What unites us? The answer was on display the final day of our recently completed Annual Meeting in Palm Beach, Florida. There, Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus brought attendees along on a rollicking, enlightening, and ultimately inspiring discussion about his American journey.
In just over an hour, “Bernie,” as he insists all Home Depot employees call him, unveiled the American character and revealed many of the traits that have traditionally united us as Americans—the belief that all of us are responsible for our own lives, that education is the cornerstone on which success can be built, and that entrepreneurship is vital to expanding opportunities and fueling America’s continued growth. These same traits are reflected in The Philanthropy Roundtable’s mission to help donors advance freedom, opportunity, and personal responsibility.
Bernie’s parents were Russian immigrants who left that country to escape the pogroms. They lived together in a Newark tenement, “which was paradise for me, because we had kids up and down. I never knew I was poor. We had love.”
His mother taught him early on to take charge of his life. “America is a golden land,” she would tell him. Bernie explained to the roughly 300 people gathered for his talk, “I always believed I could be successful at whatever I did as long as I worked very hard at it. My mother always saw a positive side to everything. This became part and parcel of who I am.”
Bernie has found his mother’s optimism is mirrored in most successful people. “I’ve met most of the major CEOs,” he says. “Every entrepreneur I’ve talked to had a downfall, but had the courage to fight it through and be successful.” The truth is, he continues, “you are responsible for what happens to you.”
Education was not an option for Bernie—it was expected. And his mother made sure he got a good one. When setbacks occurred along the way, he didn’t blame others. He found another way. Bernie planned to become a doctor, but at the time medical schools limited the number of Jewish students they would admit. “So,” Bernie quips, “I went to the next best thing—drugs!” After the laughter died down, he made it clear, of course, that he meant pharmacy.
Bernie knows the schools that produced him had problems, but today’s system, he contends, is at a crossroads. Many “textbooks in schools and universities are basically anti-American and anti-Israel,” he notes, and on college campuses many professors “don’t tolerate freedom of speech” or hire would-be professors who don’t agree with them. “I believe in freedom for everybody,” he says, “and diversity—I’m a great believer in diversity. I don’t want anybody to be denied their rights, but I also don’t want my kids to be deprived of their rights.”
If we don’t address this state of affairs, Bernie warns, “we’re eventually going to lose our children, our grandchildren. When they go to school, when they go to college, they’re going to be barraged with anti-Americanism.”
One of the things most endangered, according to Bernie, is the free enterprise system itself. And he urges donors to resist any undermining of what has made America a great nation.
“We’re sitting back and letting it happen. And shame on us,” he says. “The free enterprise system is what grew this country. Kids in uniform have given their lives for the sake of freedom. I’m going to fight back because I’m a product of the free enterprise system . . . I am proud to be an American. I am an American first.”
“The survival of this country is critical to me,” Bernie concludes, as it is to each of us at the Roundtable.
Personal responsibility, a great education, and the free enterprise system—these have made America great. They are what unites us—as Americans, and as donors at The Philanthropy Roundtable.
Adam Meyerson is president of The Philanthropy Roundtable.