When Holly Olson was 10, her family emigrated from Korea to the U.S. They were very poor and did not speak English, she recalls. Her father was paralyzed. Her mother worked a sweat shop job. Holly cooked and cleaned for her family, learned English, handled the bills, and managed the household.
“Against all odds, I got accepted to Cornell under the Higher Education Opportunity Program and it changed my life,” she says. Did it ever. With plentiful food and refuge from the challenges of poverty, Holly thrived at Cornell. She grew physically and intellectually in ways that only a few years earlier were beyond her imagination.
Holly Kim Olson ’94 is now a private credit investor and co-founder of Glendon Capital Management (GCM), a firm that manages a portfolio valued in the billions. Her work is strategic, dominated by data, and focused on facts, not emotion.
The same is true for her husband, Sean Olson. He is a technology entrepreneur and co-founded PopID, a fast-growing personal digital identity company.
“As our careers demonstrate, we believe in the power of data, analysis, and evidence-based approaches,” Sean says. “And we think that’s the key to developing public policy that will create positive change in the world.”
Inspired by the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy’s use of data to inform policy solutions, Sean and Holly have established the Olson Family Strategic Initiatives Fund at the Brooks School. Their fund provides current use, flexible funding for Dean Colleen Barry to make strategic investments in these early, critical years of the new school.
“We are deeply grateful for this generous, historic gift that is the first of its kind at Brooks,” Barry says. “It will allow us to strategically grow priority areas of excellence at the Brooks School, focused on real-world impact. Holly and Sean, through their generosity, will improve the lives of countless people.”
Barry met with the Olsons before they established the Fund. The conversation turned to a topic that has been a focus of her research. “She politely educated us on a social issue that we had been looking at for many years and changed our perspective on how best we, as a society, could address it,” Sean says. Adds Holly: “She didn’t rely on dogma or passion; she listened to our perspective, politely refuted quite a lot of it with data, and then laid out a better solution.”
That’s a template for real change in our society. “I view the Brooks School as a vehicle,” Holly says. “It’s teaching someone how to fish, not just giving them fish. It’s creating a whole new generation of future leaders who can create data behind policies that dramatically increases the probability of implementation. Great ideas are not enough.”
The Olsons will also include Cornell in their estate planning but decided not to wait to make a gift. “We would encourage people to give now if they can,” Sean says. “This is something people think about twenty years from now. But I encourage people to take steps now to create the kind of world they want to live in.”
Jim Hanchett is assistant dean of communications for the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy.