Sandy Weill's Gift of Optimism

"Philanthropy is not just about giving money away," says the former Citigroup CEO about committing time, energy, and passion as well as money

Sandy Weill may have retired from Citigroup in April, but his days as chairman are hardly over. Weill, former chief executive officer and chairman emeritus of Citigroup, chairs three large nonprofit organizations, and he and his wife, Joanie, have given away at least a half-billion dollars of their personal fortune.

Weill is so passionate about his programs that even his spacious Manhattan office feels cozy when you get him talking about the young people he has helped over the years through the National Academy Foundation, a public-private partnership he created to introduce inner-city high school students to industries such as finance and hospitality through career-themed academies, internships, and mentors. Their photos peek out from among the personal memorabilia adorning his walls and bookshelves.

Although Weill has given away more than $200 million since 2002, his efforts are more about being hands-on than giving handouts. Dressed in Citigroup's (C) signature umbrella-patterned necktie, the 73-year-old dealmaker spoke with's Bremen Leak about his charitable work from Brooklyn to Bugando, his friendship with Yo-Yo Ma, and the issues he has tackled since stepping down from the world's largest bank earlier this year. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:

You helped forge one of the most successful and long-lasting partnerships between corporations and inner-city schools when you founded the National Academy Foundation. How did you develop the model?

In the 1980s I would drive around New York City, and I would see kids on the street. New York was in danger of having many large companies—including financial services companies—leave. High school education had to be reformed, so I went to [then New York City Schools Chancellor] Frank Macchiarola. I also reached out to Sandy Feldman, who was the No. 2 at the Teacher's Union at the time. [Feldman subsequently became the head of the Teacher's Union.]

In 1982, NAF was born at John Dewey High School in Brooklyn. The Academy of Finance was first. Travel & Tourism came about as a result of American Express' involvement in the 1980s. And our IT academy was the result of a breakfast I put together in 1999 that raised $8 million. Education is really the key that can unlock the door to a person's future.

So you use your business connections to help with philanthropy?

I use whatever connections I have anywhere and everywhere.

Your education reform efforts fall in line somewhat with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Have you worked with the Gateses?

About six months ago, NAF received a grant from the Gates Foundation, which my wife and I matched. [The two grants amounted to $10 million.] This is an exciting new partnership. I really respect Bill and Melinda Gates. I also think it is terrific what Warren Buffett did [in pledging the bulk of his fortune to the foundation]. The Gates Foundation will really make a difference.

Do you plan to collaborate with the Gates Foundation again?

Yes, I look forward to continuing to work with them.

Where does NAF stand today?

We're currently in 40 states, including the District of Columbia, and have more than 500 career-themed academies— in finance, hospitality and tourism, and information technology. We're thinking about launching a new one in engineering, since only 13% of engineers are women and fewer than 5% are minorities.

Ninety percent of NAF's students graduate, with most going on to post-secondary education, often as the first in their families to attend college. The national average is about 60% of students that graduate from high school. NAF has gone global, too. We're now in Britain and Ireland.

And the other large nonprofits you chair?

The Weill Cornell Medical College has gone global, too. Our aim is to try to bridge the cultural divide.

We started a medical school in Doha, Qatar, over five years ago, and they have the same curriculum as our students in New York. These students are doing very well, and they come from all over—Bosnia, Qatar, Iraq. We are also helping develop a medical school in Bugando, Tanzania.

At Carnegie Hall, I have been chairman since 1991. Music is really a universal language that brings people together. We work with artists and students from all over the world. We have started a new, exciting partnership with the Julliard School.

That sounds like a very hands-on approach.

Philanthropy is not about just giving away money. What's more important is the energy, time, passion, and brains that one devotes.

Do you consider yourself an evangelist when it comes to philanthropy?

That depends on what you mean when you say an evangelist. When you say that, is it a good or bad thing? Good, right?


Yes, then. I consider myself an evangelist if it's based on facts and substance.

What are the most satisfying experiences you've had as a philanthropist?

The most satisfying have been going to NAF graduations. These kids are really special. Two NAF academies—one from New Jersey and one from Louisiana—recently got together at my office. The New Jersey academy adopted the academy from New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. They helped them get through this difficult time. It was really great to see, and the kids from New Orleans and New Jersey will never forget it. And neither will I.

I also participated in the first "White Coat" ceremony at the Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar [an initiation rite in which participants don white coats and officially assume the mantle of the medical student]. This is the same ceremony that happens here in New York for new medical students.

And I really enjoy working with musicians and young people. I have especially enjoyed getting to know Yo-Yo Ma and Lang Lang. They are both good friends who are very focused on giving back to a world that has been so good to them.

Any disappointments along the way?

As far as disappointments go, I am not one to dwell on the past. I am an optimist. I don't always go to bed at night an optimist, but I wake up as one. I am a tenacious person by nature and I think you can learn a lot from mistakes—especially if you surface them early. I have always looked at change as opportunity.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.