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Gary Rubens.
Gary Rubens.

Gary Rubens is already helping local startups get off the ground with financial backing. Now he’s doing the same for students.

The Seattle angel investor today announced a five-year, $20 million donation from his foundation to the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship (WSOS), a public-private initiative that funds college tuition for low- and middle-income students pursuing majors in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), and health care.

It’s the largest gift from a single individual to the program since WSOS was founded in 2011, and the $20 million will also be matched by the State of Washington. Thanks to the Rubens Family Foundation, WSOS will have another $40 million to help put 6,800 students through a Washington state college or university.

“I grew up poor and did not have an opportunity to go to college because my family could not afford it, so I have a passion for those in need of an education,” Rubens told GeekWire.

wsos121Rubens is a longtime Seattleite, first starting a manufacturing company in the hospitality industry and later launching a home furnishing and fixtures e-commerce site that was acquired by Lowe’s in December 2011.

Now he invests in more than 50 local startups and is chairman of his foundation, which has given more than $26 million to non-profits since 2013.

Rubens said he’s passionate about helping the startup ecosystem grow in Seattle and said his WSOS donation will open doors for tomorrow’s entrepreneurs — particularly those that may have not had the opportunity otherwise.

“These grants are specifically for underprivileged, low-income kids who are sometimes the first college attendee in their family,” he said. “We literally want to break the cycle and change the course of a kid’s life through education.”

Brad Smith.
Brad Smith.

Since program administrative costs are already covered by initial program funds — Microsoft and Boeing are putting up $50 million to help launch WSOS — every penny of Rubens’ donation will go to scholarships.

“This investment is a perfect example of the promise of the Opportunity Scholarship,” Brad Smith, Microsoft General Counsel and WSOS Board Chair, said in a statement. “It’s impossible to overstate the impact to students who otherwise couldn’t attend college this fall.

The Rubens are also providing a great example for Washington’s business leadership,” Smith added. “Companies across the state are hungry for diverse, skilled talent and the Opportunity Scholarship can help Washington lead the nation in cultivating a robust workforce to support a thriving economy.”

WSOS has awarded 4,400 scholarships to eligible Washington-based students in families who earn up to 125 percent of the median family income.

The $40 million will help double its impact, and the timing is good as the organization saw a 38 percent uptick in eligible applicants this year. WSOS noted that over half of its recipients are first-generation college students; 60 percent are female; and over half identify as students of color. Of graduates employed, 90 percent remained in Washington state.

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