Features American Success Entrepreneurs Giving Back

Philanthropist James Keyes Explains Why Education Has the Power to Make the World a Better Place

It hit him like a thunderbolt.

James Keyes, the newly minted CEO of the Fortune 500 company 7-Eleven, was bounding his way across the campus of Columbia University, en route to teach a business class at his Ivy League alma mater. He was nattily dressed in a newly tailored suit, briefcase in hand, daydreaming of past walks on campus.

Then, he was utterly gobsmacked. Walking toward him was a young student, arms wrapped around too many textbooks, his T-shirt preaching the gospel: “Education Is Freedom!” in bright, bold letters.

“I had an epiphany, right then and there,” Mr. Keyes recalled. “It was everything I had believed in and relied upon to get where I was to that day.” He vigorously shook the student’s hand and told him how much he agreed with the idea behind his T-shirt message. They spent a few minutes talking about how education had changed both of their lives. Mr. Keyes told the young man that he was impressed by his passion and vision and wished him well.

“He believed every word on his shirt. Thoroughly,” Mr. Keyes said. “I did too. I just hadn’t thought about it in those terms before.” He reflected on how Columbia and other educational opportunities had impacted his own life and provided him with the freedom to succeed. Back home in Dallas, Texas, he soon rallied like-minded business leaders, government officials, and entrepreneurs, and founded the Education is Freedom (EIF) charitable foundation. The year was 2002. These leaders envisioned a world where every young person could pursue a college education and a rewarding career. EIF would provide students with the tools needed to successfully graduate from high school, attend and graduate from college, and develop their career paths.

Mr. Keyes on graduation day at Columbia University. (Courtesy of James Keyes)

Over the past two decades, EIF mentors and counselors have helped more than 100,000 students and their families in multiple Texas school districts complete the college process. They’ve also provided scholarships to hard-working students. And they’re just getting started.

Now, Mr. Keyes has a new goal: to help heal and educate the entire world. In his new book released in February, “Education Is Freedom: The Future Is in Your Hands,” he outlines how the power of education can not only unlock our personal freedom and improve our individual lives, but is crucial to preserving our democracy. “Our country is so polarized right now,” he said. “We need more knowledge and less ideology. I believe that fear and ignorance are at the root of most of these issues. On both sides of the aisle.”

Mr. Keyes’s book “Education is Freedom” was published in February this year. (Post Hill Press)

Whether it’s fear of the unknown; fear of the “other”; a mistrust of people and institutions; or fear of other cultures or religions—whatever it is, having the curiosity to learn will stomp out that fear. “It’s like when you were a kid in the dark and you were scared. And your mom came in and turned on the light and said, ‘See? No monster here,’” he said. “That’s what knowledge is. It’s the light that conquers fear.”

If we can encourage more people to turn on the light, we can reverse that cycle of ignorance, fear, violence, and anger that tortures the world, he argued. “Sounds a little Pollyannaish. But in so many ways, it is true.”

The Power of Education

Mr. Keyes argues that education can change the world. That’s because people gain the skills, tools, and opportunities to make better informed choices and decisions, he contends. They’re able to pursue their wildest dreams and aspirations and fully participate in the world around them. They can separate reality from fiction, confidence from fear.

One example he cites in his book is the story of Adan Gonzalez. Mr. Keyes first met him when he was a high school student living in South Oak Cliff, an underprivileged Dallas suburb. He lived in a one-room apartment with six other family members in a neighborhood where 32 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. During his sophomore year at Adamson High School, Mr. Gonzalez signed up for the Education is Freedom program on a lark. The program offered Mr. Gonzalez an internship at a local business to help him visualize a better future. “Unfortunately, he turned us down,” Mr. Keyes said. “He could make more money in a local factory. Like a lot of underserved kids, he went straight for the money.”

But in his junior year, Mr. Gonzalez reapplied and landed an internship at a local ad agency. The experience opened his eyes to new career possibilities. He aimed to attend Georgetown University and studied hard. Through grants and scholarships facilitated by EIF, as well as his academic rigor, Mr. Gonzalez got his Georgetown shot. He also channeled his love of fighting into boxing and became a national boxing champion while studying at Georgetown. “Instead of becoming a street fighter in South Oak, he became a college champion,” Mr. Keyes said. “What a story.”

After graduating in 2015, Mr. Gonzalez went back to his hometown grade school to teach math and social studies. He has since earned a master’s degree in education policy at Harvard and a master’s in education leadership at Columbia, and he has founded a nonprofit to provide underserved youth with academic support, leadership training, and community service opportunities. He recently received a White House fellowship, which he hopes can help him return home with the knowledge to improve his community’s education system.

“Adan is just a poster child for the idea that opportunity and education can transform anyone’s life,” Mr. Keyes said, adding that he’s moved by Mr. Gonzalez’s desire to work in the public school system. “He could have taken a much higher profile and higher paying job, but he’s really embraced that, for him, it’s about the freedom to do what he wants to. He has more freedom to give back to his community.”

His Life Story

Mr. Keyes himself has had his whole life transformed after working hard in school, though education wasn’t a priority during his hardscrabble childhood. Keyes was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1955, the youngest of six children. He grew up in a small, three-room shack without running water, plumbing, or heat. His parents, both factory workers, were highly intelligent but undereducated high school dropouts. Their impoverished life was difficult to bear. “Too many kids, not enough money,” he wistfully recalled.

His parents divorced when he was just five, and his mom “moved uptown to the trailer park,” he said. Keyes chose to stay with his dad. Though he lived in abject poverty, Keyes didn’t realize that his family was poor. His “rich” friends always came to his house to play because there were abandoned cars in the yard, tree swings, and creeks to play in. “I was poor but incredibly free and happy,” he said. “It wasn’t about wealth. We saw it as an adventure, like camping! I’ve remembered that all my life.”

But the family also endured hard times. When he was 10, his father was diagnosed with cancer, his grandmother fell ill and entered a nursing home, and their home was condemned by the local sheriff. Dad was sent to a veterans hospital, where he died six months later. Keyes went to live with his mother, who had to work two jobs to support them. “I lived through severe crisis after crisis,” he said. “So many horrible things [happened] before I was even 12 years old. It was then that I understood I had no safety net, no one to catch me if I stumbled or fell. It was up to me.”

Mr. Keyes visits a 7-Eleven convenience store during his executive days. (Courtesy of James Keyes)

At 15, Keyes began working for McDonald’s part-time and became the shift manager within a year. During summers, he worked a second shift as a produce truck driver, and he even made a side hustle out of being a church organist. “Hard work never goes out of style, and it pays off. I learned that early on, too,” he said.

With his earnings and a small baseball scholarship, he was able to attend the College of the Holy Cross. While there, his mother developed cancer, and he helped care for her. He continued working at McDonald’s. It was humble work, but it instilled his lifelong drive to outwork and outperform everybody. He would graduate cum laude with membership in the Phi Beta Kappa Honor Society.

He then attended Columbia Business School, where he learned the skills that would jump-start his business career. Mr. Keyes has a profound recognition and gratitude for how education led to his successes. “Education was the key that opened all my doors. It unlocked huge opportunities. It was my path to personal freedom,” he said. He believes that every American—every person, for that matter—needs to explore new interests throughout life.

He, for example, wanted to fly airplanes ever since the 1960s moon missions sparked a fascination with the skies. He learned to speak Japanese after working with Japanese business partners to bring 7-Eleven to Japan and wanting to overcome the language and cultural barrier.

His childhood experiences instilled a fierce sense of independence and an unbridled drive. His positive response to adversity—and his pursuit of knowledge and education—were the beginnings of a quintessential rags-to-riches American story.

He still remembers a poster that hung in the McDonald’s kitchen he worked at. “It still inspires me to this day. It had a famous quote from Calvin Coolidge.” The quote reads, in part: “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Persistence and determination are omnipotent.” When he left that job, he asked the owner if he could take the poster with him, and the owner agreed. “I took it to shop class and burned the edges to dress it up. I’m looking at it right now. It’s hung in every office I have ever had,” he said.

After earning his MBA, he joined Gulf Oil and taught himself how to use an Apple computer—the most cutting-edge technology at the time—to streamline operations and replace clunky corporate spreadsheets. After steady promotions, he joined Southland Corporation, today known as 7-Eleven. In 2000, he was named president and CEO. After expanding the convenience store chain into a global brand, Mr. Keyes joined the ill-fated Blockbuster as CEO in 2007. He tried to shepherd in a digital streaming strategy, but money woes and market conditions eventually forced a sale of the company to DISH Network.

Despite setbacks, Mr. Keyes remains highly regarded as a visionary industry tycoon. His days as a CEO taught him one crucial lesson that he also shares in his book. “Yes, it means Chief Executive Officer,” he said. “But more importantly, it means ‘Change Equals Opportunity.’” If you’re knowledgeable, persistent, and dedicated to your passion, you will embrace change not as a negative but as a tremendous opportunity, he concluded. It’s a trait that is necessary for survival in and out of the boardroom.

Mr. Keyes speaking to graduates of a leadership program for entrepreneurs offered at Columbia Business School. (Courtesy of James Keyes)

A Promising Future

Keyes believes that the American dream is still alive and well. “Arguably it’s more alive than ever before in history,” he said. “That’s because of the emergence of technology. Truly and literally, the future is in our hands. There’s no excuse now. Everyone can have access to unlimited learning. The cell phone itself is a portal to unlimited learning.” 

He expressed optimism about how technology can revolutionize education, citing how the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated access to technology and educational resources as schools embraced remote learning. He’s buoyed by the future possibilities. “I want to see a future where academic content is as engaging as video games and where students are incentivized for their learning progress—where tech can tailor to individual needs, providing flexibility,” he said. He hopes such technology can supplement classroom learning and inspire people to become lifelong learners.

Someone can take your money, your material things, your job, … but they can’t take away what you know. My dad told me that,” he said. “With knowledge, you can replace anything lost, you can be free to explore the world, you are beholden to no one. That’s the path to real freedom.”

Mr. Keyes visited his alma mater, Columbia Business School, earlier this year. (Courtesy of James Keyes)

The Three C’s

James Keyes defines the Three C’s that have helped him weather challenges, especially during his business career.

Change is inevitable in life, Mr. Keyes asserts. Both 7-Eleven and Blockbuster went through drastic changes during his tenure, and he had to respond—whether it involved restructuring the business or redefining the way the companies delivered and sourced products.

“You have to accept and respond to change, especially in the face of adversity,” he said. “You can’t give up or become a victim in the face of challenges. You must see the learning opportunities that come with change.”

Confidence is essential to responding to such changes. When going through turbulent times, people have a tendency to let fear take over, such as fear of losing one’s job or fear of people thinking negatively of one.

“You must have confidence in your own skills and abilities,” he said. “You must keep your head up and confidently look to the future.”

Clarity is the ability to break down complex problems into their simple components. It prevents one from being overwhelmed and better facilitates learning, according to Mr. Keyes. During times of crisis, keeping things simple is vitally important. “It’s how you navigate to safe harbors,” he said.

From July Issue, Volume IV

Features American Success Entrepreneurs Giving Back

Philanthropist Earl W. Stafford on How Faith Taught Him to Give Wisely: Help People Help Themselves

East of Philadelphia, over the Delaware River, lies a hamlet named Mount Holly. This New Jersey town is where Quakers first settled in the late 1600s. At one time, during the Revolutionary War, it became the state capital.

And, in the late 1940s, Earl W. Stafford was born in this same tight-knit community—a community he dubs “one of those George-Washington-slept-here towns.”

Raised in humble circumstances with meager means, Stafford is one of 12 children. He believes his upbringing made him the industrious business leader and philanthropist he is known for being today. He learned the values of charity, ethics, and kindness surrounded by the love of family and neighbors. “We weren’t rich by any stretch. If we wanted money, we shoveled snow, recycled bottles, cut lawns. It stuck with me,” Stafford recalled. He was fortunate, thanks to a neighborly, business-minded woman, Ms. Mason, who taught him the basics of business selling hot dogs and soft drinks around the block. He said that that entrepreneurial spirit still resonates within him today.

A Business Idea

After high school, Stafford went on to honorably serve in the United States Air Force for two decades, specializing in air traffic control. Equipped with leadership skills, along with an undergraduate degree from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, an MBA from Southern Illinois University, and a graduate certificate from Harvard Business School, Stafford was ready to serve the world.

He had hope for success upon leaving the Air Force. Stafford founded a new aviation-related manufacturing company in Washington, D.C., called Universal Systems & Technology, Inc. (Unitech). He utilized his expertise in air traffic control services to create training programs and simulation technology used by the FAA and the Department of Transportation.

But it was difficult for the first four to five years.

“I wasn’t getting paid, and the lights and phones were sometimes cut off,” he admitted. “We endured; God worked it out for us. I stepped out in faith based on the values I was raised with.”

Stafford’s company eventually rose in revenue to the tune of millions. The success wasn’t lost on him or his faith community.

Stafford (L) and his wife Amanda, following his reenlistment in the Air Force, 1971. (Courtesy of Earl W. Stafford)

“One day, my pastor called me. He wanted me to go to Haiti to build a church. I thought of every reason not to go. But I found myself in Port au Prince, a bit disgruntled,” he said. “After a week or so there, getting dirt under my fingernails,” he continued, “I realized that these people were not looking for a handout. They were looking for a helping hand.”

Humbled by the experience, Stafford returned home with a new perspective. His belief in God opened his heart and eyes to recognizing similar circumstances in which people needed help, he said.

The Meaning of Giving

In serving others, Stafford found purpose outside of his career. In 2002, he founded The Stafford Foundation as a faith-based philanthropic endeavor. One of its capstone projects early on was the People’s Inaugural Project, an initiative to bring disadvantaged Americans to experience Washington, D.C., and celebrate the presidential inauguration in 2009. Stafford’s vision brought together several nonprofits that helped to select and welcome some 400 individuals from all walks of life—including wounded veterans and men and women staying in homeless shelters—and from all over the United States. It was a grand event.

With first-class accommodations and dressed in tuxedos and fine gowns, the charity recipients mingled with multi-millionaires. “You couldn’t tell the haves from the have-nots! They intermingled and integrated into the ball filled with over several thousand people.” Stafford continued for the next five years working side by side with those organizations to support the recipients through job training programs and scholarships. The foundation also ran a “Give Before You Get” program: giving homeless or at-risk populations an opportunity to lend a helping hand by building homes and volunteering at hospitals and assisted living centers.

(Adhiraj Chakrabarti)

These projects allowed Stafford the opportunity to explore exactly how to serve others—to do good in the world. “One of the things the Foundation realized,” said Stafford, “is that we live with our hearts instead of our heads. We want to help everyone.”  He believes that the Lord has helped him find the missions that need the money most.

The work Stafford feels is most pressing today is for the foundation to provide assistance in Africa. Across more than 25 countries, the foundation has helped to build over 20 churches along with orphanages, training centers to teach women to read and write, and a business center to help small businesses grow. “We want to help people to help themselves. In fact, there are more ways to be helpful than writing a check. Helping others doesn’t have to be on a grand scale or on the front page of the news to impact people. We are judged not by what we give but how we give,” he said.

With grandfatherly wisdom, he believes it is important to listen to God. “When God uses you, it doesn’t mean you are the total solution. It means that sometimes you are part of a solution. When I reach the usefulness needed, God allows others to step in and help further.” He believes wholeheartedly that one can impact others in immeasurable ways. In the community where he grew up, if someone was in need, others gathered and tried to help, even if they didn’t have much themselves. “I knew my mother more than once sent a pot of something to a family who needed it more than we did.”

These kinds of values Stafford understood as an obligation to be “your brother’s keeper”—and he says we still have that obligation to each other today. “It’s not about ego. And it’s not about evaluating impact,” he stated. “We must continue to serve and plant the seed, and one day we will see what grew. We can’t be so satisfied with ourselves when we don’t know the impact we have had,” he said.

From January Issue, Volume 3


Milton Hershey’s Philanthropy

One could say that philanthropy is good for the nation and good for the soul.

In fact, philanthropy is a key component permeating the backbone of America’s success: American communities have benefited from private initiatives long after the benefactors have passed on.

Such is the case with one of America’s most beloved innovators: Milton S. Hershey. The wealthy industrialist invented legendary chocolates known the world over. However, Hershey’s legacy of philanthropy started with a belief in moral responsibility to others in need. “What good is money unless you use it for the benefit of the community and of humanity in general?” he was quoted as saying.

Milton 1887. (Courtesy of Milton Hershey School)

Born in Pennsylvania in 1857, Hershey had experienced hunger and poverty throughout his youth. Although loved, Hershey was accustomed to a routinely absent father. With limited choices, he left school at 14 and began a series of apprenticeships; he found success in the candy making industry 12 years later with his own business, Lancaster Caramel Company. It was his thriftiness, ingenuity, and hard work that placed Hershey in a position to give back. After selling his caramel business for $1 million in 1900, he made plans to build the Hershey Chocolate Company near where he grew up in Derry Church, Pennsylvania. There, he could mass-produce affordable, yet delicious, milk chocolate candies; create employment opportunities for others; and utilize the rich, creamy products from the dairy farming community.

Without heirs, Hershey and his wife Catherine dedicated their lives to philanthropic opportunities through the creation of the Hershey Theatre, the Hershey Amusement Park, and the Hershey Industrial School. The latter started out as an orphanage on the old homestead in the early 1900s. Today, Hershey’s legacy lives on as thousands of students have benefited from attending the well-endowed Milton Hershey School (as it is now known), a cost-free, private school for boys and girls from low-income families. As a home and school, MHS covers 100 percent of the cost of medical, dental, and psychological care, housing, clothing, food, extracurricular activities, and more for its students, allowing them to focus on their personal growth. This year’s enrollment consists of 2,000 students.

MHS Elementary school student enjoying art class. (Courtesy of Milton Hershey School)

Josh Kelly, like so many students before him, comes from an adverse background. Students who experience neglect, poverty, or negative environments apply for free admission and find themselves on a new path of opportunity. Kelly, a bright senior who hails from Philadelphia, plays ice hockey, works as a lifeguard at the school’s pool, and plans to further his education in the field of business or finance after graduation.

“When I was younger, my dad was never around. I was getting into trouble because I didn’t know how to express my emotions of anger very well,” said Kelly of his time as a troubled 1st grader. He and his older sister arrived at Milton Hershey School to get away from home and school dilemmas. Upon arrival at the Milton Hershey School, Kelly credits his elementary school houseparents for their tremendous influence on his emotional growth and well-being.
“They always push you to do better because they want you to succeed,” he added. “I didn’t have parent figures, so to speak, so they really set me up for a better future.”

Houseparent with students. (Courtesy of Milton Hershey School)

A better future, asserts School Historian Susan Alger, is why Hershey’s visionary ideals led him and Catherine to contribute to and support an institution like no other—a private establishment that not only educates but offers support and balance in family life.

“Students can relate to Milton Hershey’s story, who experienced a meager existence in a dysfunctional family. He wanted students to be useful citizens with stability,” Alger explained. “He just always said he wanted to get away from the idea of institutions and give them a happy life.”

In the beginning, Hershey’s Industrial School was an all-male enterprise. Aside from studies, everyone helped with daily chores, from gardening to milking cows. And the school grew in numbers. Being completely self-contained with truck patch farming, the students and employees grew everything they needed.

After Catherine Hershey passed away in 1915, Milton Hershey endeavored to be more involved in all aspects of the school’s success, providing opportunities in trades for students and financially ensuring needs were met.

According to Alger, his direct involvement of care and concern for the school was essentially fatherly. Being a bit sentimental and shy, Hershey would take boys for rides in his car and visit their student homes. Hershey was quoted as saying, “If we had helped a hundred children it would have all been worthwhile.”

Even during World Wars I and II, the school continued its deliberate mission to educate youth from troubled homes. Originally, the Deed of Trust allowed boys ages 4 through 8 to attend if the father was deceased; however, about the time of the Great Depression, the age restriction expanded to ages 4 to 14 with either mother or father deceased. Even when enrollment was down during World War II, it was due to those who chose to serve. “Close to 1,000 served, and we annually honor our Gold Star alumni who gave their life to service,” Alger stated.

While other philanthropists, in their generosity, give away partial or complete estates after their passing, Hershey was different. “He gave the bulk of his entire wealth while still alive,” Alger said. With the success of the Hershey Chocolate Company, Hershey quietly and humbly transferred the entirety of his company’s shares in 1918 to the school. But this fact was not known until a few years later.

With heart and will bent toward benevolence, Hershey was motivated by his own upbringing but also motivated through innovation.

“I wanted to get away from the idea of institutions and charity and compulsion, and to give as many boys as possible real homes, real comforts, education, and training, so they would be useful and happy citizens,” he said of his school. “Most of them [students] have better chances for character building and education than ever before. Perhaps they don’t have the chance to make as much money as some individuals have made, but they will lead to happier lives.”

Milton Hershey with children. (Courtesy of Milton Hershey School)

Historical records and oral histories indicate that Milton Hershey was a fair man. “He always gave the benefit of the doubt. As a problem solver, he wanted things to be right and ethical. He wanted people to live honestly.”

And unlike his contemporaries, she added, Hershey was grounded. As an example, in comparison to other wealthy philanthropists like the Fords, Wrigleys, and Vanderbilts, Hershey built a modest yet graceful home, High Point Mansion.

And though Hershey passed away in 1945, his innovative school continued to cultivate an education that helped hundreds of students. In 1977, the founder’s original dreams expanded, admitting girls from disadvantaged homes or tragic backgrounds.

“My dad tragically died when I was 4 years old,” said Christine Cook, a recently retired kindergarten teacher of 35 years at the Milton Hershey School.

Cook remarked on her own journey as the first female to graduate.

“I arrived in 10th grade as a sophomore from Philadelphia. We were taught intangibles—to work hard and to be kind. And we were taught tangibles like milking cows at 5:30 in the morning on the coldest of winter days or in the middle of the summer with temperatures soaring above 100 degrees. This is good, character-building stuff.”

Even if students didn’t like the chores, it was part of the overall experience. But Cook admits she was fortunate. Other students came from families with tragic, even abusive, backgrounds. Leaving family behind and starting fresh can be extremely challenging for the students and their families.

“I remember it being difficult for my mother. It was a tough decision, but a great one. So many parent supports exist today that help families experiencing feelings of guilt, […] giving up their children even though the school provides them with better opportunities,” Cook continued.

She would know. Before Cook graduated as the first alumna in 1981, she had played field hockey, basketball, and softball. She was a member of the school’s band, earned a spot in the National Honor Society, and held positions in student leadership. She graduated from college and returned to the school to teach the hallmark values, ideals, and integrity so instilled from her own experiences at the school. Cook believes that if Milton Hershey were alive today, he would be impressed by the vast majority of alumni who have successfully graduated and are employed in solid leadership positions. The school’s alumni have surpassed 11,000.

Cook was named the Alumna of the Year in May 2021, and she attests to the amazing honor of being a student. Her experiences led her to contribute in many ways to countless others who came through her classroom. In fact, she taught just under 500 students over her 35-year tenure.

“Hershey’s idea of success was making your mark in society in a positive way. A successful person is one who helps others. Hershey was big on helping the other guy, making the world a better place,” Cook added.

When her students graduate, she makes a point to stay in touch with those who are considered “Lifers”—having attended from kindergarten through their senior year. For the seniors, she invites them over to her house, cooks a homemade meal, and breaks out photos to share memories. When a Lifer graduates, she makes sure her congratulatory card includes a copy of his or her kindergarten report card.

“As you graduate, you understand the needs of the kids; it makes you work harder. I would tell my kindergartners that they attend the best school in the whole wide world.”

These kids are the lucky ones because no other school subscribes to what Milton Hershey stood for, she added. He left a mark in the world and lived up to his words.

Christine Cook, former kindergarten teacher for 35 years at MHS. (Courtesy of Milton Hershey School)

The philanthropic mission of Milton Hershey has been good for the students and employees. As School Historian Alger put it, “There’s one quote of Milton Hershey that sums up what he wanted, and it’s what we still do today: ‘One is only happy in proportion as he makes others feel happy and only useful as he contributes his influences for the finer callings in life.’”

It’s an adage that Kelly appreciates. Every year, he and the other students become philanthropists of sorts. With community service days, they learn to give back, too. He appreciates the opportunities awaiting him after graduation, thankful for the founder he never met who helped turn his life around.

If Milton Hershey’s philanthropic success continues from within the hallways of his hometown private initiative, it will be good for America, for his legacy of education lives on with students long after they graduate. One could say his gratefulness and generosity echo beyond the grave: “I hope to see the school carry on to new heights. After a man dies, he cannot spend his money, and it has been a pleasure for me to spend mine as I have done.”