Stephen A. Finn MBA ’76 Finds Millions of Ways To Give Back
By Tracy Seipel
A $10 million gift bolsters Santa Clara University’s new STEM campus, SCU’s future.
As a little kid growing up in the 1950s near Santa Clara University, the six-foot-high adobe walls bordering the campus seemed three times bigger to Stephen A. Finn MBA ’76.
“And then there were all these tall people,” recalls Finn of students he’d spy on visits to the place where people went to “college.”
“I wondered if I would ever be as tall, and as smart.”
Finn not only grew taller, he became one of those college students, earning an MBA from the University’s Leavey School of Business. From there, he joined Tom O’Rourke’s Tymshare, Inc., which pioneered private networks and early cloud computing. Finn would go on to found a data management services firm he leveraged into an industry player, and later sell to E*Trade. Along the way, he began investing his time and money into growing his graduate alma mater’s future, both as a member of SCU’s Board of Regents, then its Board of Trustees.
“Leave the world a little better place than you found it,” he remembers a Catholic nun telling his elementary school class at the nearby St. Clare School. Finn has followed that advice for years while contributing to programs and places close to his heart, including Santa Clara.
His nearly $25 million and counting in gifts to SCU seek to address the strategic goals of the University’s long game. Finn’s most recent donation of $10 million to the new Sobrato Campus for Discovery and Innovation attests to his commitment to the University’s undergraduates that no matter what their majors, they can be exposed to STEM classes, something he says is critical for their career portfolios and futures.
“It’s the right place at the right time,” says Finn of the SCDI campus, anchored by a $100 million donation from his longtime friends John A. Sobrato ’60 and Sue Sobrato, who launched the fundraising campaign. “That’s what this is. This is what’s so exciting.”
Opportunity and preparation
“Everywhere you are in Silicon Valley—whether it’s today, 10 years ago, two years ago, next week—you’re at the right place at the right time because what we have here is opportunity,” Finn says. “There’s more opportunity here, I bet, than there is anywhere in the world. And success is the intersection of opportunity and preparation.”
Finn doesn’t preach without putting his words into practice. What began with his $1 million gift to help open the business school’s new home in Lucas Hall in 2008 sparked a dedication to expand Santa Clara’s profile. He made an $11 million donation to build the Stephen A. Finn Residence Hall, which opened in the summer of 2019.
That investment came after the former longtime SCU Regent learned that Santa Clara couldn’t grow its undergraduate population based on the available dorms, since the University requires all first- and second-year students to live on campus. Finn is a firm believer in scaling growth to increase revenue and in SCU’s case, he believes that scaling could help hold down tuition costs, and is the key to freezing tuition.
“I don’t care what organization it is,” he says. “You need to scale.”
Again and again, the timing of his gifts at SCU has proved invaluable. Notably, he wrote a series of checks totalling $1.8 million in 2020 to SCU’s Heritage Fund, established by the Board of Trustees a few months after the pandemic had closed down the campus. The fund awarded grants to students whose financial situations had changed, often after they or their parents had lost their jobs.
Finn acknowledges that his investments to enhance SCU’s quality of life and education benefited nieces and nephews whose Santa Clara educations he’s already paid for, or will be funding. Decades ago, the names of the University’s wealthy donors inscribed inside the Mission church—some related to the prominent families of kids he’d gone to school with—had made an impression on him. As a youngster, Finn harbored no expectations that his own name might someday appear on campus.
Peaks and valleys
The eldest of six children raised in an Irish Catholic family, Finn is a fourth generation San Franciscan whose father worked as a mounted S.F. policeman until Finn was 5 years old. He might have stayed on the force forever but for Finn’s mother, who couldn’t abide the city’s eternal fog and pushed her husband to move the family to a sunnier spot. They landed in a rental on Tulip Road in Santa Clara, about a mile from SCU, then moved to Willow Glen a few years later.
By the time he reached San Jose’s Pioneer High School, except for an A in accounting, Finn was a committed B student. His mom admonished him to “work on what you’re not good at.” Finn disagreed, telling her, "No, mom. I want to work at what I'm great at, or can be great at."
Making a lot of money was at the top of the list. His father, who became a successful custom home developer in the Lower Peninsula, had taught him about big money—and then some. “We had a very nice lifestyle, thanks to it,” recalls Finn. But it was often a feast or famine. Some years, the family skied at Squaw Valley during the Christmas break; other years, he says, “we drank powdered milk.”
The cycle of peaks and valleys would impact other aspects of his life. For years, his dad had promised to pay for his college education, wherever Finn was accepted and wanted to go. But after getting into several private schools, Finn was told it would be San Jose State or bust.
Paying for his younger siblings’ private Catholic schooling meant the family couldn’t afford to send his eldest son anywhere else, his father explained. Finn got another surprise that summer: his dad had found him a job as a janitor at Langendorf Bakery in San Jose. ”All janitors, no matter their experience or age, earned the same $3.10 per hour,” Finn recalls.
For the first time in his life, Finn’s eyes were opened to another world, where his co-workers, many of them Latinos living on San Jose’s lower-income East Side, were getting by or struggling to raise families. The keys to a college education, unlocking a more promising future, hadn’t been within their reach. Those insights would stay with him.
At San Jose State, where he majored in business marketing, Finn learned more about issues of luck and fairness. As a college student, he’d been protected from the Vietnam draft; the authority to induct draftees expired June 30, 1973, just weeks after his graduation.
During college, he’d also signed on as a student advisory committee member. He recalls joining others outraged when faculty members assumed a new, no-charge parking lot would be reserved only for them. Finn delivered an impassioned speech at a meeting where he pointed out that as a mostly commuter school, students should have equal access to the lot. The university caved, though not before imposing parking fees. The central question to him then, as it is now: “Who is the customer?”
“I’ve always been an agitator,” says Finn, who as an SCU regent and now SCU trustee is known for asking tough questions about finances at Santa Clara on behalf of many cash-strapped parents and students. He views it as his charge to challenge the University to prepare for a changing and more competitive future in higher education, and offer a more affordable tuition.
Missing the right hook
Finn’s college days also happened to parallel the rise of semiconductor companies and computer firms that were transforming the area into Silicon Valley, positioning him for a career in tech sales. But a year after he graduated in 1973, he was still working at a payroll services company, not landing the lucrative industry jobs he wanted.
“You couldn’t sell the high-end, really cool products that paid a lot of commissions unless you had an MBA or an EE,” says Finn. “So I was sitting here in Silicon Valley and there was all this opportunity. Those fish were swimming by, off the front of the dock, but I couldn’t get one because I didn’t have the right hook. I had to get my MBA to be prepared for the opportunity and success,” he says, paraphrasing his motto in life.
The well-known MBA program offered across town by that once-intimidating Jesuit, Catholic campus was the key to everything for Finn, who applied—and was promptly turned down. A stubborn Finn persisted, meeting with the business school dean, asking him to review his application and work experience. Two weeks later, he recounts, a letter arrived. “It said, ‘We’ve reconsidered.’”
Though admittedly not among the best students in class, Finn, who kept his day job while going to school at night, learned the fundamentals of business, while bonding with a particular group of 14 classmates who graduated with him in 1976.
“What I remember was the peer group, the student quality,” he says of the enduring friendships that continue to this day, though three of the group’s members have died. “We are this close,” says Finn, raising a thumb and index finger with nary a space between. For 46 years, they have been there for each other, he says, and for their families.
With diplomas in hand, they went their separate ways. Finn joined one of the valley’s first cloud computing companies, and by 1981, started LCS Investor Services, a data management service provider. In 1988, he purchased Gemisys Corporation, a company that provided back office services to financial institutions. He created Trust Company of America in 1992, which he sold to E*Trade 26 years later.
Building a business, and a legacy
Finn is matter-of-fact about his secret to success.
“I compete with myself more than I compete with others,” he says. “It’s like golf. It’s about you and your game.” He also thought it smarter to work in what he calls “value oriented businesses” and not the brutal world of commodities, where everyone competes on price.
He cites a story he heard about the oscillator Bill Hewlett and David Packard custom designed for the Walt Disney Company to use in the audio production of its 1940 movie “Fantasia. “Hewlett wanted to charge $1,000 for it because it cost $500 to build it, and Packard reportedly told him, ‘Are you kidding? It cost $25,000 worth of artists to duplicate that. So we're going to charge them half of that.’”
A value-add business, he says, means more profit to reinvest in a company, to grow, to hire the best people and offer the best benefits. “It’s all win-win,” says Finn. “You want to compete on the value that your product or service provides. You want to be able to honestly say, ‘Sir, you can't afford not to use our service,’ and truly mean it, and have it be the case.”
He reveled in being underestimated by competitors.
“It’s really fun to figure out something different, so that the risk perceived by everyone else in the market isn't there because you see it a different way,” says Finn, whether that’s being able to solve a problem, buy a new product, or a new company.
Not that Finn didn’t make mistakes. “Some of the ideas I had were just stupid. I don't know how many millions of dollars I lost on notions that I had,” he recalls. “But fortunately, more of them were right than wrong.”
The profits from the 2018 sale of his company to E*Trade has offered Finn immense freedom to enjoy life, but also, he says, time to figure out what to do with all he’s learned to make the world a better place, as that nun once counseled long ago. Over the years, he’s acknowledged how much that summer job at the bakery—and his insight about the head start he’d gotten in life compared to many others—have guided him.
Whether as a key contributor to the Community School of Music and Art in Mountain View, or to pay for a chapel for Dominican nuns in San Francisco, and named after his 90-year-old mother, Finn is all in.
Beyond his gifts to Santa Clara University, the value-add in helping efforts he calls “education underdogs” is now among his greatest passions. Finn has become a major benefactor at Cristo Rey San José Jesuit High School, a college prep for first-generation students from low-income families. It’s where Finn and Sobrato, as Cristo Rey board members, have invested in new buildings, as well as scholarships that will send those students to Santa Clara University.
“It’s an opportunity to seed young people’s success for their whole life,” says Finn. “And that floats my boat.”