Q&A: Squandered pennies set the stage for the Simons Foundation

November 15, 2016 9:10 AM EST

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By Beth Pinsker

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Long before the Giving Pledge, Jim and Marilyn Simons were donating their family's hedge fund fortune as they made it, not saving it up to distribute after they died.

The couple met in 1973, and made their first significant gift to the CARE global poverty charity soon after Jim's investment company, Renaissance Technologies, took off in the 1980s. Yearly gifts turned into a full-fledged family foundation in 1994, where they currently have about $2 billion in assets and donate around $400 million in gifts a year.

Marilyn Simons, 65, who holds a Ph.D in microeconomics, is president of the foundation. She shared with Reuters what she has learned over the years about the value of money and the best ways to make an impact giving it away.

Q: What values did your family instill about money?

A: When we were young kids, my brother and I were sitting in the back of a station wagon. This was in the early 1950s. We had some pennies, and we were throwing them out of the car windows. When my father realized what we were doing, he stopped the car and made us get out to get the pennies that we had thrown out. That's a pretty instructive lesson. In my family, every penny counted, bottom line.

Q: What did Jim's family teach him?

A: His grandfather had been quite successful with a shoe business, but spent all his money frivolously. There wasn't much planning for the future or for the next generation, and so my husband said he really learned from that experience to spend his money wisely.

Q: What was your first experience with money you made on your own?

A: I was a Howard Johnson's fish fry girl. I was 17. I worked on the weekends. They had a Friday night all-you-could eat special for $5.99, and I was a waitress and carried around the fish and French fries. On my first night of work, my whole family came and were standing on line. They never went to Howard Johnson's, but they all went because I was working there. They were so proud of me with my first job.

Q: When you became an economist, you focused on microeconomics. Did this translate into some practical facility with dollars and cents?

A: When I finished my dissertation, I went on my first board and found true happiness on the budget and finance committee. I just loved thinking about the bottom line. Getting to apply that knowledge was wonderful to me. I didn't pursue academia. I even took an accounting course at some point early on when I started the foundation, so I could do our own financial statements.

Q: How do you involve your children in your philanthropy?

A: Initially, they were very busy with their own young lives, so we'd give them a certain amount of money that they could give away every year. When they did get interested in doing some philanthropy, the mission they wanted to direct their charity toward was different from our interest in basic science research. So all three of the children have started their own foundations.

Q: What made you want to give money away from the start, rather than waiting?

A: There wasn't a decision point. I've read about Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, they had a successful business and at a certain point turned toward philanthropy. For us, it was always part of our life. The foundation invested in Jim's fund, so everything grew along at the same time.

Q: What do you expect the Simons Foundation to look like in 100 years?

A: Jim and I have the vision that the foundation will exist in perpetuity. We both are very passionate about the importance of basic science research, and we hope that the foundation will continue to fund exciting frontiers of science and help the world and humanity by helping increase our knowledge. It's our view that a professional, committed board will ultimately take it over.

(Editing by Lauren Young and Bernadette Baum)



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