A chat with Bill Gates led Jack Schuler to create the Schuler Scholar Program.
Two decades ago, Schuler spoke with Gates about how he could best directly impact the lives of local youth.
“He had two pieces of advice,” Schuler said. “He said instead of funneling my money to various organizations, that I should create something. And he also said to stay local.”
Soon after, Schuler, the former President and COO of Abbott, co-founded the Schuler Scholar Program with his eldest daughter, Tanya.
Since its first partnership with Waukegan High School nearly two decades ago, the Schuler Scholar Program has teamed with more than a dozen Chicago and Chicago-area high schools since its founding, and expanded to Milwaukee this year. The program has invested nearly $100 million in its Scholars and it has a sunset clause to continue running until 30 years after Schuler’s death.
“When Tanya and I talked, we determined the biggest problem in Chicago was K-12 education, so we have tried to change the path of our scholars,” said Schuler, who turned 79 on Sept. 17.
Schuler will be honored Nov. 1 as a Local Legend at the History Center of Lake Forest-Lake Bluff for his success in business and creation of the Schuler Scholar Program, which is nearing its 20th anniversary. The event in the past has honored luminaries such as Cubs legend Ryne Sandberg, media stars Bill Kurtis and Donna La Pietra, musician Richard Marx and astronaut Jim Lovell.
Since 2001, the Lake Forest-based Schuler Scholar Program has partnered with more than 1,200 scholars – including mostly first-generation students, students of color and low-income students – and sent them to highly selective colleges and universities. As part of the program, students and their families gain a dedicated support team and resources – free of charge – throughout all four years of high school and beyond. Of the 1,200-plus scholars, 94 percent complete an undergraduate degree at the country’s top liberal arts colleges and universities.
“If somebody told me when we first started that we would have had these types of incredible results, I wouldn’t have believed this type of trajectory,” Schuler said. “Often, a Scholar drops by our office who’s now a surgeon or a lawyer or an entrepreneur. It’s incredibly gratifying to hear their stories of success.
“And when they are high school freshmen, I always tell them that if I can do it, they can do it, too. My goal is to convince them that they are going to make it.”
Schuler sees himself in many of the scholars. The son of an immigrant, Schuler earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Tufts and Stanford, respectively.
And he’s built the Schuler Scholar Program like other companies he’s led – Abbott, Ventana and Stericycle, among others.
“I’ve always loved to create great teams and a great culture,” Schuler said. “And I’ve always loved to win as a team; it’s so much more fun than winning as an individual. I’ve had a great ride with several companies, and the people at Schuler Scholar Program are passionate and dedicated to what they do.
“When you go to a top school, you have a brand after that,” Schuler added. “We want our kids to have that same type of brand when they graduate.”
Schuler, who has been married to his wife, Renate, for 50 years, reflected on his life during a lengthy conversation at his home at Crab Tree Farm -- Illinois’ only operating farm located on Lake Michigan. When he purchased the property decades ago, his home’s yard was a corn field. But over time, he planted native prairie grass that has now turned into an acres-filled haven for birds and other wildlife.
Like his spectacular property, his foundation has been a model example of time and care leading to incredible growth.
“I hope two generations from now, people will still know our story,” he said.
For more information on the Local Legend event, visit https://www.lflbhistory.org/local-legends