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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Home Depot co-founder stresses philanthropy for businesses

Published: April 27, 2012
Section: News

Ken Langone, an investment banker who co-founded Home Depot in 1978, delivered this year’s second annual Saul G. Cohen Memorial Lecture in Rapaporte Treasure Hall on Monday afternoon.

Elisabeth Cohen, Saul’s daughter, introduced Langone to the crowd as a man who has “great respect for people in all walks of life” and as someone who appreciates attention to detail and excellent service at every level.

“Ken is a passionate individual with enormous enthusiasm, compassion and integrity,” she said.

In 1978, Langone co-founded Home Depot and remained on the executive committee of its board for 30 years. Early on in his career, Langone would stock the shelves during the holidays and his dedication to the company eventually created more than 325,000 jobs. He is the founder and current CEO of Invamed Associates, a brokerage and investment banking firm specializing in health care and high tech companies, and serves on various boards for both large and small companies.

He also serves on the board of many educational, service and health care organizations, including Bucknell University, Ronald McDonald House, Robin Hood Foundation, the Harlem Children’s Zone and New York University, where he is a trustee, overseer of the Stern School of Business and chairman of the board at the NYU Langone Medical Center.

Langone’s talk fulfilled its title, “When Doing Well Means Doing Good,” by sharing the meaning of true philanthropy and emphasizing the world’s need for more people dedicated to giving their time and knowledge.

Langone shared a personal anecdote regarding one of his family members asking him about his charity. After he gave his first significant contribution to Bucknell, he was asked what he had to give up in order to make that gift. He responded by saying he didn’t have to give up anything, and in turn, he was told that his contribution was not charity.

“And so I learned right then and there that charity is when you go without for someone else. I will never forget that,” Langone said.

His family had a significant influence on his passion to give back to others. He said that he constantly reminds himself of how successful his parents and grandparents were even with so few resources and strong language barriers.

He continued to talk about the importance of volunteerism, sharing stories about students who have benefited from scholarships funded by him and his wife. He said that those students are the true leaders of our world today because they have learned how to use scarce resources to share their gifts of time and knowledge to make a larger difference.

“I happen to think that we as Americans are generating a disservice to ourselves,” Langone said. “We can’t cure every problem that exists, and even if it’s taking a small amount of water out of the Atlantic Ocean, I can at least say that I made the effort. That is what most people do who give of themselves call charity.”

Langone said that, when he meets with these students, he is overwhelmed by their gratefulness. Each time he meets with them, he tells them that the best way to thank him is to give back to others. He said that their time will be the most valuable thing that they can give and they should continue to give that to others for as long as they can.

“There’s a million different ways that people can share and give back. Regrettably, it always seems to dwell on the check-writing side of the exercise,” he said.

Langone talked about philanthropy as a great American phenomenon but commented that Jews have for years acknowledged philanthropy as a part of their culture. He emphasized that this must be rewarded, not in the form of medals or awards, but with appreciation for the fact that “the world is better because they were here.” He said that dedication and passion for making the world a better place demonstrates that they are “good” people.

Langone shared what he has gained during the years by giving back to those in need. Being a philanthropist helped to boost his self-confidence because he finally realized that he could make a difference in someone’s life.

“It gives you a sense of self-respect you might not otherwise get. The thing that is most precious about success is what you do with your self-respect and confidence,” Langone said. “I am the beneficiary of my own charity.”

Lastly, Langone shared his key to success as noticing the people around you.

“Surround yourself with people who are better, smarter and more able than you,” he said.

After his talk, Langone shared his personal advice for Brandeis students with The Hoot.

“Do the best you can, but most of all, believe in yourself. If you can develop a sense of confidence, part of which means being able to know when you have failed, you will be very successful.”

“When we think about the model of Brandeis, that special blend of a small liberal arts college embedded in the heart of a great research university, that was his vision,” President Fred Lawrence said of the professor, faculty dean and lecture-series namesake Saul Cohen.

The lecture series is co-sponsored by the Brandeis Investment Club, the Brandeis Economics Society and the Brandeis Entrepreneur Club. It was established last year in honor of Saul G. Cohen, a former Brandeis science professor who died in 2010, by Cohen’s family and friends, all of whom have worked to generate conversation about pressing issues in the world today with leading experts of academia, arts, business, politics, law and science.

After graduating summa cum laude from Harvard in 1937, Cohen found that being Jewish deterred him from having a career in education in his chosen field of chemistry. Instead, he went to work for Land at Polaroid in 1945 and solved the organic chemistry problems that led to developments in instant photography.

After leaving the Polaroid Corporation, Cohen joined the faculty and began teaching at Brandeis in 1950. At Brandeis, he became the first chairman of the chemistry department and the science school, as well as the first dean of faculty and the first university professor.

In his opening remarks on Monday, Lawrence described the Cohen lecture as one of the “hallmark events in the academic, intellectual life of Brandeis University.” Lawrence stated that he believed Cohen would have greatly appreciated hearing from Ken Langone, who Lawrence described as a “giant of philanthropy.”

He has received numerous awards on behalf of his work, including most recently the Horatio Alger award, given to individuals who have overcome difficult circumstances early on in their lives but have persevered to achieve excellence and to serve as their community’s leaders.

“Although his financial contributions to the NYU Medical Center have been transformative, my husband and I would proudly say that his daily contributions of his time, insights, experience and unswerving commitment to excellence are far more magnificent,” Elisabeth Cohen said.