July 26, 2010
My parents and their friends in the little town in North Carolina where I grew up were always very philanthropic. They wanted our schools to be the best they could be, and they worked hard to get them that way. They worked on our parks. They worked with the local hospital to make it the best. We had two local colleges, Livingstone and Catawba—one black, one white—and the townspeople were supportive of both.
When I moved to New York, I worked with the Boys' Club of New York, namely at 110th Street in Harlem and at Pitt Street which is on the lower East Side. My doctor got me interested in something called the Cancer Research Institute where I eventually became board chairman. This led to a lifelong interest in medical research. Early on, I also met a man named Bill Milliken, who in my opinion is the greatest venture capitalist in the good-works field. He was a refugee of the gang warfare which existed in Pittsburgh and New York and became an incredible leader with his Communities in Schools, which is now in 26 states and in 3,400 schools serving 1.4 million children annually. My late wife, Josie, and I worked jointly for Central Park and Lincoln Center. Her work with the Boys' Clubs eventually far exceeded my own. Philanthropy was a part of our lives that we both enjoyed greatly.
In 1990 I set up the Tiger Foundation, with a young man named John Griffin, to help alleviate poverty in New York. In my business, I was then working with some great young people who had marvelous leadership credentials, and I wanted to encourage them to be philanthropists. This has turned out well, as the foundation has become extremely respected in its quest to alleviate poverty and has spawned a number of young people who have become great philanthropists in their own right. Frankly, I count the Tiger Foundation as the most successful venture I have had a hand in starting.
In 1993, Josie and I started our own foundation. It was designed to address issues in medicine, education, spirituality and, finally, the environment, which I had come to rather late in life.
I met a man named Fred Krupp who nurtured a latent effort on my part to get into issues of environmental concern. Fred is responsible for the most successful speculation I ever made. Fred called one day and told me that the California legislature was in limbo over a bill pushing the toughest auto emissions standards ever proposed. The speaker was willing to do whatever was necessary, even keeping the legislature in session into all hours of the night until a positive vote could be obtained. Fred and I went to work, and with just a little lobbying money, and a lot of help from a friend in California, got the three votes needed to pass the bill. This was a huge thrill for me personally. The California bill became the model that thirteen states adopted and eventually became the national standard for autos.
In the year 2000, Josie and I started the Robertson Scholars program designed to promote interaction between student leaders at Duke and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Sixteen scholarships are awarded annually at each school, and the scholarship has become internationally known and respected. Our summer programs send outstanding students to outposts all over the world on creative leadership projects.
One very fortunate thing is that I did not get nearly as enthusiastic about philanthropy early on as I am now; if I had there would be very little to give away. I have found so many great new projects to work with just in the last several years: the national parks, the families of our military, stem cells, and now obesity. The Milken Institute calculates that if we could get Americans back to their weight level of 1991, we could save a trillion dollars a year. A trillion dollars, think of that! Besides making Americans healthier, we could now solve the fiscal crisis in the US.