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Business success brings philanthropic vision

John Seelmeyer

By almost any measure, Jan and Bob Davidson were wildly successful as businesspeople building a software company from scratch, taking it public and selling it for more than $1 billion.

They say it’s been just as challenging and even more rewarding to use their wealth in a way that makes a significant difference to society.

Their Reno-based Davidson Institute for Talent Development next month will present $400,000 in scholarships to 15 profoundly intelligent young people, a group of students who almost certainly number a future Nobel Prize winner or two.

The scholarships are but a part of the programs of the four-year institute, which seeks to ensure that intellectually gifted students and their families receive the assistance they need for the gifts of genius to flower.

At its most basic, creation of a successful philanthropic organization requires the same sort of logical step-bystep development as the creation of a successful business, the Davidsons explained a few days ago.

For starters, Bob Davidson said, the couple put 90 percent of their assets into a charitable trust as they stepped away from the software company they’d built.

Davidson and Associates, one of the first educational software companies, numbered the Math Blaster and Reading Blaster series among its accomplishments before it was sold for $1.15 billion to CUC International in 1997.

But what sorts of activities would the charitable trust support? For starters, the Davidsons knew that they were hands-on people who wouldn’t be content merely providing financial support for a cause.

“It is very useful and easy to write large checks to large institutions,” Bob Davidson said.

“But lots of people do that.

We’re more hands-on.”

The couple also knew that they had a passion for education Jan Davidson was a teacher when she founded Davidson and Associates with $6,000 in savings, and the company worked closely with educators.

But the couple’s focus settled on the needs of profoundly intelligent students arose only after Bob Davidson was stirred by a magazine article about a 5-year-old genius, a child who worked at a high school level, who was assigned to a kindergarten class by shortsighted school administrators.

A passion was ignited an element Jan Davidson cites as critically important to anyone who chooses to put wealth to good work.

“Make sure you have the time and the commitment level,” she said.

“If you’re going to have lofty goals, it will take a lot of time.”

Although the Davidson Institute’s goal of supporting profoundly gifted young people is unwavering, its founders maintain a motto, “Fixed goals, flexible strategies,” that served them well in business.

“While having a clear and understandable goal is important, we also believe it is just as important to be flexible with the strategies employed to meet that goal,” Jan Davidson told a reunion of young scholars.

“Because our world is changing at an accelerated pace, a strategy that may have been effective in the past may not be effective now, and a strategy that is working now may not work a year from now.”

The couple has learned, too, that philanthropy is successful only when people want to help themselves.Walking away from people who don’t want to help themselves is difficult, Jan Davidson has acknowledged, but the difficult choice helps the organization spend its resources effectively.

At the same time, Bob Davidson said, philanthropists who come from the world of business may miss the financial data the statements of profit and loss, the market- share studies that mark their success.

“In business, you’re looking at the bottom line,” he said.

“Here, you’re dealing with softer issues.”

But like a successful business, a philanthropic organization is only as strong as its staff the Davidson Institute employs 16 at its south Reno headquarters and the willingness of its founders to delegate responsibility, Jan Davidson said.

She delegates daily management of the organization to Marie Capurro, director of programs and services at the institute, while remaining in close contact via e-mail.

But effective philanthropy, she has said, needn’t be all that complicated.

“It doesn’t require money; it doesn’t even require a lot of time.

It only requires the willingness to provide the extra support, encouragement and guidance to those who cross our paths each day.

Sometimes it only requires that we set a positive example.

You can do more good by being a good person than by any other way.”


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“The thing that I like most about entrepreneurship is I can work toward something that I’m passionate about and be at the forefront of the change that I want to see happen,” said Priyanka Senthil, a senior at Davidson Academy in Reno and co-founder of startup company AUesome.



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