Promise Delivered: Alumnus makes largest gift in RIT history
A. Sue Weisler
Austin McChord ’09 (bioinformatics) and former RIT President Bill Destler were discussing the upward trajectories of both RIT and McChord’s company, Datto, a few years ago when Destler issued a challenge.
“He said, ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be great if you could give back to RIT in a really big way,’” McChord said. “And so he set out a math formula for me that if I did well, it would be some percentage. And I was like, ‘OK what if it goes really well? I’m going to cap it.’”
And that’s what happened. Late last year, Datto was acquired by Vista Equity Partners and merged with Autotask Corp. McChord is CEO of the new company, which has about 1,400 employees with offices in nine countries.
On Dec. 13, RIT announced that McChord is giving RIT $50 million, the largest donation ever made to the university and the cap that McChord and Destler set that day.
The gift makes McChord one of America’s 50 largest charitable donors in 2017, according to a list compiled by The Chronicle of Philanthropy. McChord is ranked 39th. Bill and Melinda Gates are first.
“I’m incredibly proud to have the opportunity to make a gift like this,” McChord said. “Bill had challenged me to make a big gift to RIT, and I was up for that challenge. Today, I get to actually fulfill on that and deliver.”
The gift will be used in two major areas:
- $30 million to foster creativity and entre- ––preneurship, including $17.5 million to launch the Maker Library & Innovative Learning Complex of the Future. This will include renovations and a new facility connecting RIT’s Wallace Library and the Student Alumni Union. Additional funding will go toward purchasing equipment and endowing faculty positions and student scholarships, including new “Entrepreneurial Gap Year” fellowships to help students advance their concepts into businesses.
- $20 million to advance RIT’s cyber–security and artificial intelligence capabilities. This funding will be used to expand facilities, as well as to establish endowments to attract and retain exceptional faculty and graduate students, primarily in the B. Thomas Golisano College of Computing and Information Sciences, the largest of RIT’s nine colleges.
McChord, an RIT trustee, said he gave the gift for two reasons. “I think that No. 1 it is an opportunity to give back to RIT. My success wouldn’t have been possible without the time I spent at RIT.”
And second, he wants to make more resources, such as the Maker Library, available to students so they can build and innovate for the future.
McChord founded Datto, a global provider of Total Data Protection Solutions, in 2007. Starting with an idea he had while a student at RIT, McChord created the company in the basement of his father’s office building using $80,000 in credit card debt.
“I left RIT and moved home to Connecticut,” McChord said in 2017 when he was the keynote speaker at RIT’s commence–ment. “I drew up a one-page business plan with the best possible case my company could someday be worth $100,000 and I would sell it to buy a sports car, an Audi R8.”
His success did not come quickly or easily. His first product contained multiple pieces of Legos and hot glue. In the beginning, McChord said, he was never more than a few weeks away from going out of business.
A pivotal point for Datto came in 2013 when a major security firm made an offer to buy the company for $100 million. He turned it down.
“I’ll be honest: It was hard not to think of tropical islands, cool cars and the life of sweet leisure that kind of money can buy,” McChord told Business Insider. “But I quickly regained my composure and thought not about myself but about what’s best for the company. And at $100 million, I realized, the company was actually undervalued.”
Datto appeared on the coveted Inc. 500 list of fastest growing private companies in 2012, 2013 and 2014.
In 2014, Datto opened a branch in downtown Rochester, becoming the first company in the region to join the state’s START-UP NY program. Datto has grown to more than 200 employees in Rochester, and McChord said he expects the company’s Rochester operations to continue to grow.
In 2015, the company became Connecticut’s most valuable start-up, with a valuation in excess of $1 billion.
McChord’s business success has earned him several honors. The holder of several patents, McChord was named to the Forbes 30 Under 30 list in 2015 as a leader in Enterprise Technology and won the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year New York Region Award in 2016.
Paying it forward
McChord said he has learned that taking time to recognize those who have helped him along the way is one of the most important and grounding things he can do.
“You can never be too thankful,” he told the graduating students in 2017.
McChord has been an active alumnus of RIT, serving as a frequent keynote speaker at events, including Venture Creations graduation and the annual Entrepreneurship Conference.
Datto has sponsored events such as RIT48, an entrepreneurship competition, and hackathons, and McChord has given of his time as a mentor in the Saunders Summer Startup program, an intense program aimed at assisting entrepreneurs/innovators in developing their business concepts to a point where they are ready to begin to seek angel investment.
“One of the exciting things about being an RIT alumnus is that it truly is a university on the move. It’s growing and is looking at changing its position in the world,” he said. “I would love to see RIT continue to climb the ranks and get more recognition. I think this donation will help with that.”
RIT President David Munson said campus leadership is currently engaged in planning what’s next for the entrepreneurship and cybersecurity initiatives.
“We are so proud of Austin. He was passionate about his idea and he turned it into a big success,” Munson said. “This embodies the creative element that we want to further highlight at RIT. Every student can be involved in creating things that never before existed, and then putting the result into play. His investment in RIT will help our students and faculty make their mark on the world.”
Quarters, football, canceling finals? Nope!
The guesses started streaming in after RIT officials said there would be historic news announced on Dec. 13.
“RIT will be switching back to quarters.”
“We are getting a football team.”
“The school colors are changing.”
Students, faculty, staff and alumni gasped and then cheered when they heard the real announcement: A 2009 alumnus is giving RIT $50 million, the largest gift ever made to the university and one of the largest ever in the region.
Here are a few other guesses that were shared on social media:
- RIT is being relabeled as an Ivy League university.
- Making a duplicate of The Sentinel.
- They’re changing all the school signage to Comic Sans.
- Extra-large pasta bakes at the Ritz.
- Still waiting on a graduate program in Garbage Plate construction and manufacturing.
Other top donors
James S. Gleason and the Gleason Family Foundation—$34.5 million
Gleason is chairman of Gleason Corp., a Rochester-based manufacturer of machinery and equipment for the production, finishing and testing of gears. The company was founded by his great-grandfather in 1865. He is also chairman of the Gleason Family Foundation, an independent grantmaker that supports schools and universities.
B. Thomas Golisano and the Golisano Foundation—$26.2 million
Golisano is the founder of Paychex Inc., a Rochester-based provider of payroll, human resource and benefits outsourcing solutions for small- to medium-sized businesses nationwide. In 1985, he founded the B. Thomas Golisano Foundation, one of the largest private foundations in the United States devoted exclusively to supporting people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Eastman Kodak Co.—$17.9 million
Company founder George Eastman made his first donation—a $50 gift—to the university’s forerunner, Mechanics Institute, in 1887. He later donated $5,000 in 1892. In 1901, Eastman donated $625,000 (approximately $17 million today) to Mechanics Institute, and the institute’s Eastman Building in downtown Rochester was opened that same year. Kodak also played an instrumental role in the establishment of RIT’s photography programs and contributed $1 million to the Golisano Institute for Sustainability in 2010.
The Nippon Foundation—$17.2 million
Established as the Japan Shipbuilding Industry Foundation in 1962 to focus on philanthropy related to the shipping and maritime fields, the Nippon Foundation today supports programming in education, social welfare and other fields.
E. Philip Saunders—$16.6 million
Saunders is president and CEO of Saunders Management Co. He launched several companies, including Truckstops of America chain (now TravelCenters of America), which grew into the largest full-service truck stop in the United States; Griffith Energy, a liquid fuel distribution company; Sugar Creek Corp., a chain of retail gas and convenience stores; and Genesee Regional Bank.
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