Donating a Motive to Strive

Oil money pipeline funnels kids to college

Even in the Mile-High City, college is out of reach for many low-income students. But in 2005, Denver high-school kids were getting a boost from the state of Colorado. A concurrent enrollment program allowed students, many from poor or immigrant backgrounds, to get a head start on higher education by earning high school and college credit at the same time. But when the board of education had to eliminate the tuition subsidy, many students were unable to pay for the courses on their own. That’s when Colorado oilman Tim Marquez and his wife Bernadette read an article in the Denver Post about the folding of the program and decided they should do something about it.

As the couple began to research the issue, they realized how big the problem was: Many students from low-income urban neighborhoods never made it to the finish line in high school and certainly not on to post-secondary education. For Tim, the son of two teachers, this was unacceptable. True, he had “made it” on his own. A graduate of Denver’s Abraham Lincoln High School, he put himself through college at the Colorado School of Mines as a petroleum engineering major. But, as he readily admits, “It was $300 a semester then, so I made it work with a few partial scholarships and a job at the Coors plant in nearby Golden.”

After his graduation from Mines in 1980, Tim went to work for the California oil company Unocal. One Christmas, while home in Denver for the holidays, he met Bernadette Bott in a club and asked her to dance. They were married in 1983.

Bernadette, or “Bernie,” also understood how important education is to a bright future. One of eight children from Kalamazoo, Michigan, her dad had a high school diploma and worked for General Motors his entire career. Her mom never completed high school and worked part-time over the years. Watching her parents and older siblings struggle made Bernie want a secure career so that “no one would have to take care of me.” Earning a degree was her path. She liked science and knew there would always be a demand for health care. She became a registered nurse, practicing for nearly 30 years.

After 13 years with Unocal, a large firm with a sometimes messy bureaucracy, Tim and a partner struck out on their own, founding Venoco in 1992, financed by a small severance and a $3,000 advance on Tim and Bernie’s credit card. While many larger companies were walking away from California’s aging oil fields, Venoco came in with new techniques and watched its profits and success grow dramatically.

But Venoco’s efforts and elevated status also made it a target. The company was named in a class-action lawsuit (eventually dismissed) instigated by Erin Brockovich, the environmental paralegal who became the subject of a major Hollywood movie. Around the same time, one partner and investor, the Enron Corporation, attempted to gain control of Venoco with the intent to sell the company. Tim wound up in the middle of the dispute. Consequently, the board fired him as CEO in 2002. He spent the next few years regaining majority control, taking the company public, and growing Venoco’s value to an estimated $1 billion by 2008. In October 2012, the Marquezes bought back the public shares and became the sole owners of Venoco.

Success has many mothers

Vaulted into the top tier of Denver wealth-creators in these years, the Marquezes felt a sense of urgency to reinvest their resources in the community. News of the canceled college subsidy—and their discovery of how leaky the pipeline to higher education was for Denver’s lower income families—came at just the right time. In 2004, Denver’s new mayor, John Hickenlooper (now governor of Colorado), visited Cole Middle School, one of the worst-performing schools in the city. In so many words, he told a group of students in the auditorium that if they worked hard, did well, and graduated from high school, he promised they would be able to go to college and have the money to do so. Denver media heavily publicized what became known as the “Cole Promise.” Not one to shy away from a commitment, Hickenlooper seized the moment to raise private funds to help more Denver Public Schools students go to college. If his efforts succeeded, he said, not only would kids have better opportunities, but benefits would overflow to the city: especially talented teachers could be recruited, the city would become a more desirable destination for new families and companies looking to relocate.

At the time, Hickenlooper’s former chief of staff, Michael Bennet (now a U.S. senator), was the new superintendent of the capital city’s school district. He, too, was looking to make bold moves to improve the Denver Public Schools and the expectations of its students. Together, Bennet and Hickenlooper approached the Marquezes for support. The popular mayor’s political muscle, combined with cooperation from the school chief and the generous gifts of the Marquezes evolved into what is now the Denver Scholarship Foundation.

And the Marquezes were in a good position to be generous. In 2006, Venoco went public. By that time, Tim had bought back a 50.3 percent share of the company and was serving as its chairman and CEO. After the proceeds were allocated and fees paid, the Marquezes pledged $100 million to philanthropy—and nearly half of that went to seed the scholarship effort.

As children of lower middle class families, both Bernie and Tim realize their lives would have been very different had not others encouraged them to value education. Just as Venoco extracted natural resources from abandoned oil fields, the Marquezes set out to identify and help students who might otherwise be left behind. As Tim explains: “We look for the hidden jewels, kids who maybe haven’t worked so hard because they didn’t think they could go to college, or who felt they had no reason to try. They are not in the top 10-15 percent of their class, but have natural abilities. Someone just needs to say, ‘You can do it,’ and they go from having a 2.2 in high school to a 4.0 in college.”

“Anymore, you can’t be successful with a high-school degree only,” Bernie adds. “You need a post-secondary education. To us, this includes trade schools, community colleges, or four-year universities. If a student becomes a certified child care provider, or even an auto mechanic, it requires advanced training and accreditation. While we emphasize college, whatever students choose to do beyond high school to further their education, we will help them do that.”

But the Marquezes knew that a scholarship alone would not be enough to help the students they wanted to reach. Although he finished near the top of his class, Tim confesses how little he knew when he was in high school about going to college and how to pay for it. Bernie recalls vividly when their three daughters, all alumni of Denver’s public schools, were approaching high school graduation and considering their options. “It was so complex that we hired a college coach. We couldn’t count on the school when there were 2,200 students and five guidance counselors. If we had to seek help, what were kids with fewer resources or tools supposed to do? And, for many students and families, it doesn’t matter if college costs $160 or $160,000. They convince themselves it isn’t possible because they don’t know how to get there.”

Because of these experiences, and after extensive “best practices” research while creating the Denver Scholarship Foundation, the Marquezes equipped every high school participating in the scholarship fund with a “Future Center”: a one-stop shop to help more students and families navigate post-high-school options. The information provided at these centers comes with a mandate to use it: DSF requires participating students to apply for at least three other private scholarships and all federal and state aid for which they are eligible.

The program partners with institutions at the other end as well: The colleges and universities that DSF students attend kick in financial aid—an estimated $2 for each $1 from the foundation—and support students with on-campus mentoring and retention efforts. The goal is not just to get students on campus, but to help them graduate, Tim explains. To date, 80 percent of DSF recipients are still enrolled or have completed their programs of study.

Without these partnerships, programming, and resources, few if any of these students would even know where to begin. As Tim says, “Most don’t think they can graduate from high school or go to college without motivation to do so or someone who believes in them.” He recalls a problem at one of the schools where the program was piloted early on. The school was in a poor part of town, had 80 percent free and reduced lunch eligible students, and had low high school graduation and college-going rates. Its new principal had created a college track and corresponding personal plan for all students. But parents and teachers criticized the principal for “getting students’ hopes up” and said that ultimately kids and families would not be prepared or able to pay for college.

The Denver Scholarship Foundation became the big investor in these students and subsequently invited all students from across the district to participate. Since the couple’s initial $50 million challenge grant to the foundation in 2007, the organization raised another estimated $28 million in private donations and pledges, and awarded nearly $19 million in college scholarships to 3,900 DPS graduates. District enrollment is up from 73,013 in 2006 to 84,424 in 2012—numbers that make Denver one of the fastest growing urban school districts in the country. High school graduation also climbed 22 percent, and college matriculation increased by 28 percent, due in part to the incentive for students to stay in school and receive funding for college.

More to Come

Back in full control of Venoco, with some promising business opportunities lying before the company, Tim and Bernadette Marquez have begun considering what their future charitable efforts should look like. From the 2006 IPO, they created the Tim and Bernadette Marquez Family Foundation, which supports education and health-related issues. Two other sizable donations have gone to capital projects at their respective alma maters—$10 million to fund Marquez Hall at the Colorado School of Mines, and $7 million for a nursing addition to the life sciences building at Michigan State University. 

Tim and Bernie plan to give away 99 percent of their fortune to support causes they care about. Their first priority will continue to be championing young people who otherwise might not have a chance to pursue college. They are convinced that no other use of resources has a greater return on investment. Tim describes a meeting with the father of a John F. Kennedy High School graduate who was completing college. “He was beaming and so proud of his son,” one of just a few Hispanic males to complete college from his southwest Denver community, Tim explains. “We were seeing firsthand the difference we had made for this young man and how our financial and personal participation was all worth it.”

Another DSF recipient, Edgar Robles, is now a senior at the Colorado School of Mines. He recalls seeing ads about college on TV when he was a freshman in high school and assuming that path was only for the select few and those from wealthy families. But his good grades got him noticed, and a drafting teacher encouraged him to consider Mines. With the support of the DSF Future Center at his school and a counselor named Renae Bruning—herself the product of a similar scholarship program aimed at “diamonds in the rough” which is operated by the Daniels Fund—his future began to take shape. He recalls seeing Mines for the first time on a college visit supported by the DSF. “It blew my mind,” he says. “That I could go there with the financial support my family could not provide was simply life-changing.” After seeing doors open for Edgar, his older brother also made his way back to college; he’s now working on a master’s degree. Edgar’s younger sister was recently awarded a scholarship from the DSF and now attends Metropolitan State University of Denver.  “It has not just affected me,” Robles says. “My path has been a model for my family and friends.”

Getting to college is one thing. Successfully completing a degree is another. “I knew of Mines’s reputation as one of the most difficult schools in the country,” Robles admits. “But it is much harder than I ever expected, and as one of the few students of color on campus, my support network is small.” Ongoing guidance from the DSF and his involvement with a multicultural engineering center at Mines have helped. He also has a mentor who navigated the same course.

One day Robles stopped by Tim Marquez’s downtown Denver office intending to thank him; what he assumed would be a 15-minute encounter stretched into nearly two hours. The two discovered that they grew up on the same street and came from nearly identical backgrounds. Robles hopes their shared experiences won’t end when he becomes a Mines alumnus like Tim. “When I am successful in my career, I hope to be a philanthropist like Mr. and Mrs. Marquez,” he says. “Education is the solution to so many of society’s problems, but those who could most benefit can’t afford it. I know the investment in me by so many and am forever grateful. I also understand my responsibility to help others and give back to society. It is my plan.”

Carrie Besnette Hauser, a senior fellow at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, has served as vice president and scholarship program director at the Daniels Fund, and as board president of the National Scholarship Providers Association. She assisted in the early efforts that shaped what is now the Denver Scholarship Foundation.

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