In the first episode of its new “Doers to Donors” interview series, Philanthropy Roundtable President and CEO Elise Westhoff interviews Bernie Marcus, co-founder of The Home Depot. Marcus, who built the world’s largest home improvement retailer, also is a philanthropist devoted to a bevy of causes, including veterans’ mental health care, autism treatment and Jewish education, among other efforts. In this half-hour conversation, Westhoff and Marcus delve into his roots as the child of Russian-Jewish immigrants growing up in a tenement in New Jersey, his journey and subsequent successes in business, and his dedication to helping others and improving lives … a commitment that includes donating 90% of his wealth to charitable causes.
Veterans and Mental Health Treatment
One of Marcus’s key causes is helping veterans with mental health treatment, including suicide prevention – an interest that began when he read the story of a young service member suffering from a traumatic brain injury and spinal cord injury.
The veteran’s mother was able to relocate her son from a VA medical center, where he lay paralyzed, to the Shepherd Center, a private hospital in Atlanta.
“Within six weeks, he was walking with braces,” Marcus told Westhoff.
But with demand high, the Shepherd Center was unable to accommodate all the veterans seeking help.
“I said, ‘Let’s do something,’ and we started Operation Share. And pretty soon, we found that the real issue is the invisible one: that’s post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury,” he said.
That effort, the SHARE Military Initiative at Shepherd Center, has grown into a “comprehensive rehabilitation program” for service members diagnosed with conditions like traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress that “provides hope, assistance, support and education to service members and their families.”
Marcus also created the Marcus Institute for Brain Health at the University of Colorado, a program that has been expanded to other universities around the country.
“We have story after story of people that are ready to commit suicide and didn’t. They came to us, and now are able to earn a living, keep their families,” he said. “The only thing we’re lacking now are other philanthropists that we need desperately in cities … so we’re asking philanthropists to step up.”
In addition to these efforts, Marcus recently partnered with Home Depot co-founder Arthur Blank to support the Gary Sinise Foundation Avalon Network, which provides health and mental wellness care to veterans and first responders.
Autism Research and Treatment
Marcus also is deeply invested in the research and treatment of autism spectrum disorder, a condition he first learned about decades ago from one of his Home Depot employees.
“The young woman that worked for me had a child that had some very severe behavioral problems and things that we didn’t understand,” he said. “She didn’t know what it was, how to treat it. … And she introduced me to other families, and I saw that this was a dilemma that nobody was attacking.”
Marcus took the cause on as his own.
“We actually convinced Emory University in Atlanta to let us open up under the auspices of Emory an independent affiliate called the Marcus Autism Center,” he explained.
That was in 1991. Today, the center treats about 7,000 children a year and is a leader in “research, comprehensive testing and science-based treatments.”
One of those treatments is a device currently under FDA review that could help identify the disorder in children as young as three months old.
“You could begin treatments at the age of three months and actually change their lives, change their lifestyle,” he said. “This is going to be a big breakthrough.”
Beyond these causes, Marcus recently began an “ambitious new initiative that aims to help bring tens of thousands of Jewish teens from the U.S. to Israeli on immersive summer teen trips.”
That project, called RootOne, is an attempt to educate and connect Jewish-American teens with Israel and with their Jewish identities.
“I’m really worried about antisemitism,” Marcus said. “Today on campuses, it’s almost impossible for Jewish kids.”
He hopes RootOne, a program still in its infancy, will arm participants with knowledge about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as they meet with those on both sides of the issue.
“Knowing the facts is the best weapon you can have against antisemitism, especially on our campuses,” he said. “We will send about 4,000 kids this year. We’ll send about 8,000 next year. We hope to get to 12-15,000 and then up to 20,000.”