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 and Sue Sobrato, who launched the fundraising campaign. “That’s what this is. This is what’s so exciting.”
“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 totaling $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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
“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.
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.”