Tech entrepreneur says he'll 'make up for every penny' any donors pull from Oxford college

Key Points
  • Onfido CEO Husayn Kassai has pledged to cover whatever any donors pull from the Oriel College amid an ongoing statue debate.
  • The college voted to remove a statue of colonialist Cecil Rhodes, which campaigners say is a sign of racism.
  • Now donors are threatening to withdraw their financial support. 
Onfido CEO Husayn Kassai.

Former University of Oxford student Husayn Kassai has pledged to "make up for every penny" any donors pull from the Oriel College amid an ongoing statue debate.

Some university donors said they'd stop giving money to the 694-year-old college if it removed a controversial statue of colonialist Cecil Rhodes, which campaigners say is a sign of racism.

Kassai, who founded identity verification start-up Onfido with three friends while studying economics and management at Oxford, wrote on Twitter that he would step in and cover any lost funding after Oriel College voted to take down the statue of the imperialist politician.

The entrepreneur, a former Merrill Lynch investment banker, described Rhodes as "the most savage Brit who ever lived" before going on to say that he was proud of Oriel and Oxford for voting to remove the statue of Rhodes.

"I'll make up for every penny any racists donor pulls," tweeted Kassai, who used to be the president of Oxford Entrepreneurs. "All racist status and symbols belong in museums, where we can safeguard our history, in all its gore and glory."

Oriel did not respond when CNBC asked if any donors had withdrawn financial support following its decision. It's also not clear how Kassai intends to discover the amount he will need to cover.

The college had reportedly been worried that donors would withdraw millions in funding if it removed the statue.

Former Brexit Party MEP Ben Habib called for Oriel to return Rhodes's endowment to his family, while Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan said he would stop donating to the college he once studied at.

"Rhodes's generosity allowed thousands of young people to enjoy an education they could not otherwise have had," Hannan wrote on Twitter. "The first black student won a scholarship 5 years after his death. Why would anyone give to an institution that treats its benefactors this way?"

Investors backed Kassai's fast-growing company, which confirms internet users are who they say they are, with $100 million in May, bringing total funding in the eight-year-old company up to $182 million.

"The decision to pull the statue down has been taken in a democratic and orderly way," Kassai told CNBC via email. "It seems outrageous for some donors to then want to block the democratic decision to remove a racist symbol of colonialism and slavery, using financial threats and pressure to do so."

"This suggests that some donors are less interested in supporting students' education, and more concerned with upholding symbols that no longer have a place in our diverse societies," he added.

Who was Cecil Rhodes?

Cecil Rhodes was a Victorian mining magnate and politician who helped to colonize large swathes of Africa. He founded the colonies of Southern and North Rhodesia and named them after himself. The countries have since been renamed to Zimbabwe and Zambia.

Born in Bishop's Stortford, Hertfordshire, in 1853, Rhodes attended a local grammar school for several years before his parents sent him to South Africa at 17-years-old in the hope that the climate might improve his then ill health.

In 1871, at the age of 18, he entered the lucrative diamond trade in Kimberley. Two years later, he returned to England and paid to study at Oxford's Oriel College.

He spent a total of eight years at Oxford but he always maintained his business interests in the diamond mines, meaning he was very wealthy by the time he graduated.

He founded De Beers in 1887 and it is one of the biggest names in the diamond industry today.

Rhodes became one of the richest men in the world and he used his wealth to acquire new territory for the British Empire, hoping that one day the whole of the African continent would be under British rule.

"I contend that we are the first race in the world, and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race," he said. "I contend that every acre added to our territory means the birth of more of the English race who otherwise would not be brought into existence."

He became Prime Minister of the Cape Colony in 1890 and introduced Acts of Parliament to remove Black people from their lands. "It must be brought home to them", Rhodes said, "that in future nine-tenths of them will have to spend their lives in manual labour, and the sooner that is brought home to them the better."

When Rhodes died of a heart attack in 1902, at the age of 49, a Rhodes scholarship was set up to fund non-British students who wanted to study at Oxford.

Recipients of the scholarship include Bill Clinton, three former Australian prime ministers, and former Google CFO Patrick Pichette.

The "Rhodes Must Fall" statue campaign began in 2015 and momentum picked up following the recent Black Lives Matter protests.

Elsewhere in the U.K., a statue of slave trader Edward Colston was toppled in Bristol.