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August 18, 2014

Leon Cooperman ’67: Philanthropy Is Our Moral Imperative

Cooperman spoke about his personal commitment to philanthropy at Columbia Business School’s 2014 Annual Dinner, where he was honored with the Distinguished Leadership in Business Award.


On May 5, the School recognized Leon Cooperman ’67, chairman and CEO of Omega Advisors and a member of the School’s Board of Overseers, with the Distinguished Leadership in Business Award at the School’s 2014 Annual Dinner.

Cooperman and his wife, Toby, are active philanthropists who have taken the Giving Pledge advocated by Warren Buffett ’51 and Bill Gates, a call for billionaires around the world to give the majority of their fortunes to charitable causes. A longtime supporter of Columbia Business School, Cooperman pledged a gift of $25 million in 2012 to support the construction of the School’s new home in Manhattanville. In 2007, he established the Cooperman Scholarship Challenge, which helped to create more than 40 need-based scholarships. He also created the Leon Cooperman Scholarship in 2000 to support students who need financial assistance, with preference given to graduates of New York City public schools. In 1995, he endowed the Leon G. Cooperman Professorship of Finance and Economics, a chair held by Professor Geert Bekaert since 2000.

At the dinner, Cooperman spoke about his personal commitment to philanthropy. An edited excerpt follows.

Governor Cuomo, President Bollinger, Dean Hubbard, and friends: my heartfelt appreciation for this wonderful honor you’re bestowing on me this evening. But if truth be told, I feel it would be more appropriate for me to be honoring Columbia, for all that it’s done for me in my life and career, than the other way around.

I came here in 1965 with a BA degree, with a major in chemistry and a minor in math and physics from Hunter College. I have a very soft spot for Hunter, which not only taught me the language of science but also introduced me to my wife of 50 years, Toby, which alone would have been worth the price of admission. But it was Columbia that changed my life professionally, setting me on a course that I’m still on almost 50 years later. For it was here that I learned the language of business and the fundamental principles that have guided my career. It was one of my Columbia professors, Jack Zwick, who reached out to a friend who headed up the research department at Goldman Sachs and recommended me for my first job on Wall Street — a fortuitous introduction that led to a 25-year career at a firm that, without my Columbia degree and a kind professor’s helping hand, probably wouldn’t have interviewed me.

I should add that Columbia, while it might not have introduced me to the love of my life, did introduce me to two classmates who became lifelong friends, Mario Gabelli ’67 and Art Samberg ’67, both of whom are with us tonight. So for all that, and the fact that being a student is a lot easier a job than working in the real world, I owe this school a great deal.

In describing my views on my own life and on philanthropy, I cannot do better than quote from a letter I wrote about three years ago to Warren Buffett ’51 following a dinner I had with him, and Bill and Melinda Gates, at Mike Bloomberg’s house. In truncated form, here’s what I said:

I am the son of a plumber who practiced his trade in the South Bronx. I am the first-generation American born in my family, as well as the first to get a college degree. My education is largely public-school-based: public grade school, high school, and college, all in the Bronx. I had a short stint at Columbia Business School, where I earned an MBA, which opened the door for me to Goldman Sachs. I joined the firm the day after graduation, as I had a National Defense Education Act student loan to repay, no money in the bank, and a six-month-old child to support. I had a near-25-year run of happiness and good fortune at Goldman. The last 19 years at Omega have also been ones of happiness and good fortune, with a few bumps along the way. While I worked hard, I must say I had more than my share of good luck.

Toby and I feel it is our moral imperative to give others the opportunity to pursue the American Dream by sharing our financial success. The case for philanthropy has been stated by others in words that have impressed me. In the early 1900s, Andrew Carnegie said, “He who dies rich, dies disgraced.” In the 1930s, Sir Winston Churchill observed, “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy, in his inaugural address, stated, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country”. And well before any of these gentlemen expressed their thoughts, it was written in the Talmud that “A man’s worth is measured not by what he earns, but rather by what he gives away.”

The fact that Toby and I are even candidates for Mr. Buffett’s now-famous Giving Pledge, and that I am standing here this evening being honored by you all, is eloquent testament to the American Dream.

I would close these remarks by admonishing today’s students to attend to the wise counsel of William Arthur Ward:

Before you speak, listen.
Before you write, think.
Before you spend, earn.
Before you invest, investigate.
Before you criticize, wait.
Before you pray, forgive.
Before you quit, try.
Before you retire, save.
Before you die, give.

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