Jonathan Gray has had a good 2018: in February, the former head of Blackstone’s $119 billion (assets) real estate division was promoted to chief operating officer and president, 26 years after he started at the private equity giant. But his accomplishments are not only in business; Gray is also making his mark in philanthropy. He debuts at No. 49 on Forbes’ America’s Top 50 Givers list, having doled out $23 million in charitable donations in 2017. In total, he has given over $120 million in his lifetime, primarily to cancer research and health and education in New York City.
Gray traces his focus on education to his time at the University of Pennsylvania, where he majored in English and economics; he says his time there set the stage for the rest of his life. “I have a very simple bio,” says Gray, “My senior year in college, I met a girl in Romantic Poetry class, and a couple weeks later I got a job in finance at a small investment advisory firm.” The girl became his wife, Mindy Gray, and the small firm, Blackstone, grew into a mammoth entity that now manages $439 billion in assets.
The Illinois native first bumped into his future wife at their alma mater’s library during the first semester of their senior year, when both were writing a paper on Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela, then later met again at a Romantic Poetry class. Shortly thereafter, Gray received an offer to work as an analyst at Blackstone, which started as a boutique M&A advisory business in 1985. Then a political junkie, Gray was impressed by its top brass – cofounder Peter Peterson was Richard Nixon’s Commerce Secretary, and partner David Stockman served as Ronald Reagan’s budget director — and accepted the job over other offers from investment banks.
As Gray ascended to Blackstone cofounder Stephen Schwarzman’s No. 2 man, he started to focus on low-income kids in his adopted home city. He and his wife became involved with New York charter school organization Harlem Village Academies more than a decade ago, donating $10 million in 2012 to buy a building for a new elementary school, then founded the Gray Foundation in 2014. It has since funded everything from teens’ night at the Metropolitan Museum of Arts to school-based health clinics in the South Bronx. “We love the idea of giving these kids a better shot at the future,” says the father of four, who has given more than $40 million to education initiatives so far.
In 2016, the Grays partnered with the New York City government to launch NYC Kids RISE, a nonprofit aimed at helping families save for college. Their foundation donated $10 million to kick start the program, and its three-year pilot began in fall 2017 in a Queens school district that covers more than three dozen schools. Every kindergartner in the district automatically gets a $100 scholarship account (unless they opt out), and families can earn an additional $200 in rewards by completing certain incentives — for instance, open your own 529 college savings plan, and NYC Kids RISE will add $25 to your child’s scholarship account.
So far, more than 3,000 kids have participated, and the program will include 10,000 students by the end of the pilot. Along with managing the scholarship accounts, NYC Kids RISE also worked with the city’s Department of Education to create financial literacy workshops for schools. “I really wanted to help kids to aspire to get to college, because it was so formative in my own life,” explains Gray. According to NYC Kids RISE, research has shown that students with school savings of $1 to $500 are three times more likely to enroll in college, so it plans to expand the program citywide if the pilot is successful.
Another passion of the Grays is cancer research. Mindy’s older sister, Faith Basser, had a BRCA1 mutation — the Angelina Jolie gene mutation — and passed away from ovarian cancer at age 44. In 2012, the couple donated $25 million to the University of Pennsylvania to create the Basser Center for BRCA, which focuses on researching BRCA-related cancers and providing education and genetic counseling. “When we experienced the loss, there really wasn’t a central hub for research around these particular type of cancers,” says Gray, “A lot of families are affected, and we could make lives easier for these families.”
Gray has since donated $30 million more to the Basser Center, and over $25 million to other BRCA-related research, including $1.5 million this June to the Dana Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School to develop non-surgical alternatives that reduce breast cancer risk for women with BRCA1 mutation. “I love to be a high conviction investor. Find a theme we believe in, hire a talented management team and go all in,” Gray says. “That’s very similar to what we like to do here. Mindy and I identify something we really believe in, get a great group, and put a lot of resources behind it.”
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