noting that despite this recent uptick in giving, the Grays don't appear to have a foundation. However, at 44, and with a net worth of $1.7 billion, Gray still has a lot of time left for philanthropy. If and when more money starts flowing, it's likely education and health will be top priorities. It's also possible that Gray's penchant for property acquisition also plays a role as it did with HVA.