If philanthropy meant redemption, you could buy your way into heaven and — Lord knows — plenty of people try.
But for a billionaire like former Broadcom CEO Henry Nicholas, buying your way into anything isn’t what philanthropy is about.
Admire him or dismiss him as a billionaire bad boy, Nicholas has always done what he wants and as he approaches his sixth decade his passions are very much focused on making a difference in other people’s lives.
It is Saturday night and more than 1,000 people crowd into the Anaheim Marriott. Nicholas is onstage. But it’s clear from his self-effacing style that he has zero interest in being the star of the show.
On this night, the shining stars are the teenagers who make up the Nicholas Academic Centers’ 10th anniversary graduating class.
Without the centers, it’s likely many of the students wouldn’t have the wherewithal to make it beyond community college. Consider that 90 percent are the first in their family to attend college.
I know one young woman whose father had never heard of Harvard until his daughter told him she was admitted.
The centers also help the students apply for scholarships and fill in gaps when there isn’t enough money. So far, the total is $60 million in grants and scholarships.
“The capability is there for these kids,” Nicholas tells me during a long, deep and wide-ranging conversation at his wood-paneled offices in Aliso Viejo. “That college degree unleashes them.”
Since the inception of the Nicholas Academic Centers, more than 1,500 students who grew up in tough neighborhoods have risen higher than they ever thought possible.
Without pausing — and Nicholas rarely pauses — he shares in his first extensive interview in a decade that he, too, understands struggle. “I look at my life and the thing that got me through difficult times is my work ethic.”
The billionaire engineer confesses because of lifelong learning disabilities, “I still can’t add.”
But he can use a calculator.
His point, of course, is when you hit an obstacle find a way to go around it.
A 6-foot-6 self-described geek in high school, his coach couldn’t resist practically forcing Nicholas to join the basketball team. One of his teammates’ first passes was — wham — to the back of the rookie’s head.
Yet what started as an ordeal for a kid who was more interested in engineering than athletics opened up a life of working out, rowing, road cycling, skiing, mountain biking.
In an intellectual way, the Nicholas Academic Centers is like that. It opens minds.
But that is only part of the billionaire’s plan.
Like much of what Nicholas does, his philanthropy is designed to reach far beyond the students at the centers. The thread through nearly all his philanthropies — and there are many — is to change lives through education.
He calls the Nicholas Academic Centers “a force multiplier.”
On the night of the 10th anniversary, mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, alumni wipe away tears of joy.
Wearing his trademark three-piece business suit, Nicholas hands out sweatshirts representing the universities that the Class of 2018 will attend — Notre Dame, Berkeley, Stanford and more.
It is an evening of smiles, applause and even some disbelief that life can be this good.
For Nicholas, it’s all good.
Nicholas is happy to share that much of the success stems from the inspiration of Superior Court Judge Jack Mandel as well as the hard work of the teachers at what have become several Nicholas Academic Centers.
Although Nicholas is more of a hardcore music (Korn) or hiphop (Drake) kind of guy, parts of his life remind me of the Paul Simon lyric “I’m falling, flying … tumbling in turmoil.”
His challenges with family, friends, Broadcom stock and a rock ‘n roll lifestyle have been exhaustively reported in the media. A decade ago, one wag asked of Nicholas’ troubles, “Do you feel sorry for the shark at the end of ‘Jaws’?”
Certainly, Nicholas has had the ability to try to change the conversation. But he’s too smart for that.
Instead, he allows many of his small and big victories to go uncovered. I’ll mention that my meeting with Nicholas grew out of a series of columns I’ve written over several years and I pushed for the interview.
In an unguarded moment for both of us, we share about family. Nicholas allows he was estranged from his son as a side effect of divorce, but over time they started rowing together and have grown close.
Like his father before him, the young man is closing in on a Ph.D. But, of course, his life is far different than dad’s.
Nicholas was born in Ohio and his father struggled with alcohol and died at 57. When Nicholas was four, his parents divorced and his mother took him and his younger sister to California.
His stepfather, Robert Leach, made ends meet writing scripts for film and television and was a great dad before he died. Still, life remained a battle for young Nicholas.
“I was put in the ‘retarded’ class,” Nicholas recalls, making a point to call out the stigma of the non-pc word. Fortunately, his mother was a teacher and searched for help.
Experts diagnosed her son as dyslexic.
As with most everything Nicholas discusses, he launches into a detailed explanation of right and left brain hemispheres, why he’s ambidextrous yet couldn’t read, how his brain finally clicked and how he managed to quickly get caught up in school.
His comments aren’t just about self, however. His point is that education is a struggle many share.
Still, the depth he goes into also reveals his intense curiosity about nearly everything as well as his profound lust for life.
We talk sports injuries and swap broken bone stories. Nicholas beats me with cellphone x-rays of more metal screws and plates than a football player. We fall into a discussion about music and Nicholas explains how things changed when “polyphonic instruments” were invented. Yes, that’s the piano.
I tick off his philanthropies and in a rare quiet moment, Nicholas simply nods and smiles.
Along with the Nicholas Academic Centers, there’s Habitat for Humanity, a small-business incubator called Chefs Center of California, the Episcopal Church, Opera Pacific, the Pacific Symphony, the Ocean Institute, engineering and computer science programs at UCI, the Oakland Military Institute, the Mt. Olive School for girls in Kenya, and, last but not least, Marsy’s Law.
At “Marcy’s Law,” Nicholas glances down and falls silent.
Honoring slain sister
When Nicholas was busy earning his master’s degree at UCLA in 1983, his younger sister was shot and killed by a former boyfriend stalking her. She was 21 years old.
A few days after the funeral for the UC Santa Barbara senior, Nicholas and his mother dropped by a local grocery store for bread. Once inside, they were horrified.
Before them stood the accused killer. Already, he was out on bail.
Angry at what they considered a gross injustice, the family contacted law enforcement and elected officials and founded Justice for Homicide Victims, an organization dedicated to supporting and increasing victims’ rights.
Sitting on the edge of his chair, Nicholas says, “Over the last 200 years we’ve created a system that is very fair for those accused of crimes.”
Yet one in three Americans, he says, are crime victims.
A year after stepping down as Broadcom CEO in 2003, Nicholas turned his attention to a ballot initiative to reduce or eliminate the state’s three strikes law, something he considered abhorrent.
Less than a month before the election, 62 percent of surveyed voters planned to vote yes on Proposition 66. Most considered the weakening of three strikes as a done deal.
But few understood the powerful combination of Nicholas’ money, energy and sheer will.
He quickly build a cross-party coalition that included California governors Arnold Schwarzenegger, Gray Davis, Pete Wilson, Jerry Brown and George Deukmejian. He enlisted rock bands. He waged a massive drive-time radio campaign.
In a surprise outcome, voter sentiment flipped. Prop. 66 failed with a 52 percent no vote.
“I’m responsible for the coming from behind victory,” Nicholas says. It’s neither boast nor braggadocio. It’s just fact and perhaps a harbinger of Nicholas’ latest campaign.
A decade ago, Nicholas lobbied for and got passed something called the Victims’ Rights and Protection Act. But most know it as Marcy’s Law, named after his murdered sister.
The amendment to California’s constitution states victims have the right to, among other things, be heard at court proceedings, have speedier trials, restitution, protection from defendants.
To date, Nicholas has gotten similar bills passed in several other states and is pushing for additional states to adopt bills. Eventually, he will advocate for a federal Constitutional amendment.
If it sounds like an impossible dream, consider this is a guy who gets in his comfort zone pedaling up and down the toughest hill in Orange County.
Most would consider cycling a brutally steep hill nothing but suffering. Nicholas considers it “meditation.”
Expanding a culture
In choosing his charities, Nicholas steps away from causes that already are popular. “I want to apply my money,” he explains, “to where it can make the most difference.”
If the turnout Saturday night is any indication, the Nicholas Academic Centers is succeeding far beyond expectations despite some initial skepticism.
“The ethos in the barrio is not to be found as a geek,” the billionaire offers. “Some say, ‘You’ll lose your roots.’ But that’s not true, that’s not true at all.
“The Nicholas Academic Center takes a lot of pride and kicks ass.”
Over the years, I’ve visited the Nicholas Academic Centers in Santa Ana and have spent time with students, teachers, administrators. Every time, I’ve come away impressed, even joyful.
Nicholas confesses when he visits — and he visits often — he feels the same.
At the Marriott, high school senior David Hernandez takes the stage in white shirt, black bow-tie and vest and a blue Nicholas Academic Centers graduation stole.
“Throughout my life my family has lived in a garage where the concept of privacy is non-existent,” Hernandez says. “The center allowed my to have a space … where I could access free school supplies, have training and computer access, seek college advice, things that were necessary to overcome my struggles.
“Next fall, I will be attending Stanford University.
“Thank you Dr. Nick and Judge Mandel for creating my second home where I found myself and my future.”
As I leave Nicholas’ office, another Paul Simon metaphor floats in the air: “I’ve a reason to believe / We all will be received / In Graceland.”