Tech CEO Austin McChord barely finished college—then donated $50 million to his alma mater

Austin McChord, CEO of Datto
Courtesy of Austin McChord
Austin McChord, CEO of Datto

The list of the biggest philanthropists of 2017 is dominated by some of the most famous and powerful people in the world. Last year, moguls like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Michael Dell gave away millions of dollars to charity.

Also on the list is Austin McChord. In 2017, the 32-year-old CEO of unicorn start-up Datto joined the list with a $50 million dollar gift to a college he barely graduated from.

They say that A students grow up to work for C students, but when McChord was a C student at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), he was not so confident it would work out that way.

In 2007, McChord had a 2.2 GPA and was still a few credits short of his bachelor's degree. "I basically never did any homework," he tells CNBC Make It. "As I was wrapping up my degree, I was very concerned that I would not be able to get a job because of my low GPA."

Instead of relying on his paltry list of academic achievements, McChord decided to test his entrepreneurial skills.

Austin McChord in 2007
Courtesy of Austin McChord
Austin McChord in 2007

"I decided that I would start my own company and that that way I would have something that I could put on my resume that wasn't my GPA," he says. "My feeling was that I would almost certainly fail at starting a business, but that it would be good experience and it would show that I at least applied myself and it would help me find a 'real' job someday."

But McChord never ended up applying for a 'real" job. Ten years later he is still the CEO of Datto, a now-billion-dollar data protection company that he started out of his parent's basement.

"I thought that I could do this cheaper than anybody who had attempted it before," he says. "I had one more semester to finish my degree and as the business was gaining steam over the summer, I made the decision not to go back to RIT. My parents were super upset."

While he stayed home and focused on his growing business, McChord's parents forced him to finish his final credits at a local community college. Two years later, he finally — and barely — earned his RIT degree.

As he built his business, McChord decided to open an office in New York in order to take advantage of the START-UP NY state incentive program. He thought that his old college town would be the perfect place for Datto, and while working in Rochester, McChord started to reconnect with his alma mater.

"I got a lot more involved with the university after graduating," he says. "Along the way, I came up with this idea that I would make a very large gift to RIT if I ever did achieve great personal success."

On October 26th, 2017 Datto was acquired by Vista Equity Partners for $1.5 billion. One week later, McChord announced that he would be donating $50 million to his alma mater, the largest donation in the school's 189-year history.

He hopes the gift will challenge RIT to think more creatively about the way the school educates students and prepares them for the industries of tomorrow. "Higher education tends to have a pretty conservative way of thinking, and if I can be a little bit of an agitator for change then I think that's a positive," he says.

McChord's gift will be used to fund two major projects. About $30 million will be used for creative entrepreneurship initiatives, including scholarships for students to take an "entrepreneurial gap year." The remaining $20 million will be used to support cybersecurity and artificial intelligence research.

Even though McChord did not have an idyllic college experience at RIT, he says his time on campus was valuable, and that his success "would not have been possible without my time at RIT."

And while he can't be sure if C students really are better equipped to be bosses, McChord can say with certainty that experiencing academic hiccups helped him persevere through difficult times.

"I think one of the things that helped me is that I was used to failure," he says. "Sometimes you encounter people that all they have ever achieved in their life is success, and when they all of the sudden run into difficulty or they fail or make a mistake, they almost become paralyzed."

"I made tons and tons of mistakes in building Datto along the way but I was able to recover and move forward and deal with that disappointment. And I think that is something that below average students might have some more experience with."

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