In this edition of Five Questions for Good, Amy Stursberg, Executive Director of the Blackstone Charitable Foundation, sat down with Jon Gray, Blackstone’s President & COO, to discuss his philanthropic efforts, including supporting BRCA cancer research and prevention, and expanding access to education, healthcare and opportunity for underserved children in New York City.
Amy Stursberg: You established the Gray Foundation with your wife Mindy. What inspired you to put infrastructure and resources around your philanthropy?
From the start, Mindy and I had a big ambition to have an impact, but we recognized that we needed to be deliberate in our giving in order to be most effective. We knew the areas about which we are most passionate – BRCA cancer research as well as access to education, healthcare and opportunity for low income children in New York City – and we wanted to be strategic about our work in these areas. We hired Dana Zucker, a leader who had been working in the non-profit world for years, to run our Foundation; we committed significant resources to make this impact possible; and were willing to jump in, take some risks and learn as we went. Just as I’ve seen at Blackstone, being thoughtful about building the right organization was essential in leveraging our effectiveness.
AS: I would like to dive right in to your Foundation’s mission and the cause areas you care about. One major focus of your work has been on improving BRCA-related prevention and treatment strategies. Tell me a bit about what led you to this work in cancer research, and what you’ve achieved thus far.
JG: Like many others, we got involved in cancer research through personal loss. Mindy lost her sister, Faith, at age 44 to a BRCA related ovarian cancer. BRCA is a genetic mutation that is passed down in families and gives women, in particular, a very high incidence of breast and ovarian cancer.
After Faith’s passing, we knew we wanted to do something to help other families so they wouldn’t have to suffer as we did. We began supporting organizations working in the BRCA field, but we were a bit dissatisfied. It felt like people who were doing work in this area were not connected and not communicating with one another. We wanted to create a central hub to raise awareness about BRCA related cancers, to collect data, and to treat patients. Ultimately, we chose to establish this center – now called the Basser Center in honor of Mindy’s sister – at the University of Pennsylvania.
Under the leadership of Susan Domchek, the Basser Center has made great progress. We're actively raising awareness and encouraging individuals to explore their family history. We’re learning more about where these cancers originate, developing more effective treatment options and working on prevention interventions. It’s especially exciting that while our work is hyper focused on this specific genetic mutation, some of the treatments that we are discovering have great benefits for treating other cancers, as well.
Obviously, it is not enough yet. Until we can truly eradicate this, we won't be satisfied. But to us, it's a great example of really focusing on a cause, believing in it, and the benefit of going all-in.
AS: Your foundation also focuses on supporting underserved youth in New York City. Under these programs, you have supported, or in some cases, started a number of really innovative programs within existing organizations - and you’ve seen tremendous results. How did you get involved in this work?
JG: We have four daughters of our own. We saw the stark contrast between the abundance of opportunity they have and the almost complete lack of opportunity kids who live less than a mile away have. This disparity didn’t feel right to us, and we wanted to focus our philanthropy on leveling the playing field and providing more opportunity to our neighbors in need. Again, the idea was not to boil the ocean, but to focus on something targeted and deeply personal.
We’ve found that partnering with established organizations has allowed us to leverage existing infrastructures and pilot new models to support underserved youth in New York City. In partnership with Montefiore, for example, we provided start-up capital for school-based health clinics in schools throughout the Bronx. In partnership with Central Park, we’ve funded a new program to rehabilitate parks throughout Harlem. Recently, in partnership with the NYC Department of Education, we launched a program called “NYC Kids RISE” to encourage savings for low income kids in New York City. For this program, we created children's savings accounts for 10,000 kids in Queens. We put a hundred dollars in a college savings account (with several hundred in future matching dollars) to encourage students and their families to save further. The idea is to promote savings, teach financial literacy, and provide a path for more children to attend college.
Across this portfolio of work, we’ve found that our special sauce is in partnering with proven institutions to pilot new initiatives that push traditional boundaries. We work with some of NYC’s leading organizations to create and fund programs that they would otherwise be unable to tackle on their own. We know we can’t do it all ourselves, but our hope is to build programs and models that can then be leveraged by others across the city and country and replicated at scale.
AS: What’s one lesson you’ve learned from business that you apply to your philanthropy?
JG: Throughout my career at Blackstone, I have been a high conviction investor. In my experience, when I allocate capital towards things I don't understand or we are not actively overseeing, we have had less success. But when I focus and believe in something, and when I put my chips all in on something, I have found great success. I believe that the same is true in philanthropy. I’ve found that in order to have the greatest impact, you must identify something that you believe in, and put not just money, but your time, effort, and energy behind that cause or organization.
I also believe that as you dive deep, philanthropy can expand your world view. Through the process of setting up the Basser Center, we learned a massive amount about cancer research. Through our support of Penn, Weill Cornell, Memorial Sloan-Kettering, and Johns Hopkins, I’ve met with amazing scientists and researchers. Later, when, Blackstone’s real estate business stumbled on a large life science office company called BioMed I had a deep knowledge of, and enthusiasm for, what was happening in immune therapy and precision medicine, which ultimately informed a business decision. I’m proud of our work with BioMed, because I know it is not just a good investment decision, but also profoundly impacting the lives of many patients.
AS: Do you have any advice for employees at Blackstone?
JG: Find something you are passionate about and get involved. You have skills, experience and a network to offer and your contribution will absolutely make a difference. If you can combine philanthropy and civic engagement with your family, you should. My wife and my four daughters are all involved, and whether you’re volunteering, making site visits, or debating the outcomes of a program at the dinner table, it is a great way to spend time together
The work of our Foundation has really become a shared passion, and I truly view that as a great gift.