DRW's Wilson Charters New Course with School

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DRW's Wilson Charters New Course with School

Friday, October 12, 2012 - 2:30pm

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The foundation run by Don Wilson, CEO of DRW Trading Group LLC, has invested $2 million and long-term support into a new charter school on Chicago's West Side. It's the first major donation by the organization and cements Mr. Wilson's footprint in philanthropy.

He's already a donor and on the board of Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital Foundation.

“Education really fits with what we want to accomplish,” Mr. Wilson says, referring to the foundation connected to his company.

DRW's philanthropic board, which Mr. Wilson runs with his sister and business partner, Jennifer Wilson, has two goals, he says: to foster self-reliance and fight poverty in Chicago.

The charity board studied ways to carry out those goals before zeroing in on the Noble Network of Charter Schools and DRW Trading College Prep in North Lawndale.

The high school, which opened in August, falls under an umbrella network backed by millionaire Bruce Rauner. Ms. Wilson also sits on Noble's board.

“We didn't grow up in a wealthy family with a trust and discussions about how to give money away, so it's been a little bit of a learning process,” says Mr. Wilson, 44, who lived in St. Louis as a youngster and Switzerland as a teen. When he landed in Chicago in the 1980s, he lived in Hyde Park while attending the University of Chicago and during the early part of his entrepreneurial futures career.

Today, Mr. Wilson runs a nationally known proprietary trading company, has built a prestigious sailing organization in the Chicago Match Race Center and lives in Lincoln Park with his wife and four children.

But he's an anomaly among the many CEOs who send their children to private schools. Mr. Wilson's school-age children attend public school in his neighborhood.

Mr. Wilson had never been to North Lawndale before he got involved in the school and says he's concerned about discrepancies between high-performing schools and others.

“Of course we felt that if (Chicago Public Schools) provided the opportunity for a quality education to all its students, we would have spent the money on something else,” he says, while noting that charter schools don't always work. DRW takes over the failing Power House High School, also a charter.

Before settling on Noble, Mr. Wilson talked with philanthropists and donors around town about how they go about giving. His board found Noble's program was effective.

“Some people might support the Art Institute because they want to create wonderful cultural opportunities for the city,” he says. “That's great, but we went in a different direction.”

That direction was far west, to an old power plant that once provided electricity to the massive Sears Roebuck & Co. headquarters (pre-Sears Tower days). DRW occupies just a part of the old campus that was restored in a $40 million project by the Foundation for Homan Square.

“Though it may not seem like it, your hard work will shift the odds in your favor,” Mr. Wilson told the school's 229 freshmen at a grand opening ceremony at the school Friday.

Ms. Wilson, who ran track in college, is helping train the school's cross-country team.

Will Mr. Wilson be helping teach classes related to financial literacy? He chuckles at the suggestion but doesn't rule it out. After all, contemporaries such as former Exelon Corp. CEO John Rowe are familiar faces in charter schools. Mr. Rowe, a history buff, often lectures at Rowe-Clark Math and Science Academy.

“It creates opportunities for my employees to contribute,” Mr. Wilson says of DRW school. “But the school is just getting going, so we don't want to distract them from what they're doing by sending hordes of people to try to help.”

That includes, he says, the founder of the school.

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