Eli Broad, the first entrepreneur to found two companies in two different industries and build them into Fortune 500 powerhouses, provided first homes to hundreds of thousands of families and secure retirements to millions of Americans throughout his five-decade business career.
His most significant legacy, however, is his philanthropy. As founding members of The Giving Pledge, Eli and his wife of over 60 years, Edye, devoted their multi-billion dollar fortune to advancing more high-quality learning opportunities for K-12 public school students across the country, improving human health, and sharing contemporary art with large audiences. A lifelong entrepreneur and builder, Eli created and grew new businesses, educational organizations, scientific research institutions and museums.
Eli had an uncanny ability to see both opportunities and landmines where others could not. His success in two industries, homebuilding and retirement savings, relied on key insights into his customers. With Kaufman and Broad Home Corporation, now known as KB Home, Eli priced houses affordably to appeal to young families eager to leave apartments for homes—they went on to buy 600,000 of his company’s houses across the country. At SunAmerica—which started as a small life insurance company purchased to diversify Kaufman and Broad’s homebuilding business—Eli recognized that the aging Baby Boomer generation needed retirement savings, rather than just life insurance. His insight made SunAmerica a financial services powerhouse, and the New York Stock Exchange’s fastest growing company of the 1990s.
After leaving the world of business following the sale of SunAmerica to AIG in 1999, Eli pursued a new career as a full-time philanthropist, driven by a strong desire to give back. He and Edye founded and funded numerous institutions in education, science and the arts. Through their foundation, the Broads established two programs to help develop and support public school system leaders and managers, the Broad Academy and the Broad Residency in Urban Education. They funded three stem cell centers in California and they invested more than $1 billion to create and endow the Broad Institute, a globally renowned genomic medicine research center in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Avid contemporary art collectors, they built The Broad, a museum in downtown Los Angeles, to hold their 2,000 artworks—more than 3.5 million people had visited in its first 4.5 years before the Covid-19 pandemic temporarily shut its doors.
Starting out in stamps
Born on June 6, 1933, Eli was the doted-on only child of hard-working parents, both Jewish immigrants from Lithuania who made the South Bronx their home. Leon was a house painter who opened a Christmas store every holiday season to earn extra money during the Great Depression. Rita, a seamstress, had few extravagances but could recreate any dress she saw, no matter how luxurious.
After the family moved to Detroit in 1940—which World War II had transformed into a boomtown—Leon opened a five-and-dime store, and Rita kept the books, often working late into the night. Broad delivered newspapers and helped out at the store after school. He also inherited his father’s entrepreneurialism and his mother’s quiet diligence, starting his first business at the age of 13.
A longtime stamp collector, Eli spotted a magazine ad for a sale on stamps—100 of them for $1.95, available at Chrysler International in downtown Detroit. Broad put on a double-breasted sport coat and took a streetcar to the automaker, unchaperoned. He was the only person inquiring about the stamps. After returning home with his haul, he began placing ads for individual stamps in collecting magazines. Soon, checks poured in from across the country—which Eli, at 13, could not cash himself.
“Everyone thought I was an adult, with a bank account,” he said.
Despite the early entrepreneurial success, Eli spent the next decade of life working often difficult jobs to pay his way through college at Michigan State University, where he studied accounting and economics. A first-generation college student, he sold women’s shoes, hawked garbage disposal units door-to-door, delivered rolls of film to be developed, and operated a drill press at Packard Auto Company. Even with the heavy workload, Eli, impatient to launch a career, finished college in three years, graduating in 1953, and became the youngest person to pass the CPA exam in the state of Michigan.
During his final year of college, Eli also met the woman who would become his wife. Edye Lawson was in her Senior year of high school when Eli received her phone number from a friend who thought the pair would make a good match. Eli cold called her, and to his surprise, she accepted. Within just a few months, Eli proposed marriage and Edye said yes. Within a few years, the Broads were the parents of two boys, Jeffrey and Gary, and the owners of their own home—the first and only time Eli would ever have a mortgage.
Breakthroughs in business
Eli started Kaufman and Broad Home Corporation with a deceptively simple idea: build houses without basements.
In 1956, Eli was a freelance accountant—he was fired from a firm in part for refusing to wear a hat, as all CPAs did at the time—working out of the office of Edye’s cousin’s husband, Donald Kaufman. Kaufman was a part-time homebuilder who constructed a handful of houses each year while working as a contractor with several larger builders. In exchange for the free office, Eli often did taxes for Kaufman’s homebuilding clients. Broad quickly learned the business and realized he could easily become a homebuilder and sell homes for less.
Through meticulous research, he discovered that homes without basements were already the norm in Ohio and Indiana. Homes in those states no longer needed a basement to stockpile coal because they came with gas heaters. Cutting out the expensive and time-consuming underground construction, and adding a carport and utility room, he called his first home model “The Award Winner,” even though it had won no awards. He and Kaufman built two of the models and optioned 15 more lots. Rival homebuilders were convinced the young upstarts (Eli was 23, Kaufman, 33) would fail. But in January 1957, on the first weekend of sales—which Eli spent on a road trip, too nervous to stay in town—all 17 plots sold.
Kaufman and Broad earned $1 million in its first year of business. By 1961, the company had begun a nationwide expansion and gone public on the American Stock Exchange. In 1963, the company, and the families behind it, moved to Los Angeles for its booming real estate market and agreeable weather. From its new headquarters, Kaufman and Broad became the first homebuilder to issue its own commercial paper and to sell the now-ubiquitous California dwelling, the town home, inspired by the row houses of the East Coast and sold at affordable prices for middle-class families. By the end of the decade, Kaufman and Broad had operations across the country and in Europe, and it had become the first homebuilder to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
Even though Kaufman and Broad was growing every year, Eli sought to diversify, worried about a possible economic downturn and the cyclical nature of the homebuilding business. As he liked to joke, “I’ve predicted 12 of the last six recessions.”
Broad began by researching the Great Depression to see which companies survived—the only ones that managed well were life insurers. In 1971, Broad completed an acquisition of a small Baltimore-based life insurance company for roughly $52 million.
Sun Life Insurance entered Kaufman and Broad’s portfolio at an opportune time. The 1970s were a bruising decade for the homebuilding business, and even Kaufman and Broad, a company that industry insiders regarded as unsinkable, faced a year of decline in 1974. Eli not only worked to repair his homebuilding company—closing foreign branches, replacing managers as needed, hiring a famous turnaround consultant—but he also began to quietly revolutionize his back-up concern.
Broad’s transformation of Sun Life relied on a single insight: the difference between the Great Depression and the later decades of the 20th century was that people were living longer. Baby Boomers, who made up the largest American generation and who were key customers for Kaufman and Broad, were more likely to invest in retirement savings than life insurance. Eli transformed Sun Life into the financial services company SunAmerica, separating it from Kaufman and Broad in 1989 and becoming its CEO. Eli left the board of Kaufman and Broad in 1995, and had no further ties to the company.
Like Kaufman and Broad, SunAmerica benefited from Eli’s singular insight on how best to provide customers a good value on a product that would improve their lives. SunAmerica not only provided millions of customers with safer retirements, it also became the fastest-growing company on the New York Stock Exchange. A $10,000 investment in Kaufman and Broad in 1961 was worth, including shares received in the split of the companies, $34 million in 1998.
That year, Eli sold SunAmerica to AIG for $18 billion, earning $3 billion himself from the sale and joining the board of AIG. Though he had always held his wealth in companies while he was running them, he sought to diversify his holdings in AIG since he was no longer CEO of SunAmerica. In 2005, Broad left the AIG board so that he could sell his AIG shares. Three years later, after a large market crash that would spur a long recession, AIG collapsed. At the time, Eli only had 10 percent of his net worth in the company.
“In investing, as in life, it’s sometimes better to be lucky than smart,” he admitted in his book. “I never saw the precipitous fall of AIG coming—and to this day, it troubles me that a legendary company could drop in value as it did in 2008.”
A new career in philanthropy that began with education
After the merger, Eli devoted himself to the philanthropic foundation he created with Edye, using the proceeds of the SunAmerica-AIG deal. With an endowment that would eventually top $2 billion, The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, founded in 1999, pursued entrepreneurship for the public good in education, science and the arts.
The Broads, both graduates of Detroit Public Schools, were devoted to improving public schools in cities across America, and particularly in closing the academic opportunity gaps facing historically underserved students. In the $700 billion arena of public education, Eli chose places where he thought he could have an impact: making grants to larger urban school districts and high-quality public charter school networks, helping develop and support educators and school system leaders and managers, advocating for state and federal policy to support school improvement and encouraging innovation and best practice sharing.
“The problem is immense,” he wrote in The Art of Being Unreasonable, referring to improving schools that serve students in need. “The solution must be big enough to match it.”
Overall, the Foundation has invested more than $600 million in improving public education. Since 1999, The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation sought ways to support the best public schools. Over the next two decades, the Foundation devoted tens of millions of dollars to helping urban public school systems—including Boston, New York, Washington, D.C., New Orleans, Chicago, Denver, Oakland, Long Beach and Detroit—improve by changing central office practices to better support principals, teachers and students, creating more high-quality public school options via charter management organizations, raising teacher compensation and innovating with classroom technology. The Foundation created The Broad Prize for Urban Education to spotlight the urban school districts that showed the greatest academic performance and improvement while reducing achievement gaps among low-income students and students of color. In its 13 years, the prize awarded $16 million in scholarships to more than 1,200 students.
The Foundation helped develop talented teachers by endowing Teach for America, and it supported system leaders and managers through two programs. The Broad Superintendents Academy, today called The Broad Academy, started in 2002 to help support urban school superintendents learn strategies for pursuing educational excellence and equity. Soon after, the Foundation created The Broad Residency to help talented mid-career professionals transition to or advance in careers in public school systems, charter organizations, or state departments of education.
In December of 2019, The Foundation made a $100 million commitment to Yale University to establish The Broad Center at the Yale School of Management, which will continue to offer a tuition-free Master’s Degree to public school system leaders and an advanced management training program for public school district superintendents. Eli learned through his 20 years of investing in public education that schools alone can’t solve for the inequities, indignities, and challenges facing students from marginalized communities: Having The Broad Center housed at Yale SOM means all of its programs will be enhanced with input from Yale University’s leading thinkers in management, public health, law, child development, policy, criminal justice and economic development.
In addition to education, the Broads devoted much of their philanthropy to scientific and medical research. After several years of supporting early-stage research in inflammatory bowel disease, which ran in their families, Eli and Edye searched for an opportunity to do more. In October 2001, the couple visited the research lab of Eric Lander, who had helped sequence the human genome and was eager to build a genomics institute.
When Eric told Eli he needed $800 million to launch the institute, Eli replied, “I wish you good luck,” and assumed that would be the end of the conversation. But Edye was sold on Eric’s vision. “I said just do it,” Edye said later. “I knew, my god, if ever there was something that was going to be successful, that was it.”
Soon, Eli was convinced as well. With his typical knack for persuasion and deal-making, Broad put up $100 million and convinced Cambridge powerhouses Harvard and MIT to each contribute the same amount. In just a decade after its founding, the Broad Institute developed the leading computational tools for analyzing genome data, generated more cancer genome data than any other center in the world, and embraced an open-source approach that makes its discoveries and data freely available to the scientific community. To date, the Foundation’s investment in the institute that bears the Broad name has totaled more than $1 billion.
“Of all we have done over the past six decades,” Eli wrote in The Art of Being Unreasonable, “the effort I am most proud of is the creation of the Broad Institute.”
The Broad Institute was not the Foundation’s only scientific investment. Eager to leverage his philanthropic dollars for maximum impact, Eli saw an opportunity to fund stem cell research when Californians passed a proposition funding $3 billion in bonds to support stem cell research and research facilities. When President George W. Bush vetoed a bill that would have supported federal funding of stem cell research, The Broad Foundation made an initial investment of $65 million to create three new Broad Stem Cell Centers at UCLA, UC San Francisco and the University of Southern California. The Foundation has since made supplemental gifts bringing their total contribution to these centers to $113 million. The efforts have made California a leading center of stem cell research in the country.
Lessons in art, gifts for L.A.
The Broads’ philanthropy in the arts began before their work in education and science, and was largely spurred by Edye’s love of art. After they moved to Los Angeles in 1963 and Eli was working long days, Edye took to browsing L.A.’s famous galleries, like Ferus and Nicholas Wilder. Eli quickly caught on to the excitement of Edye’s hobby when she bought a print by an artist he had heard of—Toulouse-Lautrec.
Eli began collecting under the guidance of famed MCA executive Taft Schrieber, who encouraged the Broads to buy their first major work, a Van Gogh ink drawing, at an auction in 1972. Within a few years of purchasing the Van Gogh, the Broads shifted their collecting to focus on contemporary art after they realized that the best art collections were built by acquiring the work of their time. Eli also discovered he enjoyed meeting the (still-living) artists. As he liked to say, “If I had to spend all my time with businessmen, lawyers and accountants, I’d be bored.”
Focusing on contemporary art also let Eli do what he most enjoyed—build institutions. In the late 1970s, Eli joined forces with fellow Los Angeles collector Marcia Weisman to help create a contemporary art museum for Los Angeles. Eli believed that the city that had given him so much—a chance to grow two businesses without the benefit of the right connections—deserved a great contemporary art museum. Weisman, along with Eli and several others, eventually convinced Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley to aggregate developer fees—commercial builders were required by city law to give 1.5 percent of their budgets to public art—to build a museum. Eli led a fundraising campaign that soon raised $13 million—including $1 million from him and Edye—for the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA).
Eli also helped secure the cornerstone of MOCA’s art collection using his skill for negotiation. Count Guiseppe Biumo di Panza, a board member of MOCA, had to sell 80 works from his vast collection of contemporary art due to a change in Italian tax law. Sotheby’s and Christie’s estimated that the trove—including seven Rothkos, 12 Klines, 11 Rauschenbergs, four Lichtensteins, eight Rosenquists, and 16 Segal sculptures, among others—would raise between $11 million and $15 million at auction. But Panza hated the idea of selling at an auction because the art would be sold piecemeal; he wanted the works to stay together as a collection.
Eli knew it was the perfect opportunity for MOCA, but his fellow trustees balked at the idea of dipping into their relatively tight budget for the collection. Broad persuaded them by emphasizing that it was an incredibly rare opportunity for a museum to buy in bulk and collect in depth with one purchase. He also hinted that, if the museum didn’t pony up, plenty of other private collectors might, including Eli himself. The trustees authorized him to make the purchase for no more than $12 million.
Within 24 hours, Eli negotiated the deal with Panza, managing to come in at $11 million for the collection with $2 million down, instead of the higher amount Panza wanted up front. Eli convinced Panza that a lower down payment would yield more money for him in the end because of the inflation of Italian currency. Today, the collection is worth more than $1 billion.
Forty Years on Grand Avenue
MOCA was the first of several efforts by Eli to support the revitalization of downtown Los Angeles, which had gone from a once vibrant commercial center in the early 1900s to a relatively under-developed region by the end of the 20th century. When Eli and Edye moved to the city in 1963, both were surprised by Los Angeles’ lack of a true civic center, in dramatic contrast to other major cities around the globe. Eli believed early on that his adopted home city required such a center if it were to be a major world metropolis. He seized every opportunity to help make that happen over the next several decades.
Within a few years of MOCA’s opening, Lillian Disney, the widow of famed animator Walt, donated $25 million to build a concert hall a block north of MOCA on Grand Avenue. But by the middle of the 1990s, no hall had been built because the city had been unable to raise the additional funds needed to execute architect Frank Gehry’s dramatic vision for the hall.
Mayor Richard Riordan—a friend of Eli’s since the 1970s, when both served on the board of Pitzer College in Claremont, California—approached Eli with a request to help raise the $200 million needed to create the hall. Eli accepted.
Eli’s pitch to potential donors was not about the symphony—it was about creating a monument as renowned as the Eiffel Tower or the Sydney Opera House for the city he loved. He promised donors that their money would go only toward construction—not toward fundraising gimmicks like free giveaways or mailings—and that money would be returned if the hall wasn’t built.
The pitch worked. As Riordan told the Los Angeles Times, Eli Broad was “the brightest guy I know. He’s a maniac for getting things done.” Within six months, Eli had raised nearly $100 million, and he and his team went on to raise nearly triple that, invigorating philanthropy in Los Angeles in the process. There were hiccups along the way, but the hall became exactly the landmark Broad imaged it would be. As Gehry said when Walt Disney Concert Hall opened, “You’ve all heard that Eli and I have been at each other but look at what we’ve built. The result is beautiful, and we’re both proud of it.”
While Disney Hall was under construction, it became clearer to Eli that Grand Avenue needed more than just new institutions—it needed a unified development plan. Various parcels were owned by the city, others by the county, and the two local governments had never worked together on anything beyond a joint crime lab.
Getting the city and county to collaborate would take a great effort. Eli was well-suited to the challenge. As his SunAmerica successor Jay Wintrob, who started his business career as Eli’s assistant and went on to serve as president and CEO of AIG Life and Retirement, said, “Eli is a marathoner…. He never shows impatience. He pushes but never looks desperate. He is just very good, very detail-oriented, a fantastic deal doer.”
After more than two years of negotiating, Eli convinced the city and county governments to form a new entity—the Joint Powers Authority—to develop Grand Avenue into a walkable, livable, vibrant stretch of cultural and commercial destinations and residences. By centralizing authority over Grand Avenue, Eli not only helped bring the two local governments together for the first time, but he also assured that development was less likely to be stymied by bureaucratic procedure.
Ultimately, what thwarted the Grand Avenue Project for several years was the 2008 financial crisis. (During the same crisis, The Broad Foundation saved MOCA from financial collapse with a $30 million grant.) Before funds dried up in the recession, however, Eli managed to secure a nonrefundable down payment from the developer, Related Companies. The $50 million plus interest went to creating Grand Park, connecting the Music Center with City Hall and becoming one of the rare green spaces in downtown Los Angeles. Today, Grand Avenue is home to major architectural landmarks—including Arata Isozaki’s MOCA, the cathedral by Jose Rafael Moneo, an arts high school by Wolf Prix, and of course Gehry’s Disney Hall—and the mile-long stretch received millions of visitors a year (prior to the Covid-19 pandemic).
Building The Broad
While Grand Avenue redevelopment stalled, Eli was busy planning what he hoped would be an especially long-lasting legacy—a contemporary art museum devoted to showing the more than 2,000 artworks he and Edye had collected since their Van Gogh purchase in 1972.
Considered among the most prominent and important holdings of postwar and contemporary art in the world, the collections include in-depth representations from artists including Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman, Roy Lichtenstein, Joseph Beuys, and dozens of others. Eli and Edye had collected while also supporting museums for decades—they gave $60 million to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for the Renzo Piano-designed Broad Contemporary Art Museum, $33 million for the Broad Art Museum at MSU by Zaha Hadid and $23 million to UCLA for the Broad Art Center by Richard Meier, along with sizeable donations to New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The Broads had also supported their home city in a variety of other ways—helping to bring the Democratic National Convention to town in 2000, striving (unsuccessfully) to attract an NFL team to the city, and making attempts to buy the Dodgers and the Los Angeles Times (twice) when both were in difficult ownership situations.
In 2010, with Grand Avenue’s development stalled due to the recession, Eli and Edye decided to build their own museum on Grand Avenue, across the street from Disney Hall and MOCA. Holding an architectural competition for the museum, Eli emphasized that the museum would have to pursue a delicate balancing act—refrain from clashing with Disney Hall across the street while refusing to be an anonymous building.
The winning architects, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, proposed an idea that captured Eli and Edye’s vision of a public museum built around a private collection. Diller’s “vault and veil” design included a dark, sculptural “vault” in the center of the museum to hold the Broads’ collection, while the museum itself was wrapped in a honeycomb “veil” allowing glimpses of the museum from Grand Avenue.
The museum, called simply The Broad, opened to international attention and acclaim on September 20, 2015, offering free general admission. For the Broads, the museum was the ultimate gift to their home city. “The city’s been good to me,” Broad always said. “And I want to give back.”
In 2016, Eli announced his retirement from The Foundation and named Gerun Riley president of The Broad Foundation. Eli always prided himself on his ability to identify strong leaders and support their ability to take positions of leadership. His selection of Gerun was no different.
“As a businessman Eli saw around corners, as a philanthropist he saw the problems in the world and tried to fix them, as a citizen he saw the possibility in our shared community, and as a husband, father, mentor and friend he saw the potential in each of us,” said Gerun Riley.
In 2020, though he was retired from The Foundation, Eli still had that urge to keep going, to help people, and do more. At age 87, he was alarmed by the climate crisis and the perilous state of America’s democracy. Leading up to the November 2020 election, Eli and Edye doubled down on their political contributions giving to Presidential, Senate and House candidates with strong records on climate change, supporting organizations that worked to mobilize, educate and protect voter rights; and seeding a national education and awareness campaigns that elevated the issue of climate change. He also publicly voiced his support for a wealth tax.
In one of his final public acts, Eli wrote an op-ed published in The New York Times, writing:
“Two decades ago I turned full-time to philanthropy and threw myself into supporting public education, scientific and medical research, and visual and performing arts, believing it was my responsibility to give back some of what had so generously been given to me. But I’ve come to realize that no amount of philanthropic commitment will compensate for the deep inequities preventing most Americans — the factory workers and farmers, entrepreneurs and electricians, teachers, nurses and small-business owners — from the basic prosperity we call the American dream…Our country must do something bigger and more radical, starting with the most unfair area of federal policy: our tax code…
The enormous challenges we face as a nation — the climate crisis, the shrinking middle class, skyrocketing housing and health care costs, and many more — are a stark call to action. The old ways aren’t working, and we can’t waste any more time tinkering around the edges.
You can download all the high resolution photos in a zip file here.