Gary Rubens is one of Seattle’s top angel investors, a fixture in the region’s startup ecosystem. But now the 54-year-old investor and entrepreneur is looking to fulfill a different type of dream, one more than three decades in the making. In 1981, he was accepted to Washington State University, but he couldn’t attend because his family didn’t have money for tuition.
His parents held working-class jobs and he was the first child of three to graduate high school in the Seattle area. Instead of attending college, he took blue collar positions with construction and metal-working companies. Rubens leveraged those gigs into several successful business endeavors and now, the multi-millionaire — who holds stakes in dozens of startup companies in the Seattle area — said he’s finally in a position to pursue a four-year degree.
“I thought, ‘why can’t I do that,'” said Rubens, who sold his e-commerce company to Lowe’s in 2011. “Why can’t I go do that for me and do something now that I couldn’t do then because I didn’t have the means? Now I have the means and I have the time. I’ve got to dedicate four years of my life to doing this, but it’s sort of a personal goal.”
When Rubens decided to apply for college again, he shopped around. Both of his children are Huskies and he’s on University of Washington’s advisory board but, in the end, he landed on the same school that accepted him 35 years ago. He didn’t tell anyone that he was applying, just in case he didn’t get accepted. Rubens, who got his formal acceptance to WSU earlier this week, said it was tough trying to find old transcripts — which he joked were chiseled in “stone tablets” — and formulate a coherent essay.
Symmetry was one motivator that Rubens wanted to attend WSU, but he was also drawn to the school’s online program and psychology department. When he floated his proposed major to friends and family, many were surprised he didn’t plan to study business.
“I feel like I’ve learned a bit about business,” he said. “I’ve sold two companies. I’ve acquired six companies, so I’ve got a pretty good feel but the biggest thing I’ve struggled with in business, over all of my life in general, is the understanding of people.”
During the dot-com boom, Rubens sold his online lighting business, ATG Stores, to home improvement superstore Lowe’s. That deal gave him the financial freedom to launch other ventures, like Start It Labs, a company that invests in startups, and the Rubens Family Foundation.
The non-profit foundation helps low-income students who find themselves in the same position Rubens did when he graduated high school. As one of the chief supporters of the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship, the Rubens Family Foundation has donated millions to help students get into college in Washington state — something Rubens now finds himself doing.
“I’m a pretty simple person because I grew up poor and we were on food stamps and got food from a food bank,” Rubens said. “I have a nice car. I can go on nice trips. I have a nice house. In reality, nobody really needs that much money … that’s not very satisfying at the end of the day, so I go, ‘I’d really like to help other people that were in a situation just like me, that were relatively smart but, through no fault of their own, their family doesn’t have the means to help them get to college.”
Rubens says he plans to divest all of his holdings over the next 15 to 20 years down to a minimum amount to live on for the following 20 years. All of the funds are intended for scholarships in Washington state.
One of the reasons Rubens wants to attend WSU is to learn more about higher education, which he’s funding for so many students.
“I want to be more understanding and more knowledgeable about the process of getting a four-year degree and what it takes,” he said. “How hard is it? And how much do you have to work? How much do you have to study?”
Rubens will begin WSU’s online program in January. He asked if it was possible to accelerate his studies, but the university requires online students to take the full four years. In the end, he says he’s grateful that he’ll get the comprehensive experience.
“It wouldn’t seem quite right if I got to do it any less than the full process,” he said. “It’ll be interesting and I’ve got to learn college study habits. I don’t know what that’s about. I didn’t do that so it’s a little bit intimidating, in a way, but I think I can learn it and I can apply my skills I’ve learned in business over time to it.”
Friends are already having a little fun with Rubens’ decision to head back to school, with some asking if he’ll join a fraternity or help chair the social committee. At a reception celebrating WSOS earlier this week, Erin Ashley, director of corporate relations and special events at the WSOS, handed Rubens a number of gifts to get ready for his college career, including a WSU backpack and shirt, and a container of Cougar Gold cheddar cheese.
Editor’s note: GeekWire partners with The Rubens Family Foundation, Bank of America and WSOS on the Geeks Give Back campaign, which earlier this year raised $1.27 million for students studying STEM in Washington state.