Charles Koch’s Principles of Higher Learning

In the early fall, 10 students of color were honored for their participation in the UNCF/Koch Scholars Program, which was launched three years ago with a $25 million gift from Koch Industries and the Charles Koch Foundation.

BLACK ENTERPRISE Editor-In-Chief Derek T. Dingle gained the opportunity to hold a one-on-one interview with Charles G. Koch, CEO of one of the nation’s largest, privately held corporations, about his views on the value of education and principled entrepreneurship. Here are excerpts from that conversation:

BLACK ENTERPRISE: How does the UNCF/Koch Scholars Program help students find that spark or passion to pursue a career and excel?

Koch: I think the first thing is to get [students] to understand what is required to be successful. Find something they have an aptitude for, because they’re going to have to compete. My philosophy has always been that the starting point isn’t, “I’d like to make a lot of money.” The starting point [for students] is, “How can I create the most value for others?”

BE: So often, when students first approach college, it’s about finding the job. How do you change that mindset, in terms of one of value creation?

Koch: I think you expose them to different kind of work situations. This is why the mentorship is so important. What we try to do is find a successful business person, particularly an entrepreneur, who will spend the time with the kids and have them try different things. Then, [we see] where the light goes on–what they’re really good at–and we encourage them to go in that area. What you tend to be good at, you tend to develop a passion for, because of the positive feedback [you get].

BE: How do you get educational institutions to focus on entrepreneurial thinking?

Koch: That’s a great question – and a tough one. We started this over 50 years ago when professors or administrators came to us and said, “Gosh, we’d like to have a program or courses based on your book, Good Profit, or based on your management philosophy.” The key is to convince professors or administrators that if they really want to help their students be successful, [it’s important] to teach them principled entrepreneurship.

We support programs in over 300 universities now, so we’ve had some success in this. We get criticized for it, too, because if a professor isn’t teaching this, and we come in and show [them something different], they don’t like to be shown that they weren’t doing it well.

BE: There’s a philosophy that entrepreneurs are born, not made. Do you believe that entrepreneurs can be made?

Koch: Absolutely. Now, it depends on aptitude. Everybody is not going to be a business entrepreneur, but you need to be a principled entrepreneur in whatever you do.  That means you keep asking, “How do I create value for my customers. What are my capabilities to do that? How do I understand what I’m good at, and what I’m not? How do I surround myself with people who are good at the things I’m not?” You have a diversity of capabilities and interests. Then you share knowledge and work as a team.

BE: Given your philosophy and relationship with UNCF, what do you envision for the long-term impact of the Scholars program?

Koch: What I hope is, [through] all these efforts, we find some heroes. What I mean by “hero” is somebody who didn’t grow up with all the advantages I [currently] have, and [who] and was spoon fed this stuff. They figured it out on their own or with later help, but did not get it [while] at home or in their community. [They then] dedicate themselves to creating value for others and being successful through that. They become role models.

BE: How do you get colleges and universities to become more effective in meeting the needs of students?

Koch: The institution is there not to service the administrators and the professors, it’s there to service the students. The students–and presumably, their parents–are the customers. They’ve got to create value for them. What we try to do is tailor the role to fit the aptitude and interests of the individual. [When] you place the right person in the right role, performance goes through the roof. This is why we really need the [UNCF/Koch Scholars Program] to help the students find their way–a way that’s going to enable them to live the best life. That’s what all our programs are about.