Though his adult life has passed almost entirely in New York City, Julian Robertson still commands a rich southern drawl. This early progenitor of the American hedge fund grew up in small-town Salisbury, North Carolina, attended the University of North Carolina, and landed in the Big Apple as a stockbroker. In 1980, he founded what became known as the Tiger Fund.
And boy did this tiger earn its stripes. Averaging net returns as high as 25 percent a year, the fund peaked at $22 billion in assets. While Robertson was busy scrutinizing investments, he was also betting on people, especially his Tiger employees, who he hoped would become both great investors and arch philanthropists. Nine years after starting the Tiger Fund, Robertson created the Tiger Foundation and asked his employees to help him distribute his charitable funds wisely across New York City.
In 2000 Robertson closed his hedge fund and used its proceeds to seed the hedge funds of former employees, many of whom are household names in finance today: Lee Ainslie, John Griffin, Stephen Mandel, Andreas Halvorsen, and many more. And to Robertson’s delight, most also became leaders in New York’s philanthropic community. Ainslie and Griffin, for instance, went on to serve on the board of the Robin Hood Foundation, which in 2016 raised over $61 million in a single night to fight poverty.
Robertson continues to be a major giver in his own right. For instance, he donated $25 million to Success Academy this year, with the aim of expanding that remarkable chain of charter schools to 100 campuses. The Foundation Center estimates that he has so far given away more than $1 billion. Philanthropy spoke with this wizard of Wall Street and Giving Pledge signer about his charitable priorities, how he models generosity, and his philanthropic heroes.
Philanthropy: Many business titans have a moment where they transition from accumulating wealth to giving it away. Did this happen to you?
Robertson: There was no transition for me, because I’ve always enjoyed giving away money, and I’ve never stopped trying to earn wealth, though I’m not doing a very good job of that lately.
I came from a town and a family that were very public-spirited. I learned that spirit from my parents particularly. When a school needed something, the populace took care of it. When there was a need for a park or something like that, the public gave generously. That was the beautiful part about the town where I grew up. One man in town had established a tremendously successful retail-store chain and a lot of people had invested with him, and those people were givers. It was a wonderful town to grow up in, and it gave me great values.
Philanthropy: How many foundations have you started, and what are their purposes?
Robertson: I started three. One was the Tiger Foundation, whose main purpose was to create philanthropists within our company. Another was the Robertson Foundation, which makes grants to education, to medicine, and to the environment, primarily. And the third is one I created in honor of my parents, a foundation that gives money to the town where I grew up.
Philanthropy: What is your involvement with the Robin Hood Foundation?
Robertson: I am a great admirer of the Robin Hood Foundation. It raises more money in one sitting than any other charity in the world and does tremendous things here in New York City.
Philanthropy: Of your charitable gifts, what are you most proud of?
Robertson: Probably the best thing I’ve ever done was start the Tiger Foundation. I gave my employees the money. Told them to go spend it. And told them they were responsible for it.
It succeeded wildly beyond my expectations. They did a marvelous job of researching anti-poverty efforts in New York City, which is the Tiger Foundation’s focus. Other people saw how successful the foundation was and joined in—there was a real big magnification effect. I think it also helped our business. People liked working in an organization that had charitable giving as part of it. And then so many of my employees went on to found their own firms and their own philanthropic endeavors. Now their projects are probably bigger than my own.
I don’t think you teach generosity; I think you encourage generosity. People like to help their fellow man and they really love working when they’re doing good for others.
The way both the Robin Hood Foundation and the Tiger Foundation work, people monitor the gifts, they see where the money goes, they actually are responsible for what the money does.
Philanthropy: You’ve been known to translate investment principles to charitable giving. Are there any that don’t translate?
Robertson: I’m sure a lot of them don’t translate. But there are some key things for both investing and giving. One is that you get good management. For a foundation head, you need decency, smarts, practically the same things that you’re looking for in a good investor.
And when I look at these philanthropic projects, I evaluate them the way I would an investment. We at the foundation try to find out as much as we can. What good will it do?
What are the chances of us winning on this thing? It’s important that the people involved in the project are producing results. You have to have expectations and if those expectations aren’t made you aren’t doing a good job.
People who evaluate the impact of their giving will have a good reputation for giving, and be more capable of getting others to follow them.
Philanthropy: Tell me about your investments in education reform.
Robertson: There are a few people who are really doing a great job in charter schools and one of them is certainly Eva Moskowitz. It’s just fabulous what she’s done. That’s discernible by the test scores her students make.
We try to get school operators to use national standards so we can see where they stand against the regular schools and the best and worst charters.
I’ve seen people want to start charter schools and then forget that they have an obligation to the pupils. They still have some great schools but their newer schools are not really performing.
It’s very important to select your schools, just like it’s very important which stock you buy. We’ve stayed with the charter schools in New York and we think they’re extremely good.
Philanthropy: Do you think the public schools have gotten better since the introduction of competition from the charter schools?
Robertson: Certainly. That shows up in some figures we get from Texas. That shows up in all kinds of businesses. A filling station that had been all by itself improves dramatically when a station opens right across the street.
Philanthropy: What are the big barriers to progress in education reform?
Robertson: Well, the press can be extremely anti-charter school because the schools employ non-union teachers. The New York Times has fought charters vigorously. I gave a $25 million contribution to Success Academy and the New York Times did a story on it—but they asked me in the interview if I had read their stories on Success Academy.
And I said, “Indeed I have read your stories,” but I added, “When I see a line a mile long for every child that gets in the school via lottery, I know there’s something good there that’s attracting people.”
Philanthropy: Tell us about the Robertson Scholars Program at the University of North Carolina and Duke. Why did you establish that program, and why at both schools?
Robertson: The schools are ten miles apart, and are among the very best schools in the United States, but for some strange reason there wasn’t a whole lot of action between them. This scholarship has brought the schools together.
Scholars can go to either school for classes. One requirement is that you have to spend at least one semester at the school that you did not apply to. In other words, if you are enrolled at Duke you have to spend one semester at North Carolina, and vice versa.
Scholar selection is based partly on grades and test scores, but I’d much rather have a student body president than a 4.0 student. Last year, for instance, I interviewed a girl and she told me that she had a twin brother who was the president of the Bronx High School of Science, which is a terrific school. So we contacted him too to get a scholarship. We’re really looking for leaders.
Scholars have tremendous opportunities to travel, to go to schools in different parts of the world, to attend leadership seminars. They’re receiving the best that private education and public education have to offer together. My goal is that they become the leaders of tomorrow.
Philanthropy: You’ve been very involved in medical funding in New York.
Robertson: We’re at work in all sorts of different areas. I’d love for you to see our beautiful operating theater for Sloan Kettering here that I gave in honor of my wife, who was a cancer victim. And we’re very involved in stem-cell research; we think that’s an important new frontier. We’re also big givers to Rockefeller University—a lot of people haven’t heard of it, but it should be a household byword. Rockefeller University alone has more Nobel laureates than all but six countries in the world. Isn’t that amazing?
Philanthropy: Who are some of your philanthropic heroes?
Robertson: I’d say Paul Tudor Jones. Steve Mandel, who comes from our Tiger Foundation. Oh and Eli Broad—he’s built more museums, done more for education, than just about anybody you’ll ever know.
New York has so many great philanthropists. I mean, George Soros, whose politics are totally different from mine, but, boy, is he a great philanthropist. Dan Loeb with Success Academies. Harlem Children’s Zone’s Geoffrey Canada and Stan Druckenmiller. They’re fabulous people who’ve done fabulous things and I’m so privileged to work with them.
Philanthropy: What do you think about leaving your wealth to your children? Is that a good idea or a bad idea? Do you plan to sunset your foundation?
Robertson: I’m not going to try to manage things from the grave. Hopefully my sons will want to continue to manage the foundation and will jointly work on it.
Parenting is a tough thing, and I think people ought to do it the way they see best. But I came from a giving family and I want my family to be giving. I have children that I’m really very proud of—one of them is a charter-school principal—they’re wonderful boys. I have great confidence that they will give away the money they’re given in an effective manner. And they’ll use some of it themselves, too.