By Jeff Richard
Like never before, philanthropy and entrepreneurship are converging. Philanthropists have increasingly come to demand the same quantifiable “returns” on their philanthropic investments as they do in business. Double-bottom line companies, from TOMS shoes, to Warby Parker glasses and Yoobi school supplies – which do good for the world, while doing well for their shareholders – have emerged across many sectors of the economy.
The principles guiding many leading 21st-century philanthropists now draw heavily from the principles of entrepreneurship. Be bold and think big. Look for an out-of-the box solution to address an unmet need. Take risks that can yield outsized returns.
This month, an event took place in New York City – the dedication of Cornell Tech, the home of the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute – which illuminates the transformative power of this new way of thinking about entrepreneurial philanthropy.
Cornell Tech’s story begins with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who recognized the need to diversify New York City’s economy in the wake of the 2008 recession.
He knew that incremental change would not achieve his goals for the city – that he needed an anchor to drive a transformation – and he concluded that building a new kind of research university could create a wealth of human capital and research that would turn the city into a global hub for technology and innovation.
Mayor Bloomberg announced a competition in December 2010, through which universities would bid to open a graduate institute for applied sciences. In return, the city provided both land on Roosevelt Island and $100 million in infrastructure improvements. After a global competition – which drew many of the world’s top research universities – a joint bid by Cornell University and the Technion Israel Institute of Technology emerged as the winner.
The result is the first graduate school of its kind – a global educational hub focused exclusively on developing pioneering leaders, entrepreneurs, and technologies for the digital age. At the heart of Cornell Tech is the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute, supported by a transformative gift from Joan and Irwin Jacobs. The institute will offer a joint degree from the Technion and Cornell, making the Technion the first international university to grant an accredited degree on U.S. soil.
When dedicated last week, the campus drew international attention with its sleek, modern campus tailored to support a curriculum that includes laboratory research, startup studios, and industry collaboration, enabling faculty and students to transform their ideas in the classroom into products in the market.
This new institution demonstrates the power of big entrepreneurial ideas in philanthropy to transform lives and communities. There are at least three major impacts of Cornell Tech and the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute.
First, it is creating jobs and building the economy. The economic impact of this project is already estimated to be more than $23 billion over the next three decades, strengthening both the U.S. and Israel (current New York-to-Israel exports come close to $5 billion). Cornell Tech will create a thriving, globally competitive tech sector for New York City, generating both employment opportunities for New Yorkers and tax revenue for the city. The revolutionary education for the digital age offered by Cornell Tech – exemplified by the Runway Startup Postdoc Program at the Jacobs Institute – will help students create, develop, and market the next generation of technological innovation.
Second, it is advancing solutions to improve life for us all. The Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute will graduate a new generation of students with the unique mindset and skillset that only comes with a Technion education. The success of the university’s unique, multi-disciplinary approach to education can be seen clearly among the graduates of the Jacobs Institute’s two cross-disciplinary programs, in Health Tech and Connective Media. With this methodology firmly established in the curriculum at Cornell Tech, graduates of the Jacobs Institute are already bringing new technologies to market that can truly change lives.
Third, the Jacobs Technion–Cornell Institute is building bridges between nations, people, and cultures. These bridges are not only about the exchange of money and products, but also ideas and human capital, which only grow when they cross borders. The relationship between American and Israeli academic institutions has grown exponentially in recent years – driven by the vision of Technion President Peretz Lavie and other leaders in Israel, along with entrepreneurial philanthropists, like the Jacobs Family and Mortimer Zuckerman. Zuckerman’s recently announced STEM scholars program is transforming this academic relationship. It will bring leading American postdoctoral scholars to Israeli universities, support top Israeli postdoctoral scholars studying at American universities, and enable Israeli universities to compete with top North American institutions to return Israeli scholars to Israeli institutions.
The realization of Mayor Bloomberg’s vision for a new university on Roosevelt Island is a window into the future. In a rapidly changing world, those who recognize how bold new models for philanthropy, business, and education are converging have unlimited potential to transform our communities, overcome our challenges, and change our lives.
Jeff Richard is the Executive Vice President of the American Technion Society.