Recently, Fernando De Leon sat down to talk about the De Leon Scholars Program, its purpose, and his plan for expanding it.
What was the problem you wanted to solve that motivated you to establish the De Leon Scholars Program?
Something that philanthropists may not readily admit is that they are prime beneficiaries of capitalism and social stability. When governments are stable they create prosperity and advancement for people. Some of us that develop products and services that society wants, benefit and prosper disproportionately. As an immigrant and disproportionate beneficiary of the American system, I have a unique vantage point with which to identify and support talented young students in their career trajectory. The De Leon Scholars Program is one mosaic in our effort to do that.
What differentiates the program from other scholarship/grant opportunities?
People that are in a position to make these judgements are all fallible. Making decisions about who receives support for education, or for their professional pursuits is somewhat arbitrary. Few will admit that, but it’s true. Life is a little bit of a crap shoot. I’d like the De Leon Scholars to be in a position to identify great people that others may not have identified. Some of them will be contrarian, some will strict institutionalists, and hopefully our resources will allow them to make substantive impact.
If you have a board at a corporate foundation that is composed of say politicians, corporate bureaucrats, or professional board members, they’ll inevitably decide what they’ll decide. Hopefully, the people I’ve brought together to support the De Leon Scholars Foundation such as Todd Graves who founded a $5 billion restaurant called Raising Canes, Emmitt Smith who is one of the greatest athletes of all time, or Imran Khan who led the Ali Baba IPO and is a Bangladeshi immigrant, will help Patricia and I identify people that can make the world we live in a little better.
What is your vision for the program?
I was a recipient of the Coca Cola Scholars Foundation scholarship. They award 50 scholarships annually. I’d like our program to rival them in the medium term. Warren Buffet famously said he invested in Coca Cola 40 years ago because it’s a brand that can be run by a ham sandwich. Competition is good for everyone, and hopefully we can do this a little better than corporate foundations.
Talk about your family’s connection to Alcuin; how long you’ve been here and why you’ve stayed
We’ve been there for about 10 years. We have four kids there because Patricia and I adamantly believe in self-guided instruction. As someone that studied elementary school in two countries simultaneously, along the Mexico-U.S. border, I believe in self-guided everything. Montessori is a didactic system that is a lot more appropriate for the 21st century economy than conventional teaching systems.
Why did you choose Alcuin as a place to expand the De Leon Scholars Program?
Familiarity with the school’s leadership. Walter Sorensen, Luanne Samuel and everyone at Alcuin that has their heart in the right place trying to nurture global citizens. Over time as the program grows, there should be significantly more feeder schools that send us applicants.
What are your aspirations for students who become recipients of the scholarship?
That we support them with our network of friends around the world and eventually that they develop into fulfilled and happy human beings. Along the way, I bet we’ll have a lot of fun doing this, we’ll learn a lot, and we’ll develop ideas that merit advancement.
As a member of Harvard University’s admissions board, you have the opportunity to interact with high school seniors here in the United States and around the world. What have you observed about Alcuin seniors that sets them apart?
Generally speaking, Alcuin seniors seem to be very comfortable in their own skin. Their environment seems to make them open to divergent ideas, which ultimately creates a certain worldliness about them.