Interview with Sandy Weill

A king of capital on founding a high-school internship program, building a medical school in Qatar, and rescuing Carnegie Hall

  • K-12 Education
  • Philanthropy Magazine

Sandy Weill was at various times CEO of Citigroup, founder of an investment firm, and president of American Express, but his high-powered career in finance began at low wattage—in a “back-office” job at Bear Stearns performing calculations and running messages while studying for his broker’s license. Weill’s early days at the bottom of the organizational chart never left him. In 1982 he started the National Academy Foundation to offer career training and internships in finance and other fields to high-school students. He’s also a major medical philanthropist, serving for two decades as chairman of Weill Cornell Medical College, where he’s given over $600 million. Weill led the recent major renovation of Carnegie Hall and launched its music outreach program; after serving for 24 years as chairman of the board, he recently became president of that cultural mecca. Weill and his wife are signatories of the Giving Pledge and have personally resolved to give not just half but almost all of their wealth to charity. Philanthropy sat down with Weill to discuss the causes closest to his heart.

Philanthropy: Your first major foray into philanthropy was to start the National Academy Foundation, which originally trained students for entry-level jobs in the financial sector. What need was this program designed to meet?

Weill: I went into the financial business before computers. We used to do it all by hand, including stock certificates, and deliver them from one place to another.

Later, when I was an executive, a lot of companies were talking about moving their back offices out of New York City because there was very high turnover and they didn’t know where new employees were going to come from. Yet when I drove around the city I saw all these kids in the street. I realized that we’re not educating young people for the jobs that are here.

So we started with one high school in Brooklyn. It was a two-year program of classes and internships, in addition to all the normal high-school courses, introducing students to the financial-services business, mainly the securities industry. We knew that mentoring would be important, and connecting the kids with places they could intern, so we recruited an active board to assist with this.

These kids turned out to be terrific employees. The people in the companies loved working with them, and students even came to school dressed as if they were going to business. It was great for the companies that got involved too, improving internal morale. And it helped the standard of living in the surrounding communities.  The National Academy Foundation is an example of a public-private partnership model that works.

Philanthropy: Then what happened?

Weill: When I sold my company to American Express—which, besides being in finance, was also in the travel business—the National Academy Foundation set up a program in hospitality, our second themed academy. Then in 1999 with the Internet explosion, we were able to raise $10 million in one breakfast from high-tech companies and Web-related businesses to create an Academy of Information Technology.

Seeing the same dearth of qualified workers in the high-tech industries that we’d observed in the financial business, we eventually started an Academy of Engineering, which is very popular. While national statistics on women and minorities in engineering are pretty dismal, NAF engineering students are more than three quarters minorities and one third female.

As employment in health care continues to skyrocket, we most recently launched an Academy of Health Sciences. Our five academies are now in 667 schools in 38 states. We have over 80,000 students in training at a time, and are shooting to get to 100,000 by 2020.

Philanthropy: What does a NAF program cost, and what are the student outcomes?

Weill: The only entrance requirement is that students have to be at grade level in math and English. When you watch the progression from ninth to twelfth grade, their GPA and credits earned outperform non-NAF students in their districts. Last year our graduation rate was 96 percent—and these schools are in the same neighborhoods where the normal graduation rate is maybe 50 percent. Over 90 percent of our graduates plan to go to college. Many of them take college-level courses so that they are more prepared when they do go.

The Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation did a study on students in the NAF program and two others like it and found that their later earnings grew at a compound rate of double digits, better than their non-academy peers.

It costs each district $1,000 per year to run an academy, so the cost to the schools per student ends up being about the cost of a cup of coffee. From the philanthropic side, it costs about $500 a student per year plus in-kind mentoring. It’s an incredibly low cost for high value, and most importantly, a young person has a chance for a bright future. I always tell people that NAF is the country’s best kept secret.

Philanthropy: What are alumni doing with their lives?

Weill: One member of our first graduating class in the Academy of Hospitality and Tourism was Erich de la Fuente, a Cuban immigrant to Miami. He had to take two buses and a train to reach his internship, but he persevered and got the experience and went on to found and lead a multi national public relations company. He’s now a member of NAF’s board of directors and runs our alumni leadership council.

One young lady by the name of Jackie Burgos was the first person in her family to go to college, and recently graduated from Harvard Business School. She is now working at Warner Brothers in her dream industry. I tried to hire her to come work for me, but she wouldn’t do it! In fact, I offered full-time jobs to the whole first class in Brooklyn when they graduated from high school, but they were dreaming bigger—they wanted to go on to college. Although our programs are intended to train students in a marketable skill whether or not they pursue higher education, we do encourage college and almost all of them head in that direction.

There’s another young guy I really took a liking to by the name of Justin Morant who wanted to go to Cornell. When it came time for him to take the SATs, knowing that kids who can afford test prep do much better, we paid for him to take a course. He did well enough to get provisionally accepted to Cornell, which means that if he went to another college first and excelled they would take him in his sophomore year. He went to Saint Vincent College in Philadelphia, worked hard and received good grades, and transferred to Cornell. He found it very tough at the beginning and really had to work hard, but he made the dean’s list his senior year.

I’ve watched NAF programs turn around the lives of whole families. Most of these kids come from unstable home environments. Recently I met with a mother of a NAF student in Miami. She just sobbed talking about how much of a difference it made—not only for her son, who she was sure was going to end up on the streets, but also for his two younger siblings. They now realize there’s a much bigger world out there.

Philanthropy: This morning I was over at glorious Carnegie Hall. It’s shocking to think that 50 years ago it was almost torn down to build a hotel, and that even 20 years after it was saved it was still operating on a shoestring. Tell us what happened when you came along.

Weill: When I was working at American Express, one of my colleagues was on the board of Carnegie Hall and thought I might enjoy getting to know more about the institution and Isaac Stern, its legendary savior.

He wanted to raise $60 million to renovate the hall. The bathrooms were leaking into the boxes and the place was in a terrible state of disrepair. He had raised about $28 million, but most of the money came from the state and the city.

I started asking questions about what they were doing. And the more questions I asked the deeper I got involved, to the point where they asked me to co-chair the capital campaign along with Carnegie Hall’s chairman Jim Wolfensohn. I didn’t know anything about fundraising, and my background in music was that I played the bass drum in a military-school band and thought the best composer in the world was John Philip Sousa.

When I decided to move on from American Express, I offered to resign from the campaign. I didn’t know how I was going to raise money if nobody would take my calls. I asked myself: Were people friendly with me because of my position, or did they like me as a person? When you live that kind of life, you don’t know. It was like being able to read your own obituary while still being alive.

But Isaac refused to accept my resignation and it turned out that people did respect me. Philanthropy kept me busy through that uncertain period and showed me that there was something more to life than just business. So we raised the money to fix up Carnegie Hall, and afterward Isaac asked me to be chairman of the board. At that time, we had an endowment of about $4 million and we have worked tirelessly over the last 24 years to grow it to over $320 million now, which is about four times our annual budget.

Carnegie Hall is plain bricks and mortar, but inside it we’re building relationships with world-class artists. Isaac was a very good friend of mine and I learned so much from him. He used to say that when you sit in Carnegie Hall, you can feel Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, and Toscanini in the walls. And when you’re on the stage, you feel like you’re captured by their spirit—there’s a close, warm feeling.

Philanthropy: You’ve said that education is the common theme of all your giving. What can you tell us about the education programs at Carnegie Hall?

Weill: We really believe that education is the key that can unlock the door to one’s future.  We kicked off the Weill Music Institute, our suite of education outreach programs, at a seventieth birthday party that Carnegie Hall threw for me with about 700 people. My wife and I said that we would match all the gifts that our friends gave to create an endowment for music education. And lo and behold, they donated $30 million. So we started with $60 million in one night. It was the most expensive birthday party that I have ever had!

Now there’s a $100 million endowment dedicated to music education. Three years ago we started the National Youth Orchestra, which is preparing for a tour to China this summer. We have master classes where great artists work with really talented young people. We bring in music teachers and have them practice creating an orchestra from scratch, so they can do it when they return to their high schools.

The biggest program is called Link Up, which is reaching about 450,000 young people around the world. We have partnerships with about 80 orchestras that expose third- to fifth-graders to classical music, some of them for the first time, letting them get a feel for the instruments and hear an orchestra play.

Research shows that music education enhances brain development. The odds are that a person with some exposure to a musical instrument will do better in subjects such as languages and science. If one thinks about all the money that we spend on education in the United States, only a tiny fraction of it goes to music education, and it’s one of the first things to be cut. But it’s one of the things proven to motivate young people to learn.

Philanthropy: Let’s talk about the third big pillar of your giving, Weill Cornell Medical School, where you’ve given about $600 million.

Weill: At first I hesitated to get involved because I can’t stand needles and I hate the sight of blood! But I got to know a lot of doctors whose work is important to support and I got the chance to work hand in glove with then-dean Tony Gotto, one of our world’s real treasures when it comes to leadership in health care. Feeling like you’ve had something to do with saving a person’s life or just making the quality of someone’s life better, it’s a great feeling.

We have a three-part mission: Education, clinical services, and research. The first gift we gave was to hire young scientists, because there really wasn’t much of a medical school research effort at that time. The second campaign was to expand clinical services, which resulted in the creation of the Weill Greenberg building, where you can get multiple health issues addressed at the same place, like quality one-stop shopping. It’s like having the Mayo Clinic in Manhattan.

And then the third big push, which we announced right at the onslaught of the Great Recession, was the first campaign that any medical school ever ran to raise a billion dollars. We raised $1.3 billion and put up the Belfer Research Building, which is already staffed with some terrific people. I could not be more excited about Weill Cornell’s future. We have a terrific new dean in Laurie Glimcher and an outstanding new board chairwoman (I must admit, I am biased) in my daughter, Jessica Bibliowicz.

Philanthropy: There’s also a campus in Qatar. How did that come about?

Weill: We were approached in 2000 by the Qatar Foundation and a member of the royal family about building a medical school there. We spent a year talking about governance issues because we weren’t interested in doing anything that conflicted with our values. That meant co-ed classes, which were unheard of in the Middle East. But they agreed to it, and our current class is a little over 50 percent women. Beyond the obvious benefits of expanding medical training and care, we strongly believe that the way to bridge cultural differences between people is through education.

Doctors who felt they had to leave the region because there were no research opportunities or peer support are now coming back. Most of the graduates have scholarships that require them to return to their home countries for a certain period of time. We’re the only U.S. medical school that grants an American medical degree outside the country and we have a wonderful partnership. In fact, after Texas A&M agreed to build a branch campus in Doha in 2003 to focus on energy and engineering, former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates—who was president of Texas A&M at the time—told me that we gave them the guts to do it.

In partnership with the Catholic Church and the government of Tanzania, we also built a medical school in Mwanza. We’re now graduating 100 doctors a year in an area that has about one doctor for every 50,000 patients, the lowest ratio of doctors to patients in the world. We’re particularly focusing on burn care, which is an area of expertise for Weill Cornell and a real problem in a region with regular open fires in homes full of children.

Philanthropy: You’ve also had a hand in the new Cornell Tech on Roosevelt Island.

Weill: It would never have happened without Chuck Feeney, who went to school at Cornell with me. Back then, he sold sandwiches outside the fraternity, and he remembers that I turned him down. But though he couldn’t get me to buy a sandwich, he did get the mayor to take Cornell’s bid. During the competition, I thought it was certain that Cornell wasn’t going to get the opportunity. All the talk was about creating another Silicon Valley on Roosevelt Island. Well, Ithaca is not Silicon Valley. Stanford is. But if you want to talk about making a gift that’s transformational, Feeney’s $350 million gift got Stanford to drop its bid.

I helped put together the deal between the Technion and Cornell. I was involved with Rambam Medical Center, the hospital that’s connected to the Technion, so I set up a conversation to talk about the institutions coming together. It’s a perfect marriage between Cornell’s strength in education and the Technion’s translation of that education into new companies. It is an incredibly exciting project with a forward-thinking presence in biotech, medical research, and advanced engineering.

Philanthropy: How has your wife, Joan, influenced you in your philanthropy?

Weill: She went on the board of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater 20 years ago when it was operating hand to mouth. They had a tiny little rented place to rehearse. As chairwoman she was instrumental in putting together a board of people who really cared about the mission and grew the endowment from nothing to about $65 million. They’re probably the best-funded dance company in America, and have the largest building for dance in New York, on 55th Street. People love to walk by and watch the dancers. They’re now in the process of expanding. They have education programs for people of all capabilities and ages, from summer camps for disadvantaged kids to a bachelor of fine arts program with Fordham that educates dancers for when their performing careers are over.

Joan was also the first president of Citymeals-on-Wheels, and she used to volunteer at the Bellevue psychiatric ward. I remember one night when we were walking home from a restaurant to our apartment. This was when there were a lot more people living on the streets in New York, who would often be at Bellevue during the day but sent out to fend for themselves at night. And I heard a voice from a shadowy entryway yelling “Hey, Joanie!” It was a guy with cardboard and a blanket, one of her buddies from the hospital. She used to joke that I’m in charge of culture and she’s in charge of the streets.

We have always believed that philanthropy is much more than just writing a check. It’s devoting one’s time, energy, intelligence, and enthusiasm to the causes one is really passionate about. Joan and I have been partners in everything that we’ve done and we have learned a lot from one another. We will celebrate our sixtieth wedding anniversary this June and Joan, to my good fortune, still puts up with me!