The Why Behind the Satter Foundation: An Interview with Muneer Satter

It was a pivotal moment in Chicago investor Muneer Satter’s life when, on a trip to his father’s native India, he encountered a group of school-aged children.

Refugees from a civil war in Pakistan, the group sat on a mud floor in a schoolhouse hut located in a Calcutta slum.

“They didn’t have proper schools, they didn’t have proper sewage and because of that they were getting sick.  They didn’t have enough food, so they were malnourished,” Satter said. “There were just lots of problems.”

As refugees the children did not possess the political capital — they and their families were unable to vote — to catch the attention of politicians and were given very little support and subsequently very little chance to build their lives.

Still, Satter remembers they had hope.

“They were sitting on the floor singing ‘We Shall Overcome,’” Satter said. “It was very moving and brought tears in my eyes and it was tough to see because I was pretty sure they could not overcome.  At least not without a lot of outside help and support.”

In 1997, Satter and his wife, Kristen Hertel, founded the Satter Foundation, with the goals of helping such children from all over the globe rise above their circumstances in life.

“The American Dream is achieved when there is equal opportunity — that is the core underpinning of the American Dream,” Satter said. “It is hard to get an equal opportunity if you don’t receive an equal education. The reality is that some people receive better education because of where they live, where they were born and as a result of their economic circumstances.  And for some of our citizens, it is the opposite, creating two separate and unequal worlds, and that is not OK and cannot be allowed to continue.”

Through its grants to several non-profit groups and foundations the Satter Foundation provides for educational opportunity, human rights and democracy, health and human services, protecting the environment, job creation and supporting military veterans both at home in Chicago as well as internationally.  

Satter traces his philanthropic roots in part back to the life of his mother, Patricia Templeton Satter.

“My mom went to Berea, which was the first integrated college in the South.  In the 1950’s, she was a civil rights activist in the Deep South — Mississippi and Alabama,” Satter said. “There were a lot of people on college campuses who were fighting for civil rights in the 1960’s, but there weren’t so many people doing it in the 1950’s.  It was very dangerous, but she knew segregation was morally wrong.  She had a real passion for equality and she was a rabble rouser.  We went to many civil rights marches.”

His father, Abdus Satter, emigrated from India to the United States to attend graduate school on a scholarship at Colorado School of Mines and the University of Oklahoma, earning a Ph.D. in petroleum engineering.

Born in 1960, Satter grew up middle class with parents who made his education their top priority. At an early age, he took notice.

“We moved a dozen times in a dozen years, so we were always on the move.  My parents didn’t choose our houses for the quality of the house, they chose the houses for their location in a good school district,” Satter said.  

His parents demonstrated strong values.  “One day, my dad came home and announced he had quit his job and we would have to move again.  He quit because he overheard one of his partners lying to a client and he refused to go along with it.  My dad had really high integrity. I am very proud of him.”

Satter grew up in Houston, Texas, then traveled to Chicago for college, first receiving a bachelor’s degree at Northwestern University before earning a juris doctorate and an MBA from Harvard University.

Attending such ultra-competitive universities, alongside students educated at elite private academies and boarding schools, Satter felt intimidated, but prepared. A nurturing family, strong values and a quality Houston public school education, gave him the foundation he needed to succeed.

Today, Satter sees the consequences of subpar public education in Chicago, where the Satter Foundation deploys much of its grant monies.

“We are trying to support people who are creating positive and impactful alternatives that allow kids to grow and get a great education.  That is where our primary focus is in respect to Chicago,” Satter said.  

Students attending public schools in Chicago right now, much like the children Satter encountered Calcutta so many years ago, are not guaranteed a quality public education due to the economic circumstances into which they were born and a potentially underperforming school they are forced to attend due to where they live.

“Eighty six percent of all Chicago Public School students come from economically disadvantaged homes. If the parents can’t afford to move, their kids do not necessarily get a good education because they have one choice.  If that choice is a poor performing school, their life is going to be shaped very differently.  On average, Chicago Public Schools have around 40% percent of kids graduating from high school and even less than that going on to college. We have to find a way to change that.”

In particular, the Satter Foundation has directed grants to charter schools and organizations meant to strengthen the fabric of Chicago education and provide a choice within public education for local school children.

“The facts are the kids attending charter schools are scoring much higher on their tests and graduating at a much higher rate. And 75% of them are going on to college,” Satter said. “That is very, very different than what is happening in most Chicago public schools.”

As a result, the city’s charter schools are in high demand.

“Most of these charter schools are oversubscribed,” Satter said. “They have to turn away parents and kids which I think is a real tragedy. They have to turn away kids because there is still not enough capacity available for all kids.”

The Satter Foundation hopes to help alleviate this problem somewhat by providing financial support to expand capacity.  However, Satter said it will take a much larger effort to ensure educational equality.

“I can’t create systemic change.  That is really complicated.  But what I hope we can do is help create alternatives and choices,” Satter said.  “Why shouldn’t every parent and child have a choice of great schools?”

The foundation’s Chicago-based grantees with an educational focus for 2014 include the Academy for Urban School Leadership, Accelerate Institute, Chicago Community Trust, KIPP Ascend Middle School, New Schools for Chicago, Noble Network of Charter Schools, the Ounce of Prevention, Pathways.org, Perspectives Charter School and Teach for America.

“Education is the key to giving everyone a great shot at life.  After that, it is up to the individual whether they want to take that opportunity or not,” Satter said. “But the first step is having that equal opportunity.”