Private equity firm managing partner Frank Baker and his wife interior designer Laura Day Baker plan to pay off tuition balances for Spelman College students who were experiencing financial difficulties. The couple is providing a $1 million gift toward the establishment of a scholarship for graduates of Spelman College, located in Atlanta.
Baker, founder of Siris, a private equity firm that invests in technology companies, was inspired by his friend Robert Smith, the businessman who promised to pay off student loans for Morehouse College’s class of 2019. However, the couple took a different approach by focusing on high-performing students who were in danger of dropping out due to lack of funds.
“We are all aware of the headwinds that people of color – especially women – face in our country, the challenges of which are made even more apparent by the economic and health impact of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the couple said in a press release. “We believe it is critical that talented women finish college and confidently enter – free of undue financial stress – the initial stage of their professional careers. We hope that this gift will help lessen their financial burden as they start this promising next chapter in their lives and encourage them to persevere over life’s challenges.”
“Our graduates are taking their first steps into adulthood during uncertain times, which makes a gift intended to give them a better chance to build a financial foundation even more important,” said Spelman president Dr. Mary Schmidt Campbell. “We are extremely grateful to Frank and Laura, who have given our talented graduates a gift that will serve them well as they launch their professional careers and transition into graduate school experiences.”
The Bakers provided $250,000 toward helping 50 young women finish their degrees this spring, and plan to donate at least $1 million in total to help seniors at Spelman over the next three years who face similar situations.
Gabrielle Sumpter is one of those graduates and she was in “complete shock” when she found out about his intentions.
“It is truly a blessing to have been awarded in this way,” Sumpter — the daughter of a Spelman alumna — told Atlanta Black Star in an email. “I am mainly extremely grateful. My parents have sacrificed and paid my whole tuition so that I wouldn’t have any debts. We had part of my spring balance left that we were just trying to work out how to pay,” added Sumpter, who received a bachelor of arts degree in international studies. She plans to start her career this fall as an analyst for Accenture, a global technology giant.
Erena Reese, who received a bachelor of science degree in health science, was in a similar situation. Her father’s business was adversely affected by the pandemic, so the family was trying to come up with a plan when they got news of Baker’s generosity.
“I do not think I made an audible sound for minutes. My physical response was in my emotion displayed in my eyes,” she recalled in an email. “The tears of joy welled up and fell down my cheeks.” Reese now is a graduate research assistant at the Morehouse School of Medicine Prevention Research Center.
Like Smith, Frank Baker did not attend an HBCU, but the importance of those institutions is not lost on the University of Chicago alumnus.
“Robert was fortunate enough to go to Cornell and Columbia and him giving to Morehouse was a nod to the recognition that the majority of African-Americans going to college are graduating from historically black institutions,” he explained to Forbes. “We need to make sure these schools continue to be viable. We are all part of the same community. It doesn’t matter if I went to the school or not.”
Both Reese and Sumpter have big plans for their post-graduate career. Sumpter wants to earn a dual JD/MBA and Reese aspires to be CEO of a hospital. They also want to pay Baker’s kindness forward.
“I want other women after me to succeed and not have those stressors,” Sumpter said. “I think when it happens to you and you’re a direct recipient of someone paying it forward, it for sure feels different and is very impactful. I hope to be able to do the same/similar things for HBCUs and Spelman in the future.”
Reese also wants to create a scholarship for Spelman students and believes the gesture is more than an exchange of currency.
“I can see the long-term impact of generous gifting of this nature,” she said. “It is a bold and resounding affirmation that someone else in the world sees you, acknowledges that you are working hard and that your commitment to excellence will take you far.”