An Interview with New BOM Chair Kemp ’72

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

When Gil Kemp, who will become Swarthmore’s next Board of Managers Chair in May, was a prep school student in the late ‘60s, a teacher recommended he apply to Stanford on the grounds that he “looked like he knew how to have a good time.”  The teacher suggested he practice for Stanford by interviewing at another school first. Though Kemp disputes his characterization as a party-animal—“I’m a pretty sober guy,” he insists—it was this chain of events that led him to be accepted in the class of 1972. But when a pretty girl smiled at him during a visit to Swarthmore, his decision was solidified.

Since then, Kemp has built a relationship with Swarthmore that is anything but coincidental. “I’m absolutely excited [to be the new chair]… and privileged to be a part of… [this] special place,” he told the Daily Gazette in a phone interview. And, like the donors he hopes to attract as chair, he’s made significant “emotional and financial contributions” to the college.

Over the years, Kemp’s philanthropy has resulted in the construction of David Kemp residence hall, which is named for his grandfather, and the Walter Kemp professorship, named for his father, which is currently occupied by biologist Rachel Mertz. His donations also funded the West House and a set of locker rooms. Inspired by legendary philanthropist and “wonderful role model” Eugene Lang ’38, Kemp says it’s “almost embarrassing how exciting it is [for me] to give money.”

In an article entitled “On Philanthropy,” Kemp writes, “[My family has] had a very comfortable life for the past 25 years, and there is nothing material we long for: no yachts, second homes, or expensive art. And for over a decade, I have motivated myself to work hard to strive to grow [my] business by telling myself that if the business prospered greatly, I would use a large portion of the wealth created to try and make a difference for others.”

After graduating with an Honors degree in Sociology, Kemp went on to work first as traveling salesman and later, after graduating from Harvard Business School, as a direct marketer for publishing companies.  Then, in 1989, he turned an “avocational interest in interior design” into a lucrative business, Home Decorators Collection, which sold consumers “high-end home furnishings” through a magazine. HDC was acquired by Home Depot in 2006. Kemp, his fortune made, now considers himself retired.

Kemp has been a member of the Board of Managers since 2003, but his résumé includes leadership roles in a number of other institutions and charities. He has served on the board of the local branch of United Way in Scarsdale, NY, where he lives, and was also a board member of the Scarsdale Foundation. He continues to be a member of the board of the East Meets West Foundation, which seeks to improve health and education in Asia, as well as the board of Let’s Get Ready, which provides SAT prep to those who can’t afford it.

For Swarthmore’s Board, Kemp has focused on fundraising and development, chairing the College Annual Fund and the Development & Communications Committee. He also chaired the Strategic Planning Council. As he puts it, “given that we’re about to embark on a long [fundraising] campaign, [the college thought my] experience would make me a good choice for chair.”

Kemp will focus on the Strategic Plan as Board Chair. He says the college “has done a good job so far” on the plan. “I don’t think there’s anything not worth doing,” he says, but “we don’t need [further] new initiatives; we need donors. [The hardest part is] getting others excited” about the Strategic Plan. He describes connecting with potential donors as a sort of matching process, whereby eager alumni and hopeful college representatives discuss possible projects until one (or more) is mutually agreed upon.

While Kemp asserts that neither his nor anyone else’s “personal enthusiasms” should lead the planning discussions, he says he places a high value on “wellness [and] physical activity”. As a runner at Swarthmore, Kemp set what is still the college’s record for the outdoor mile – a blazing 4:15.5.

When asked about his leadership style, Kemp suggested he was less of a dictator and more of a listener. He says that his “development [as a leader] is a lifelong process” and that he is an “effective” leader but always “committed [to] personal growth.” In his thirties, Kemp, keen on improving his presentation skills, took a course based on Dale Carnegie’s self-help classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People. He insists he “got more out of that course” than out of any course at either Swarthmore or Harvard Business School. In fact, he took a break from his career in order to co-author the biography Dale Carnegie: The Man Who Influenced Millions.

On the subject of the college’s financial future, Kemp says he’s noticed “an increase in awareness of the fragility of [our] economic position,” even though we’ve had what he believes is strong giving and successful endowment management. He says that a large part of the Board’s role is “to ensure the Swarthmore of the future is as strong as the Swarthmore of today [though this is] sort of at the back of people’s minds.”

According to NACUBO-The Commonfund Institute, Swarthmore’s endowment grew at an average rate of about 3% since 2009, even as those of schools like Amherst, Pomona, and Harvard declined. As the student body is well aware, Swarthmore’s numbers are due to decisions that include investing in controversial companies. Asked about divestment, Kemp declined to comment, citing his lack of knowledge on the issue.
“The nice thing about Swat, which is about to have its sesquicentennial in 2014, is that the institution is much greater than us and transcends us as individuals. I want people to feel optimistic in 2064 too,” Kemp said. He makes it clear that “helping to craft a vision for the future” will be his biggest goal as Board Chair.

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