|Prescott College Affiliation||Supporter|
In spring 2011, San Francisco Bay Area philanthropist Norman L. Traeger was awarded the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Humane Letters by Prescott College for his lifetime of philanthropic efforts and his service on the Prescott College Board of Trustees from 1996 through 2000.
“It’s not an understatement to say that Norm saved Prescott College,” said current board chair Richard Ach. “But his legacy is more meaningful than dollars and cents. He brought very helpful people to the board with him who put in place fiscal policies that we are still using and that have served us very, very well.”
Norman’s business savvy has been hard won through a lifetime of entrepreneurship. While still in college, he founded Varsity House Inc., an originator of the silkscreen sportswear industry. He is best known as the founder of United Skates of America, a chain of family fun centers, and the Discovery Group, a venture capital firm.
Since 2005, Norman has been a board member and primary fundraiser for the San Francisco Jewish Federation. As a member of the board of American Jewish World Services, he helped to quintuple their annual fundraising from $5 million to $25 million. Additionally, Norman and his wife, Carol, personally help fund a retention program through the Knowledge is Power Program for at-risk students in grades 3-8.
Norman’s degree is only the third honorary degree Prescott College has awarded in its 45-year history.
Why did you initially step up to be on the Prescott College Board of Trustees?
The why was very simple for me and also very selfish of me. The why was my son Josh (’97). This was his third college. He had spent a year at University of Denver, and a year at Boulder, and neither of those schools fit. He went to Prescott, and we were very skeptical … but we trusted his judgment, and he was immediately happy.
He called us around Thanksgiving [’95] and said that the school had announced that they were in a difficult financial position … and might not be able to stay open. Josh said that if they weren’t able to stay open that he would probably look for a job as opposed to going back to school. That wasn’t a high priority choice for my wife and me.
So I asked his permission to call the presidents; at that time there were two. I spoke to both of them; they described the problem.
Now, a lot of what I had done for my business life was work with small business, and I understood the cash flow issues of small businesses. After a few hours on various phone calls, it seemed to me the school’s problem was solvable if they had some cash to get through this rough patch.
Why did you offer your own personal funds?
I felt that the risk was minimal. The commitment was about $75,000, and unless I felt reasonably sure of getting something from that investment – that is, the school being able to keep the doors open longer than a couple years for Josh’s graduation – we would not have done it …
[But] the more we got involved with the staff, faculty, students, the more we understood that this was a very, very special place. I have heard on numerous occasions, both then and in the ensuing years, especially from parents, that “this school saved our child’s life” or “made such a fundamental difference in our child’s life.”
What other measures did you take?
The easy problem to solve was the short-term cash needs. The more challenging problem was the issue of governance. I recruited two friends from Columbus, Ohio, Tom Trip and Alan Wasserstrom … both terrific business people who had very sound ideas.
One of the first things we did was consolidate the executive position. For an institution the size of Prescott to have two presidents was already a recipe for disaster. In addition, we changed the composition of the board, limiting faculty, staff, and students to one seat each, and then worked very hard to recruit outside board members with a real interest in a more professional approach to the school’s governance.
Every school is an academy for learning, but also a business, and in Prescott College’s case – a small business. It was kind of easy for me to take on the business aspect and trust the academics to continue the tradition of education that they had started years ago.
What does this honorary degree mean to you?
That was the most difficult piece of this whole experience. I have tried over the years to limit the size of my ego, and I’m not real comfortable with honorary degrees … especially because I thought that there were, if not 100, at least 50 people who, over the years, did far more for Prescott College than I did. I accepted the honorary degree as kind of the face for all of the other people who did so much work to make sure that Prescott got to the place that it has gotten.
What compels you to help others?
You know, you don’t get to pick your parents, so you also don’t get to pick your genetic makeup. Some people are 6’ 3” with blue eyes and blonde hair, and I’ve always felt that if you’re a guy, that’s a good thing.
I wasn’t blessed with that. I was blessed with being 5’6” and having brown eyes, but I was lucky enough to be of at least average intelligence, with maybe a little bit more than average ambition. I was born into a family that was lower-middle America, that placed a value on education, that was not dysfunctional. Those are things that I had no control over.
In my business career, I happened to be sort of at the right time at the right place as a young man and got lucky on a couple of occasions. I do recognize that with luck you’ve also got to put in some hard work. But without that piece of luck some of the hardest-working people in the world make the least amount of money.
If you’re lucky enough to get a winning ticket in the lottery of life, it seems to me almost impossible to turn your back on those who were further back in the line and didn’t come up with quite the same seven numbers.
Your giving is focused in education, the Jewish community, and non-sectarian humanitarian aid. Why these particular causes/groups?
I’ve always gravitated to places and causes where I’ve felt I could move the ball a yard or two and make a difference … I am less concerned with the ballet, the opera and the symphony – all of which we enjoy – but they have their own patrons. It’s the homeless and the educationally disenfranchised who really need all the help they can get.
Would you say your long experience in entrepreneurship has helped shape your worldview?
There’s no question about it. That absolutely affected my view of how you can solve problems, not only in the business world, but in any organization. It’s certainly not a matter of being smart, but it is a matter of surviving and making a lot of mistakes and having a reasonable enough memory to remember what worked and what didn’t.
John F. Kennedy famously said, “Of those to whom much is given, much is required.” Do you agree?
I look to someone who, to my mind, is one of the major philanthropists of the past hundred years, and that’s Bill Gates. What I’m struck by is that Bill Gates could have been a popular hero if he just wrote big checks … there are a number of very wealthy people who do just that. They concentrate on building their wealth and they are generous, but with their money, not their time.
To me, what [Bill Gates] epitomizes is not just putting his money where his mouth is, but putting in the kind of brilliance that got him to be the second or third wealthiest person in the world, and applying that brilliance to his philanthropy. It’s not enough just to write a check, but you need to work hard to try to figure out these societal questions both in America and around the world.