“Unite with anybody to do right”: Charles Koch and Michael Lomax

"We are painfully aware that disagreement with those who hold differing points of view is now practically a blood sport, but we carry on in Frederick Douglass' legacy."

The following op-ed appeared in USAToday on October 17, 2016

Our unlikely alliance — the white, classical liberal chairman of Koch Industries and the black, modern liberal president of the United Negro College Fund (the country’s largest provider of scholarships to students of color), began with a quote hung on a wall in the offices of the Charles Koch Foundation. It was something the great abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass said 161 years ago: “I would unite with anybody to do right,” Douglass told the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society, “and with nobody to do wrong.”

In the years since that visit, we’ve discovered there are a number of things we don’t agree on. But what is rewarding is to see how often we agree.

Michael L. Lomax, president and CEO, UNCF
Michael L. Lomax, president and CEO, UNCF

During one meeting together, we discussed the June 2015 racially-motivated massacre in Charleston’s Mother Emanuel Church. Many of its victims were graduates of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), notably Allen University (a UNCF-member institution in Columbia, South Carolina). We were both moved by the response of Mother Emanuel’s pastor, Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, and his parishioners’ embrace of the stranger who invaded their sanctuary bent on this evil act. Their reaction reflected not only the deep religious values of their faith, but also the unique values of the institutions that educated these extraordinary people. We renewed our shared passion for education (Douglass called education the “pathway from slavery to freedom“), and its power to transform lives and build a stronger America. Taken together, we recognized the need to develop a greater appreciation of historically black colleges and universities and the students attending them.

For years, Georgia-Pacific (a Koch company) supported UNCF’s scholarship programs for HBCU students. At the same time, the Koch family had great success with a high school program they founded for at-risk students called Youth Entrepreneurs. In both instances, education was helping transform lives.

All this led to deeper dialogue over how our two organizations could make a lasting difference for young people. Our discussions culminated with the creation of the UNCF/Koch Scholars Program, which focuses on the power of principled entrepreneurship to drive progress and lead to a life of fulfillment for any individual, whatever their interest. Our goal is to give all students—regardless of who they are or where they come from—the opportunity to develop their talents in pursuit of a meaningful life.

UNCF-Koch Scholars Program
UNCF-Koch Scholars Program

View photos of the #UNCFKochScholars Program’s three-year partnership

$25 million grant (since expanded to $29 million) from Koch Industries and the Charles Koch Foundation enabled UNCF to provide opportunities for African American students interested in learning how principled entrepreneurship, economics and innovation contribute to the well-being of individuals, communities and society. In addition to their regular courses, students follow a faculty-driven curriculum that features case studies about entrepreneurs and innovations (including the many substantial contributions of African Americans). They are also provided with a year-round online community for academic, personal and professional mentorship, and an annual summit where scholars meet with their peers to explore the principles and skills that lead to success.

Students at LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis
Students at LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis

During the program’s first three application periods, we have received more than 3,000 applications for 177 slots. These came from students at 71 colleges, including 26 of UNCF’s 37 historically black colleges and universities.

The results to-date have been inspiring. Hunter Haymore is a rising sophomore at Spelman College (a UNCF-member institution). She was diagnosed at birth with sickle cell anemia. By the age of 11, Hunter had suffered three strokes, and at 14 had undergone chemotherapy that resulted in the loss of her hair. With the support of her parents, Hunter had to dig deep to realize that she was, in her own words, still “whole.” As a UNCF/Koch Scholar, she now plans to create a social enterprise to support children undergoing chemotherapy and give them the psychological and emotional encouragement they need—and that she received—to help them through this traumatic period.

Another scholar, Marcus White, was once homeless. Now he is a graduate of Georgia State University and is building a tax consulting firm.

These stories speak to the heart of what our program is about: helping students like Hunter and Marcus discover their unique value and potential to help others improve their lives.

The success of this program lies in our shared vision that a mind—and a life—is a terrible thing to waste. It is why our partnership’s ultimate goal is to give students the opportunity to explore the values and skills of an entrepreneur, and better understand how an entrepreneurial mindset will benefit both them and their communities.

We are painfully aware that disagreement with those who hold differing points of view is now practically a blood sport. We hope the example of two seemingly dissimilar leaders coming together to find common ground on a cause they believe in can be a powerful motivator for others.

In fact, one of the most meaningful outcomes of the UNCF/Koch Scholars Program is how our students embrace the opportunity to engage in constructive dialogue across differing lines of personal philosophy. By embracing Douglass’ “unite-with-anybody-to-do-right” spirit, our Scholars are gaining the knowledge necessary to assert their passion for entrepreneurship long after they earn their degrees. Regardless of their ultimate profession, they will emerge from college better equipped to improve the lives of others.

What is particularly gratifying about this program is the focus on our similarities rather than our differences. We agree on the principles that enable students to earn their success, realize their dreams and create value in society. We both believe an entrepreneurial mindset is at the heart of helping others. With courage, respect, integrity, humility, tolerance, mutual benefit and personal responsibility forming the foundation for learning, students are better positioned to develop their innate abilities and then encourage others to practice them as well.

By finding common and fruitful ground, as we have, others can surely join forces in their own ways to help provide opportunities like those that have meant so much to our scholars. It is high time that more people unite to do right.

Charles G. Koch is chairman and chief executive officer of Koch Industries. Michael L. Lomax is president and chief executive officer of the United Negro College Fund.