09 Feb 2015

Harvard Business School Alumnus and Benefactor John C. Whitehead Dies at 92

John Whitehead
Photo: Harvard Business School

BOSTON—John C. Whitehead (MBA 1947), banker, statesman, humanitarian, philanthropist, and one of Harvard Business School’s most distinguished and beloved alumni, died of cancer on Saturday, Feb. 7, at his home in New York City at the age of 92.

In everything he did, Whitehead personified the mission of Harvard Business School – to be a leader who makes a difference in the world. Hired by the investment bank Goldman Sachs upon his graduation from HBS, he rose to become its co-chairman from 1975 to 1984. In 1984, at the request of the then-Secretary of State George Shultz, he joined the Reagan Administration as Deputy Secretary of State, playing a major role in representing the United States’ interests as the Soviet Union unraveled. And when former New York Governor George Pataki needed a person of great strength, character, and vision to help rebuild the area around Ground Zero after the 9/11 tragedy, he chose Whitehead to lead the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation.

Throughout his life, Whitehead was extraordinarily loyal and generous to Harvard Business School, which he attended as an MBA student after returning from combat duty (including the Normandy Invasion on D-Day and the battle of Iwo Jima) as a landing craft captain during World War II. With an abiding interest in ethics and corporate responsibility throughout his multifaceted career, which included many years of experience serving on nonprofit boards, Whitehead donated $10 million to HBS to launch the School’s Social Enterprise Initiative (SEI) in 1995. His goal, he said, was to increase the managerial capacity within the nonprofit sector and to encourage more students to explore non-traditional paths and embark on careers in the not-for-profit sector and in ventures that focused mainly on social impact.

Commenting on Whitehead’s death, Dean Nitin Nohria said, “It brings deep sadness to lose someone we all loved. At the same time, we are inspired by memories of our long friendship with John and our admiration for all that can be accomplished by a good and effective human being through a career that was centered on business but touched many other spheres. I often use his example in conversation with current and prospective students as someone they should emulate. We have lost a truly remarkable alumnus of HBS. We mourn him, and we celebrate his life.”

Former Dean John H. McArthur said, "John Whitehead set an example for all of us about how to live life in the best possible way. He was easily viewed as one of the most remarkable leaders in the world of business, but that is only a small part of his story, given all the things he did outside of business during his lifetime. But it's not only what he did that is important; it's how he did it--with enduring integrity and honesty-- that really makes it so remarkable. I am so grateful for the help and friendship he gave me over many years."

In the two decades since Whitehead’s gift, the Social Enterprise Initiative has grown to become a pillar of the HBS community, with faculty involvement from a variety of disciplines; a worldwide research agenda; the creation of a wide array of MBA courses and Executive Education programs, including the flagship "Strategic Perspectives in Nonprofit Management," and considerable student and alumni engagement and activity. “I am very proud of what the School has accomplished,” Whitehead said in an interview several years ago. “It has far exceeded my fondest dreams.”

Reflecting on his friendship and collaboration with Whitehead, HBS professor emeritus Jim Austin, the founding faculty chair of the Social Enterprise Initiative, said, “It was a privilege and a joy to partner with John. He molded and modeled the HBS mission. His legacy of the Social Enterprise Initiative continues to enable the School to realize its full potential for developing truly impactful leaders. John's unfaltering support and continuing encouragement,” Austin continued, “catalyzed the creativity and passions of faculty, staff, students, alumni, and practitioners, fostering new and powerful ways to think, teach, and learn how to truly make a difference in the world.”

According to current SEI co-chair Professor V. Kasturi (Kash) Rangan, “When I was introduced the other day at a social enterprise conference in India, the speaker commented that Harvard Business School had created the whole discipline of social enterprise. In my view, that credit really belongs to John Whitehead for being the spark that allowed the HBS engine to fire. One of the results of this effort,” Rangan observed, “has been the development of the Strategic Perspectives in Nonprofit Management program (SPNM). During my recent visit to the Indian city of Hubli, several SPNM alums from the region told me that the program has transformed their organizations. John would have been proud to hear what we hear when we go visiting the field. We know one thing for sure: John knew that his investment in social enterprise at HBS was even far more successful than he had imagined.”

SEI co-chair Prof. Herman (Dutch) Leonard commented, “As the current trustees of the Social Enterprise Initiative, in which John took such pride and which is such a significant part of his great legacy, we take pride in doing everything we can to honor his vision of one of the important ways in which HBS can make a difference in the world. In working in so many ways to make the Social Enterprise Initiative a reality, John helped create great opportunities for us and countless others. For this we loved him deeply while he walked among us, and for this we will be forever grateful.”

In sharing their reflections, the past and present directors of the Social Enterprise Initiative (Bob Burakoff; Steve Nelson, MBA 1988; Stacey Childress, MBA 2000; Laura Moon; and Matt Segneri, MBA 2010) noted, “We are grateful to have shared the journey to make real John's vision for how HBS could contribute to social change. The world is different and better because of John.”

More on John Whitehead

John C. Whitehead, Who Led Effort to Rebuild After 9/11, Dies at 92, New York Times

Social Enterprise Visionary, HBS Alumni Bulletin

Interview with John Whitehead, MBA 1947, HBS Alumni on Leadership Series - Video
A Lifetime of Quiet Leadership, Making A Difference – HBS Alumni

A Social Enterprise Visionary, Making A Difference – HBS Alumni

The Future of Social Enterprise and the Role of Individual Philanthropy, HBS Global Business Summit - Video

Entrepreneurs: John Whitehead, Arthur Rock Center for Entrepreneurship - Video

Where to Find Nonprofit Leaders? John Whitehead Turns to Harvard Business School, GiveSmart: The Bridgespan Group - Video


Jim Aisner

About Harvard Business School

Founded in 1908 as part of Harvard University, Harvard Business School is located on a 40-acre campus in Boston. Its faculty of more than 250 offers full-time programs leading to the MBA and PhD degrees, as well as more than 175 Executive Education programs, and Harvard Business School Online, the School’s digital learning platform. For more than a century, faculty have drawn on their research, their experience in working with organizations worldwide, and their passion for teaching, to educate leaders who make a difference in the world. The School and its curriculum attract the boldest thinkers and the most collaborative learners who will go on to shape the practice of business and entrepreneurship around the globe.