During the chaotic early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kenneth C. Griffin, founder of the global alternative investment firm Citadel, stepped up to tackle an urgent problem. He had just learned that one of his colleagues and her family were stuck in Wuhan, China, ground zero for an infectious disease sweeping across the globe.
The situation grew desperate as countries began shutting down to slow the spread of the disease – and Griffin moved quickly and decisively.
“I contacted U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo,” Griffin said in an interview with Philanthropy Roundtable. “After realizing there were hundreds of Americans still in Wuhan, we worked around the clock to find a way to safely bring them home.”
Griffin and his partners secured enough planes to safely bring home hundreds of Americans.
A longtime supporter of medical research and innovation, Griffin also helped lay the groundwork for Operation Warp Speed. His key contribution: proposing the concept of pre-purchasing COVID vaccines and antiviral medications to accelerate time to market for newly developed pharmaceuticals. As a result, Operation Warp Speed delivered vaccines in record time and saved hundreds of thousands of American lives.
“We were among the earliest private funders of international vaccine development efforts and supported important research in the early months of the pandemic across academic and medical institutions,” he said.
“I’m proud of how my partners at Citadel and I moved quickly and with conviction to find and fund solutions during the early days of COVID-19,” he added. “Because of the way public, private, academic and philanthropic sectors came together, we were able to immunize tens of millions of Americans faster than anyone thought possible.”
Beyond supporting Covid-19 vaccine development and delivery, Griffin also launched efforts in Chicago and later Miami to tackle the digital divide when thousands of students were left at home without Internet access as schools closed their doors. Working with local government and business leaders, Chicago Connected and Miami Connected provided free high-speed broadband to residents, and Griffin continues to work to close the broadband affordability gap nationally.
Griffin’s quick response to the COVID-19 crisis demonstrates a personal quality that has been central to his success in business and philanthropy. When he sees a problem, he and his partners come together to solve it creatively and courageously, and it has made him an incredibly successful entrepreneur. Citadel, which he founded in 1990, is now one of the largest and most successful hedge fund firms in history, managing more than $57 billion in assets. Griffin and the team at Citadel in 2002 also founded Citadel Securities, now one of the world’s leading market makers.
These qualities have also made him a highly effective philanthropist. Through his charitable giving — totaling more than $1.5 billion to date — Griffin has helped increase access to quality education, prevent violent crime, expand cultural institutions, protect democracy and free speech, and save lives through medical research.
For his philanthropic contributions, Griffin is the recipient of Philanthropy Roundtable’s 2022 Simon-DeVos Prize for Philanthropic Leadership, which honors a living philanthropist who has shown exemplary leadership through his or her own charitable giving.
“Ken Griffin’s philanthropy is all about opportunity, opening doors for people in an extraordinarily wide range of endeavors from education and the arts to health care and crime reduction,” said Peter Simon, co-chairman of the William E. Simon Foundation, which, along with the DeVos Family Foundation, sponsor the annual Prize.
“His philanthropy is trailblazing, high impact and emblematic of all the Simon-Devos Prize stands for,” he added.
Former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos also praised Griffin for how philanthropy has empowered students and expanded access to high-quality education.
“He’s long understood that a strong America requires all students to have equal access to a great education, and he’s never faltered in seeking to expand opportunities for those who have too long been denied one.”
Griffin Family Values
Griffin credits much of his success in business and philanthropy to his parents and grandparents, who taught him valuable lessons that continue to guide him to this day.
He spent most of his childhood in Florida, where his father was an engineer for General Electric and worked on a number of important projects, including the Apollo space program. His mother studied childhood education.
“From my father, I learned about the importance of pursuing a career that I’m passionate about,” said Griffin. “From my mother, I learned the importance of learning and making a difference.”
Griffin’s grandparents were also a source of inspiration. They endured the Great Depression living on a farm with no running water but eventually launched several successful businesses. When Griffin’s grandfather died unexpectedly, his grandmother insisted on running the businesses on her own. Ultimately, she financed Griffin’s education.
The opportunity provided by his grandmother ultimately inspired Griffin’s gift to endow the Financial Aid Office at Harvard, which was the university’s largest ever gift at that time, to ensure the best and brightest have access to the highest quality education regardless of their economic circumstances.
“Thanks to my parents and grandparents and the incredible freedoms provided to individuals in America, I had the ability to pursue my dreams,” Griffin said.
A Dorm Room Hedge Fund
Those dreams included a passion for technology and entrepreneurship. Griffin attended a public high school in Boca Raton, Florida. Boca Raton was the birthplace of IBM Personal Computer and Griffin became fascinated by how computer technology would change the world. He launched his first business in high school from his bedroom, selling educational software through the mail.
“I was so interested in being an entrepreneur that my parents’ advice when I started college was one word: ‘Graduate!’ They knew I had a real fascination with understanding commercial enterprises, and they didn’t want that to distract me from focusing on my studies,” said Griffin.
As it turns out, however, Griffin was able to both study for school and nurture his business pursuits.
As a Harvard undergraduate, Griffin launched a hedge fund, once again out of his bedroom. There was just one problem. He lacked access to real-time stock quotes. Despite a ban on campus businesses, Griffin convinced the school to allow him to install a satellite dish on the roof of his dorm to receive the quotes.
“I ran the cable through a window, down through an old elevator shaft and into my room,” said Griffin.
Griffin launched Citadel a year after graduation.
Data-Driven Education Philanthropy
Griffin approaches philanthropy the same way he approaches business, with an emphasis on real-world results.
“I am focused on data-driven, action-oriented approaches that deliver real impact and increase access to opportunity for others,” he said.
While his philanthropic efforts are wide-ranging, he says the most critical area of focus for his charitable giving is education.
“Education is the foundation of opportunity in the United States, and the breakdown in our education system threatens America’s long-term success,” explained Griffin.
His primary objective is supporting schools and programs to teach students the critical thinking skills they need to tackle problems.
For example, one organization Griffin supports is Success Academies, a network of charter schools across New York that teach children to be “critical and creative thinkers, build life skills and confidence, pursue passions and secure exceptional careers.” Led by education reform advocate Eva Moskowitz, Success Academy is ranked number one in academic achievement across the state.
A former tutor on Chicago’s south side himself, Griffin also supports high-impact tutoring programs for struggling students. One grantee, Saga Education, uses intensive tutoring programs to accelerate student learning in math, helping students gain an extra two to three years of math skills in a single year.
Griffin is also a big believer in the importance of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education, specifically encouraging computer science and data science instruction to ensure our country remains competitive on the world stage.
The Fabric of Thriving Communities
Outside the classroom, Griffin also leverages his charitable giving to drive upward mobility and build strong communities. His areas of focus are crime prevention, increasing access to cultural institutions and building community spaces that inspire people.
Griffin described the impact of violent crime in America’s cities as “deeply personal” for him, noting that 26,000 people were murdered in Chicago during the 30 years Citadel was headquartered there.
To address the problem, Griffin partnered with community-based organizations and researchers, including the University of Chicago Crime Lab, on several initiatives to integrate technology into crime fighting and to improve management practices and decision-making inside police departments.
They piloted this approach in the Chicago district with the highest violent crime rate and it resulted in an immediate 30% reduction in shootings.
As he works to make neighborhoods safer, Griffin also believes cultural institutions “help form the fabric of thriving communities.”
Griffin has expanded the collections and broadened the reach of the Art Institute and Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., among many others.
He also funded an effort to restore Chicago’s iconic lakefront trail, establishing and later repairing separate bike and pedestrian lanes to make it safe for joggers, bicyclists and families, and he built 50 soccer pitches across the city. In the company’s new home of Miami, Griffin supported the construction of the Underline, a park that utilizes space underneath the city’s elevated Metrorail.
“I believe in the power of vibrant and accessible cities to support and inspire the next generation of leaders and innovators,” he said.
Preserving the Future of Democracy
While he works to keep the American dream accessible to all, Griffin also believes in defending the rights enshrined in our Constitution, including free speech.
“Philanthropy plays a critical role in advancing the diversity of ideas that are essential for maintaining freedom and democracy by helping Americans develop thoughtful perspectives on the defining issues of our time,” he said.
For this reason, Griffin supports the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), an organization that “defends and sustains the individual rights of all Americans to free speech and free thought.” Earlier this year, FIRE expanded its mission to protect free speech nationally, through an ambitious public education, litigation and research effort.
“I’ve been very fortunate in life to have always had a group of friends who really pushed me, who make me better, and my thinking has benefitted immensely from their perspectives, even if we don’t share the same views,” Griffin said. “This diversity of opinion and the debate that derives from it is not possible in an environment in which free speech is under attack.”
Innovative and Timely Solutions
Griffin’s approach to problem-solving is clear: He solves challenges creatively and courageously, measures his progress and then expands upon successes.
“I have seen the greatest impact from my philanthropy when I have supported organizations led by brilliant social entrepreneurs focused on innovative and timely solutions that can be measured and scaled,” he said.
On Oct. 19, Griffin will receive Philanthropy Roundtable’s prestigious Simon-DeVos Prize for Philanthropic Leadership. The Prize honors influential philanthropists whose work has advanced the principles of personal responsibility, resourcefulness, volunteerism, scholarship, individual freedom, faith in God and helping people to help themselves. The purpose of the Prize is to highlight the power of philanthropy and inspire others to support charities that achieve results.
“Our late father used to say that businessmen should give away their money as carefully as they invest their personal wealth, with decisions based on solid data rather than good intentions,” said Bill Simon, Jr., co-chairman of the William E. Simon Foundation. “Ken Griffin exemplifies just this kind of thoughtful giving, and I know Dad would be delighted to have their names linked through the Simon-DeVos Prize.”
“I am incredibly honored by this recognition and to join an incredible group of previous awardees,” Griffin said. “The values highlighted by this Prize are ones I have and hope to continue to champion, both in my philanthropy and beyond.”
Learn more about the Simon-Devos Prize here.