Leonard A. Lauder talks game-changing gift to Penn Nursing, and more

Lauder, a Penn alumnus and emeritus Trustee, donated $125 million to the University, establishing a new program for aspiring nurse practitioners who intend to work in underserved communities.

It has always been a goal for Leonard A. Lauder to leave a lasting impact on society. A recent, transformative gift to Penn’s School of Nursing does just that.

Leonard A. Lauder
Leonard A. Lauder’s gift is the largest ever to an American nursing school. (Image: Mark Leibowitz) ​

Lauder, a Wharton School alumnus and Emeritus Trustee, and chairman emeritus of The Estée Lauder Companies, announced with Penn leadership in February a new program—dubbed the Leonard A. Lauder Community Care Nurse Practitioner Program—to be established.

The Program, backed by a $125 million gift from Lauder, aims to recruit and train tuition-free an influx of talented and dedicated nurse practitioners to specifically work in traditionally underserved areas of the U.S., both urban and rural. The first cohort of Fellows will begin this fall.

In a Q&A with Penn Today, Lauder shared his hopes for the Program and its growth, why he felt this significant contribution was so important right now, why he’s always found it so important to give back, and much more.

This new gift to Penn Nursing is extraordinary. It undoubtedly will touch so many peoples’ lives, and especially impact positively the trajectory of so many nurses looking to further their education. What are the biggest goals that you hope to see flourish out of this commitment?

We have seen, especially with the pandemic, that there is a great nursing shortage in this country. Doctors have also been overwhelmed, leaving even more people without access to health care. This is the moment when we must enhance the availability of primary care.

Highly skilled nurse practitioners are the key to making that happen. The new program will better the lives of patients and communities most in need, while providing a pathway for the many nurses interested in advanced education who may not otherwise have the means to pursue it.

I want dedicated, talented people who are just starting out, or changing midcareer, or are nurses planning their futures, to be able to fulfill their professional ambitions—to ensure that others live healthier, better, and longer lives. What work could be more essential, more noble?

Why is such a contribution to the University, to nursing professionals, and to the community so important at this particular time?

I believe this is one of the most important issues we face today. The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified the persisting inequities in access to quality health care, and growing the number of nurse practitioners who are prepared and committed to working in underserved areas is essential to ensuring a healthier county—that is the focus of this program.  

I am so pleased to be working with Penn Nursing on this initiative, and I am excited that we’ll be welcoming our first class of future nurse practitioners this fall. 

I know it is important to you that this program becomes a national example that can be adopted by other colleges and universities in partnership with community organizations. What makes this initiative unique, and how would you like to see this program grow—at and beyond Penn?

We believe this program is the first of its kind. It has two core elements; one is financial, the other is community-focused.

First, all participants will receive student aid to cover their tuition and fees, thereby removing potential financial roadblocks for nurses and others who wish to enroll. Participants with greater financial need will also receive stipends to help with living expenses. Second, and just as important, every participant will need to show a demonstrated commitment to working in underserved communities, and to promoting health equity. I was already familiar with the Nursing School at Penn because I have a longstanding connection to the University. I went to school there and have served on the Board. I know that Penn is the gold standard for nursing education. They have robust recruitment mechanisms and attract those who may not have previously considered a career in nursing. And their ability to address health care issues ripples beyond the University campus into the larger Philadelphia communities. The clinical training the Fellows will receive will also benefit local health centers where they are working.

I would like to see what we’re doing here at Penn Nursing become an inspiration to others who will step forward and play their part to support the nursing profession. We are starting something great here and I want to see it expand.

The focus of the new Leonard A. Lauder Community Care Nurse Practitioner Program is on underserved communities. Why is this such a passion for you?

In fact, community practice is one of the core elements of the program. Participants will complete at least 50 percent of their clinical education at a community partner site in Greater Philadelphia, and they will be expected to commit to practice or service in an underserved community for two years after graduation.

Like many Americans, I’ve asked myself, do communities across the country have access to good health care in their neighborhoods? Many do, but many do not. Economically marginalized rural and urban areas suffer from a lack of accessible and consistent primary care, and I wanted to take action now.

This gift will have an obvious and significant impact on nursing education. But there is so much potential beyond that. What are your expectations around how this gift will transform health care on a national level?

Nurse practitioners are leaders on the front lines of care, a role never more important as Americans confront a primary health care shortage in their communities. One of the core goals of this initiative is to inspire other meaningful partnerships between the philanthropic and health education sectors.

If—together—we can support these dedicated nursing professionals and remove the potential barriers they face in advancing their careers, we can make an enormous difference. I truly believe this program can be a model for others around the country. The need is urgent.

Health care is such a layered industry. Why did you choose nursing as the area to make your commitment? What is the value, as you see it, that nurses bring to the table and why are they uniquely poised as providers to effect change in our communities?

My support for nurse practitioners comes from a deep respect for what they do. With their advanced clinical training and graduate education, nurse practitioners have the knowledge and skill to manage and supervise critical aspects of care for people of all ages in a decision-making capacity—from patient diagnosis, to ordering and interpreting tests, to prescribing medication.

Nurse practitioners are also able to take on key leadership roles, from managing and operating community clinics to leading interdisciplinary teams within health care systems. This gift is a sign of my appreciation for their incredible abilities and dedication.

There is an important alumni component to the new program, in that nurse practitioner graduates are expected to stay actively supported and involved in various capacities. You obviously know a thing or two about staying connected to your college. Can you comment on why this type of connection is so important for this program, and for alumni in general?

From the moment nurse practitioner students join this program, they will have the strongest possible support, and opportunities for growth and success, thanks to the incredible Penn Nursing alumni network.

Through their shared experience, program participants will cultivate deep relationships and create bonds that can last a lifetime. I know the positive impact of receiving words of affirmation and encouragement from others inside and outside the classroom, and even after graduation. I also have no doubt that graduates of the program will want to share their insights with participants who come after them. The program will provide career support, ongoing networking, continuing education, and of course social opportunities.

After earning your degree in business from Wharton and serving as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, you officially joined Estée Lauder at the age of 25. What lessons would you say you took most from your time at Penn, as well as in the Navy, that have stuck with you throughout all these years?

I learned invaluable lessons in the course of my life, including from my experiences at Penn and the Navy. One of those lessons is to listen—really listen to others and be open to their good thinking and ideas. And if you have the ability to take action that will help make those good ideas a reality, do it. A second lesson is to empower others to succeed. We’ve all been put on this Earth with different skills, different gifts, but together we can be a beautiful orchestra.

I believe we’ve put these two lessons into practice with this new program for nurse practitioners. It’s a privilege for me to join forces with Penn’s great Nursing School, and to do what I can to support these dedicated professionals.

You’ve said before that if a person doesn’t transform something, they will only leave footprints in the sand that the surf will wash away. Why did you—even during the busiest of times—always find it important to give back to your alma mater?

My experience at Penn helped prepare me for the rest of my life. What I learned from my studies, the friends I made, and what I discovered about myself all contributed to the person I am today.

I feel each of us needs to leave some kind of impact that outlives us. More than 280 years after it first opened its doors, Penn continues to prepare countless students for successful lives and careers, including as the world’s future leaders. I am proud to play a small part in that work.