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Blackstone CEO stumps at Stanford for his scholarship program

Stephen Schwarzman, CEO and co-founder of BlackstoneStephen Schwarzman, CEO and co-founder of Blackstone
Stephen Schwarzman, CEO and co-founder of Blackstone, at the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, D.C. in August 2014.Photograph by Alex Wong—Getty Images

The surprising thing about Stephen Schwarzman is how softly he speaks. Soft-spoken feels inapt because the Blackstone (BX) co-founder and CEO is anything but undemonstrative. On the contrary, he’s witty and quick and digressive, and, unsurprisingly, confident. It’s just that he doesn’t speak at all loudly. Instead he rushes through his prepared remarks and amusing asides in a tone just a few decibels above a whisper.

Then again, Schwarzman’s actions speak volumes. His latest is the legacy-burnishing scholarship program he is building in China: the Schwarzman Scholars.

The financier visited the campus of Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. on Tuesday as part of a global tour to kick off recruitment for his program, which is set to begin in July, 2016. Then, 100 students from around the world—45% from the U.S., 20% from China, and 35% from everywhere else—will begin a one-year master’s program at a newly built campus at Tsinghua University in Beijing. The instruction will be in English and will focus on Chinese history and culture, leadership, and global economics and finance.

Schwarzman is sparing no expense on the program he unabashedly models after the Rhodes Scholars. He personally kicked in $100 million, raised another $200 million from corporate and individual donors, and is in process of topping off the endowment by hunting for another $50 million. He hired architect Robert Stern to design the campus, whose construction is in process. Eminent scholars and administrators are being lined up to teach at and oversee the program. Harvard historian Niall Ferguson, for example, has signed on as the first distinguished visiting scholar.

Nothing about the Schwarzman Scholars program is small. Its annual class size is slated to grow to 200 students, meaning that in the not-so-distant future there will be thousands of ex-scholars, a group its founder and distinguished advisors expect will be world leaders. The idea is that China is so critical to the world’s future that anyone in a leadership position of any kind in any part of the world will benefit from spending a year there. “China is the major sea change that is happening in our lifetime,” Schwarzman said. He envisions the students will spend their year studying, traveling, meeting senior government officials, and otherwise soaking up the culture.

There are very few requirements to be a Schwarzman Scholar. It’s assumed that applicants will be good students, but there are no minimum grade point averages. A would be scholar needs to have graduated from college and be between the ages of 18 and 28. Schwarzman said the outer age range is meant to accommodate those who go to work for a few years after college before continuing their studies.

The students will have quite the experience. Schwarzman explained that the outside-the-classroom activities will be as important as the academics. The president of China is excited about the program, Schwarzman said, making it easy to arrange governmental meetings for the students. They’ll also get out of Beijing to see the rest of China, be paired with a mentor in their respective fields, and receive a “buddy” at Tsinghua who isn’t connected to the program.

Tuesday’s event was primarily to woo professors and administrators from the western universities to encourage students to apply for the program. The academic types were eager to ask questions of Schwarzman. One wanted to know if he was concerned that Schwarzman Scholars might spend their time in China goofing off rather than attending classes—a common knock on Rhodes Scholars at Oxford University in England. “We’re going to put it all on offer and let them do their thing,” the Blackstone chief said. “We’re not going to restrict them too much. These will be smart people.”

It’s even possible Schwarzman raised his voice to make this last point.