A Conversation with George Weiss, Chairman of Weiss Multi-Strategy Advisers LLC, Founder of Say Yes to Education and the Orphan Disease Pathway Project

There are those who seek to do good in this world. Those who succeed in making an impact in the lives of others. Those who have dedicated themselves to philanthropy.

And then there is George Weiss. At a first glance, George is simply an incredibly successful financier who started his career in the 1960s as a stock broker after graduating from The Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania. Forty years on and Weiss’ investment firm is a well-established name, but George’s reputation goes beyond that of an astute businessman; his steady commitment to philanthropy springing from a deep conviction of responsibility is truly what sets him apart.

What makes Weiss’ story remarkable is whereas most Philanthropists have one area to which they’ve dedicated their life’s work, Weiss has several. His Say Yes to Education program has given more than a hundred thousand disadvantaged youths a real chance in life throughout its 30-year history. The program is arguably the most successful educational support program in the United States, including anything put forward by the Federal Department of Education.

Weiss went on to create the Orphan Disease Pathway Project dedicated to undertaking research for diseases deemed to be too rare or affecting too few people to interest the large pharmaceutical companies.

By his own admission, the majority of his time these days is spent on yet a third cause – curing cancer. Weiss believes, and is supported by many in this conviction, that work being conducted at the University of Pennsylvania has made one of the most significant breakthroughs in this area in medical history. The research is significant enough to pique the interest of Former Vice-President Joe Biden who is continuing his work on cancer issues.

George sat down with Tharawat Magazine to discuss his life in business and why to him philanthropy is an attitude that permeates all of his actions.

Perhaps we should start at the beginning, how did you get your start in the world of high finance?

I started out as a stockbroker in 1965. I had a very creative mind that always thought of new things. I was given an opportunity in 1971 to work with a group of institutions and I ended up developing a strategy that proved incredibly successful and consisted in buying one stock and shorting another. From this sprang a trend that started in the early 1980s, market neutral, and a lot of people credit me with starting that strategy. In 1978, I opened my own firm with some insurance company clients I had been working with along with five banks. I always ran operations focused on making money regardless of the direction of the market and not losing money because it was in effect corporate cash. This is the same mentality that I have today in my own firm, which next year, will be 40 years old.

Was getting involved in philanthropic efforts something you sought out or did it find you?

It really happened when I was a sophomore at Penn. I was paying my own way through college and they asked us at my fraternity to host a holiday party for a group of inner-city kids. They were of Irish and Italian descent. I was 19 and they were 12 years of age. I befriended these kids. I kept in regular contact with them throughout the years and one day in my late twenties, I organised a lunch for them and all twelve showed up. We were talking and it came up how all of them graduated high school. I’m a pretty emotional guy and I started getting emotional as one of the guys turned to me and he said ‘George we couldn’t have looked you in the eye if we had dropped out of school.’ So that’s when I realised that I wanted to do something philanthropic. I made a pact right there and then with God that if he ever gave me the financial means to make a difference in this world, I would do it and I would do it through education first.

PHILANTHROPY: The Remarkable Philanthropic Life of George Weiss
Image courtesy of George Weiss

What were the first steps in putting Say Yes to Education into practice?

A little over 30 years ago I started reading what Eugene Lang had done with the “I Have a Dream” program and what he was doing really struck me. So I sat down with the President of Penn and he said he would put the full resources of the University behind a project like this. That got me excited because the one thing that you know in finance and business is the word leverage. Penn offered to partner with Say Yes and give my kids free medical care, free dental care, tutors, free access to sporting events, and free psychiatric care. All at no cost. At one point, I calculated that I was getting eight times leverage for my invested dollar which is really important because it allows you to do more good.

What were those early days like?

We took a group of 112 young men and women at the end of the sixth grade from the Belmont school in West Philadelphia and that was the first group for Say Yes to Education. I still love them and I talk to them regularly, but they were a tough group. We had these kids tested and found that many of them read at a second-grade level, when they were seventh graders. We really had to work together. The kids were sexually active, they were involved in drug dealing but when we look at the data, 62% of these kids ended up graduating from high school after becoming part of our programs as opposed to 28% which was the average rate the year before. We opened chapters in Hartford, CT and Boston, MA and the success ratio ended up getting better and better because we learned that we had to start with younger children. We started with fifth-graders and then third-graders and ultimately offered the program to kindergarteners because if the kids don’t get a chance to learn how to read early on, they won’t be productive members of society.

How did the program evolve over the years?

We came to New York City to start a program in Harlem, and we met with Arthur Levine who was President of the Columbia’s Teachers College and he said ‘George what you’re doing is great but it’s a one-off’. He explained that inner city kids used to aspire to get out of the hood and get a real career, now that’s gone and any good math student just becomes a drug dealer. We decided to change our philosophy and we took on five schools within proximity of Columbia to try to change the neighbourhood. We not only included the child but involved siblings and parents into various activities. These kids have done so well, there were only two teenage pregnancies, none of our kids have been convicted of any crime, and we have 12 kids who are applying to Ivy League colleges because we started them younger in the program. Then in 2007 we brought in Mary Anne Schmitt-Carey as President of Say Yes to Education. She came up with a citywide approach which saw us partner with the New York State cities of Syracuseand Buffalo, as well as Guilford County, North Carolina. She took us from 900 to 22,000 participants in her first year and we now have 137,000 kids in the various programs. We also work with 103 private colleges in the U.S. that offer our kids free tuition. And that is huge, it’s about hope, it’s about incentive. We started with Penn and Syracuse University and we now have all the Ivy League schools, Notre Dame, Duke, Vanderbilt, USC, Stanford, Georgetown, George Washington, Rice, all of these great schools that are standing up to say they want to help these kids. So it’s a huge incentive.

What does the future have in store for Say Yes to Education?

We’re working on a centre concept where all the cities, and there are over 100 that want to be the next ‘Say Yes’ city, can come to us and we will work with them on how to adapt a ‘Say Yes model’. If these cities adhere to the model, if they do the things that they say they’re going to do, after about a three-year period the private colleges partnering with us will offer their kids free education. Hopefully in the future we can report that there are millions of kids that we’re helping.

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PHILANTHROPY: The Remarkable Philanthropic Life of George Weiss
Image courtesy of George Weiss

How did your work with the Orphan Disease Pathway Project come about?

I had a family member that came down with an orphan disease in 2010 and I was pretty angry when this happened to me, quite frankly. Because I try to do a lot of good in this world and then at age 67 you get hit in the stomach. One of my friends said to me, which I didn’t like hearing at the time, ‘This is your destiny’. I didn’t like thinking of it that way but I do have the ability to raise money and to galvanise people to work together. So I threw the idea out to Penn and started the Orphan Disease Centre.

Can you tell us a bit about how the Centre operates?

The centre is headed up by Dr. Jim Wilson who is widely-recognized as one of the world’s leading authorities on gene therapy. There are six floors of research where he has 250 scientists working for him and he takes on only diseases that he thinks he can help cure. The centre is now taking on ALS which I believe is the fourth disease that they are tackling. We’re helping 27 orphan disease organizations raise money but more importantly, we set up scientific committees to review the grants and make sure the money is going to the best science and that the scientists are going to do what they say they’re going to do.

How did you get involved with the battle to cure Cancer?

I have no cancer in my family but with my skill set of bringing people together, I see an opportunity to help. It is such a global problem. I learned about Professor Carl June who is doing some amazing work with T-cell treatments at Penn. Different scientists I know have said Carl June’s work is one of the four biggest medical breakthroughs of all time. It’s been said that because of his work, Penn is about a year and a half ahead of everybody else. His treatment consists of taking your blood, re-engineering your T-cells and then putting them back into your body to fight cancer. It’s going to be FDA approved relatively soon but the data is unbelievable. All the kids in the test group were dying from cancer- without hope. After this treatment, 80% were cancer free. In the adult patients who have had this treatment, Penn is seeing 80-90% response rates. Imagine that- going from no options to cancer free after a blood transfusion. But what else is really exciting about his science is that it’s applicable to different types of cancers, whether it’s brain, prostate, lymphoma, melanoma, or many others.

Do you feel significant progress is being made towards finding more cures?

No question. Michael Milken held a huge cancer fundraiser in New York City. Sean Parker, one of the Facebook co-founders did something interesting, he gave $250 million to get six academic centres to work together in the field of immunology on the condition they share research and data. One of the Parker Foundation’s lead gifts was to Penn to create the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy under Carl June’s direction. When former Vice-President Joe Biden set out to help find a cure, his first stop was to see Carl June.

Is there one key message you feel this sends out to those who will be fighting this disease either now or in the future?

Let me tell you this story. We had an incident where Penn was making an announcement about new trials in cancer immunotherapy and one woman from Florida and one from California showed up at Penn’s door. They had not originally been part of the trial but they were both in their 50s and dying. They pounded on the door and wouldn’t take no for an answer. Penn listened and they turned out to be acceptable candidates, they ended up getting the treatment and now they’re both cancer-free. There’s so much cutting-edge research going on and the latest results have been so positive, the message this should send out to everyone is that there is hope.

PHILANTHROPY: The Remarkable Philanthropic Life of George Weiss
Image courtesy of George Weiss

When you look back on it after all of these years, is there anything that stands out for you in terms of legacy or accomplishment?

One of the things that greatly impressed me is that both of my daughters were really impacted by Say Yes. Both of my daughters were brought up very non-materialistically. So when I founded Say Yes, I got them involved so they could see what you could do with money. My oldest daughter has gotten involved with a group called Protect. They hired 40 wounded veterans and train them on the computers so they can help local police identify pedophiles. My daughter has gone on two raids with police when they made arrests. This is an issue that is near and dear to my daughter’s heart and that’s her passion. As a father, I am extremely proud of that.

Can you give our readership some advice on how they can identify a worthwhile cause and have a lasting philanthropic impact?

The advice I would give is you’ve got to leave your ego at the door. Too many people are doing it partly for the right reasons but it is all about it being their show. Also, keep in mind that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. There are so many good things out there that are working. The thing that pleases me the most is when you meet somebody and you just know that they’re pure of heart and you can combine forces to do incredible things. So the message is when something is working, don’t try to duplicate it – be a part of it.