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Blackstone CEO makes historic donation to high school, says changes are needed to make schools safer

Julia La Roche

Billionaire Steve Schwarzman, the CEO of private equity giant Blackstone (BX), thinks that oftentimes it’s not enough to just donate money to schools. Rather, he thinks donations can be much more meaningful if they target specific efforts.

He recently made the largest-ever private donation to a public school, gifting $25 million to Abington High School in Pennsylvania. Schwarzman wants his donation specifically to help equip students with the right skills for the jobs of the future.

Furthermore, he sees an opportunity for donors to fund security, which is often lacking at schools. While discussing the need for safer learning environments, Schwarzman also made the case for tighter gun controls.

More than just giving money

This is not Schwarzman’s first time giving back to his school. About a decade ago, Schwarzman received a cold call from the school’s superintendent, Amy Sichel, about completing the athletic stadium, so he contributed the funds. More recently, Schwarzman got another call from Sichel, this time about providing $25 million as part of a $100 million renovation and expansion project. But he wanted to do more than just put up the funds.

“I wanted to make sure that every student had the best skills possible for the world we live in and the one where the world’s going to go,” Schwarzman told Yahoo Finance. “If they didn’t have those skills, then they won’t be able to get a good job, and they weren’t going to be able to provide for their families, and that’s what I cared about.”

Steve Schwarzman

For Schwarzman, technology is a paramount issue. As part of the deal for the donation, he wants to ensure that every student is required to take regular classes in computer science and coding beginning in the seventh grade. Blackstone is also one of the biggest employers in the U.S., with more than 500,000 employees at the firm’s different assets. As such, he thinks that every worker, from coders to machinists, needs to be prepared.

“[We’re] moving into like lifetime learning processes,” he said. “It’s a knowledge economy increasingly. And the U.S. has slipped dramatically in terms of our preparation, and we can’t do that anymore. It’s not optional. And each of us has to help out to make sure that each student in America who becomes each adult in America has these foundational skills so that they can play the game. Otherwise, we can’t afford to have people left behind. Plus, I mean most people don’t think this way, but just sort of morally, how do you leave people without the right skills to live in the modern world? You can’t do that. We can’t do that as a country.”

Changes need to be made in regulating firearms

Potential donors might even be interested in other things beyond technology curriculum, such as school security.

“I was just thinking when I was coming down for the interview one of the things that people are going to be interested in now is security at schools,” he said. “It’s basically not provided in a thorough way. And who’s got the money to spend on security? And if they don’t have the money, then they can’t spend it.”

Schwarzman acknowledged that regulating firearms is “complex territory in America.” Before entering Harvard Business School, Schwarzman spent time in the Army Reserves, where he was trained to use an assault rifle.

“We were trained then that nobody should have these types of weapons other than the military. And for some reason these have now proliferated,” he said.  “[I] think there’s going to have to be some complex of things done, whether it’s raising ages, dealing with access, certain types of enhancements. I think for the safety of society, there are going to need to be some changes made.”

“It’s fascinating watching the students sort of rise up and become more like the adults—and the adults not responding instantaneously. But, the message of those students, it’s pretty powerful. They’re scared to go to school,” he added. “It’s a changed world, so we’re going to have to do some things to make sure people feel safe and are safe.”

A paradigm shift in giving to schools

Approximately 90% of the students in the U.S. attend public schools. Though there isn’t much of a tradition of people giving money to their public schools. It’s more common to give to private schools, parochial schools, and universities. There needs to be a paradigm shift, says to Schwarzman.

Given his experience in building the world’s largest private equity firm, Schwarzman knows a thing or two about fundraising. That’s why he recently spoke to more than 3,000 superintendents, representing about 90% of the US public school systems, about how to ask for donations.

Blackstone CEO Steve Schwarzman sits down with Yahoo Finance’s Julia La Roche to discuss his contribution of $25 million to Abington High School, the largest ever private donation to a public school.

“If we can get the people who run these public schools, superintendents, to actually develop a function where they identify, go out—and it’s important that you market something that somebody wants to give to. Just giving to a school, in many cases, that’s just not enough” Schwarzman said.

He’s already seeing interest from other folks within his network.

“I got all kinds of emails from people with more normal resources, who said, ‘Geez I didn’t know you could do that. I want to do that.’ And I had a few CEOs say, ‘You know that is a great idea. I’m going to do that for my school in Michigan.’ And somebody else said, ‘I’m going to do that as well.’ And so just by knowing you can do this with one little news cycle, they’ll be bunches of money that will get unleashed,” Schwarzman said.

The student council president and star sprinter on his school’s state championship track team, Schwarzman graduated from Abington in 1965 before heading to Yale University. He’s now the 35th wealthiest person in the U.S.

Julia La Roche is a finance reporter at Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter.