ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Michael Milken has driven social change for half a century with a consistent focus on disrupting – and improving – the status quo. He is widely recognized as an innovator in access to capital, medical research, education and public health.
In 1972, three years after Milken began a legendary career on Wall Street, his wife’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. That marked the beginning of his search for medical solutions, which has played as large a role in his life as his well-known innovations in finance. Decades after he began parallel careers in philanthropy and finance, Fortune magazine wrote, “No one had ever really pulled together the full picture of how – and how much – (Milken) has shaken up the medical establishment and saved lives.” Fortune corrected that with a cover story under the headline “The Man Who Changed Medicine” that stressed the changes he wrought, not just the checks he wrote. “Now thousands are living longer – and leaders everywhere are taking notice.”
Milken’s 2023 memoir, Faster Cures: Accelerating the Future of Health, documents his lifetime of work in the field.
At the peak of his financial career in 1976, Milken was devastated to learn that his father’s previous diagnosis of melanoma was considered terminal. He immediately started making plans to move from the East Coast to Los Angeles so that his two young sons could get to know their grandfather in the time he had left.
In 1982, Milken formalized his previous philanthropy by co-founding the Milken Family Foundation (MFF). The Foundation has worked closely with more than 1,000 organizations around the world. It has supported extensive programs to help address difficult urban issues, assist families of children with life-threatening diseases and build youth programs. It has also supported worldwide research on pediatric neurology, nutrition, leukemia, brain cancer and breast cancer. The MFF’s most acclaimed program, the Milken Educator Awards, was established in 1985 and is the preeminent teacher-recognition program in the U.S. Dubbed the “Oscars of Teaching” by Teacher Magazine, it has awarded unrestricted $25,000 prizes to nearly 3,000 outstanding educators from every U.S. state. The awardees participate in annual MFF professional-development conferences.
The Milken Scholars program, which was established by Mike and Lori Milken, has provided support and lifetime mentoring for more than 500 outstanding college-bound students who have excelled academically, served their communities, and triumphed over obstacles.
In recognition of this leadership, Forbes magazine showed Mike on a 2014 cover along with other education philanthropists, calling them “Best in Class – The Visionaries Reimagining our Children’s Future.” Noting Mike’s decades of working on education, Forbes highlighted the Milken Scholars program, the Milken Educator Awards, Mike’s Math Club and the National Institute of Excellence in Teaching.
Milken’s latest educational initiative is the Milken Center for Advancing the American Dream (MCAAD). MCAAD’s physical center—a decade in the making—is a five-building complex across the street from the U.S. Treasury and a block from the White House on historic Pennsylvania Avenue. MCAAD’s virtual programs extend its mission to advance economic and social mobility worldwide.
Throughout the 1970s, the Milken family supported a range of medical research programs with increasing emphasis on pediatric neurology and several forms of cancer. In the 1980s, their cancer research awards program recognized many young investigators whose work led to multiple life-saving breakthroughs. Milken has said, “Of all the programs we’ve supported over the years, the biggest payoff in terms of social benefit has come from the awards to young investigators.”
Following Milken’s 1993 diagnosis with terminal cancer, he increased his direct involvement in the research process with the goal of speeding the pace of clinical advances. He organized the 1995 National Cancer Summit, strongly supported the 1997 FDA Modernization Act, and led the 1998 March on Washington with the goal of doubling the National Institutes of Health budget. When that goal was realized, he increased his focus on the nation’s overall health and on accelerating the revolution in bioscience. His work was indispensable in the creation of the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences.
Throughout the early 21st century, Milken has played a growing role in public health. The Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University has been in the forefront of efforts to create healthier and safer communities. Milken was also a driving force behind passage of the 21st Century Cures Act and the Advanced Research Projects Agency—Health.
Milken also founded the Prostate Cancer Foundation, whose competitive research grants to more than 2,200 programs at 245 research centers in 28 countries make it the world’s largest philanthropic source of funds for prostate cancer research. Those grants have led to major breakthroughs. One example is seen in the work of Dr. James Allison. In the mid-1990s, before Dr. Allison was well-known, the Prostate Cancer Foundation (PCF) began supporting his research at UC Berkeley on the process by which cancer spreads by turning off the body’s normal immune-system response. Helped by the initial PCF grant and other funding, Allison was able to develop the work that eventually won the Nobel Prize.
A July 2023 Wall Street Journal article said, “The Prostate Cancer Foundation, which Milken founded in 1993, is widely credited with revolutionizing the way the disease is researched and treated by lowering the hurdles to funding for promising ideas and encouraging collaboration among research scientists.”
Milken helped launch the Melanoma Research Alliance to accelerate research progress against fatal skin cancers. MRA research programs are accelerating new therapeutic approaches for melanoma, improving existing treatments, developing new biomarkers and advancing understanding of melanoma risk factors. This MRA-funded research has played a key role in the development of 14 drugs and treatments approved by the FDA.
When the coronavirus pandemic swept the world in 2020, Mike drew on his five decades of working with leaders in public health and medical research to redirect the efforts of his foundations and the Milken Institute in several areas. These included connecting industry, public health schools, philanthropic foundations and government agencies to expedite treatments and cures and to address diagnostic, staffing and device shortages; providing policy recommendations, especially to care for affected workers and their families; and disseminating accurate information.
POLICY RESEARCH LEADERSHIP
Milken is also chairman of the Milken Institute, a non-profit, non-partisan economic think tank that seeks to create a more-informed public, more-thoughtful policymaking and improved economic conditions. More than 4,000 thought leaders and decision makers from some 50 nations attend the Institute’s annual Global Conference in Los Angeles. The Institute holds major annual conferences in Washington, London, Singapore, Abu Dhabi and more than 200 other yearly events around the world.
ACCESS TO CAPITAL
As a financier, Milken is often said to have revolutionized modern capital markets, making them more efficient, dynamic and democratic by expanding access to capital for thousands of smaller companies and by pricing and rewarding risk more efficiently. This financed much of the early growth of cable television, homebuilding, cellular phones and other industries. A Washington Post column said Milken “helped create the conditions for America’s explosion of wealth and creativity” in the late 20th century, a process that BusinessWeek said, “shook America’s defeatist establishment out of its gloom.” The Sunday Times of London said, “The restructuring job started by Mike Milken has been completed by the globalisation of many markets.”
Starting in 1969, when he joined the firm that would become Drexel Burnham Lambert, Milken helped finance thousands of companies. By 1976, the financial theories he developed in the 1960s had been proven in the world’s markets and now are considered mainstream. The Economist said his financial innovations “are credited with fueling much of America’s rampant economic growth by enabling companies with bright ideas to get the money they need to develop them.” A Wall Street Journal editorial referred to “Mr. Milken’s contribution to the explosive economic growth experienced by the U.S.” Canada’s Globe and Mail called it “one of the greatest achievements of modern capitalism.”
Writing in the June 2005 issue of The American Spectator, the former senior economist of the Congressional Joint Economic Committee, Stephen Moore, wrote: “Michael Milken and Drexel easily created more wealth for American shareholders single-handedly than all the trustbusters in American history combined.”
In his book How the Markets Really Work, former Harvard Business Review editor, the late Joel Kurtzman wrote:
“Milken’s real contribution was far greater than simply to sell portfolios of bonds. His real contribution was to get investors to understand that the stock and bond markets were not really separate markets. Milken created a tremendous pool of liquidity and guided its use with surgical precision. He did it in a way that took an often bloated and ailing American economy and made it lean, mean and resilient. Much of the strength and resilience of the economy today – including its ability to rebound in times of adversity – is due to the way people using Milken’s financing vehicles remade ailing companies or put their entrepreneurial zeal to work.”
Milken’s most important work was financing entrepreneurs who had good ideas for building companies that became engines of job creation. These entrepreneurs had a great need for capital, but little access to bank financing. With Milken’s help, they became drivers of employment.
Milken and his colleagues created what is today a major part of the structure of global finance based on their innovations in the 1970s. These innovations – now taken for granted and taught in business schools worldwide – powered job growth in America for a quarter century and are now moving around the world through the efforts of the Milken Institute. Before Milken, fixed income was essentially a binary world: investment-grade securities and everything else. Milken created a spectrum of risk matched to the needs of individual companies and investors.
In 1989, the government charged Milken with securities/reporting violations in a case that continues to engender controversy. He admitted conduct that resulted – during a brief period in his 20 years on Wall Street – in five violations. Although such conduct had never before (nor has since) been prosecuted criminally – a fact rarely mentioned in press reports – he resolved the case without a trial to prevent further impact on his family. After paying a $200 million fine and serving a one-year-and-10-month sentence, he resumed the philanthropic work he had begun in the 1970s. A few years later, 98 brokerage firms and banks charged with conduct similar to that in the Milken case were simply fined in civil actions. In 2020, Milken received a presidential pardon. In response, the Wall Street Journal wrote:
“Mr. Milken was one of the great financial innovators of the 20th century. The presidential action recognizes that the Milken prosecution of the late 1980s-early 1990s was an example of prosecutorial excess in an era like our own when political gales were raging. ‘The charges filed against Mr. Milken were truly novel,’ said Tuesday’s White House statement on the pardon. ‘In fact, one of the lead prosecutors later admitted that Mr. Milken had been charged with numerous technical offenses and regulatory violations that had never before been charged as crimes.’ “
“Numerous journalists made their careers from prosecutors’ leaks against Mr. Milken and others on Wall Street, and they have a reputational stake in denying him any vindication. Then as now the political air was also thick with a desire to punish the wealthy. Such vapors are easy to ride, but they don’t equate with justice. In the long run of history, Mike Milken has done more good for more people with his financial innovations and philanthropy than all the scribes of envy politics ever will.”
In a similar vein, New York Post business columnist Charles Gasparino wrote:
“The 1980s were a period of unmatched growth (and) Milken deserves accolades for propelling Reagan-era prosperity … Prosecutors spun a series of low-level infractions and bookkeeping errors into securities fraud. They did it to advance their political careers and feed the blood lust of media … Years later, as they look back with the benefit of time and experience, they appear to downplay the seriousness of (Milken’s) transgressions … You don’t get rewarded for never bringing a case.”
MOVING TO A WORLD STAGE
Milken graduated from Birmingham High School, a Los Angeles public school, where he was on the basketball, tennis and track teams, and was president of the Service Honor Society. He was voted “friendliest” in his class by fellow students. Foretelling his future charitable initiatives, he received the Outstanding Young Man award from the Encino (CA) Junior Chamber of Commerce for greatest service to the community. He was elected a member of Phi Beta Kappa at the University of California, Berkeley, where he was president of his fraternity and graduated with highest honors. Milken earned his master’s degree in business administration from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, where he was a Joseph Wharton fellow. He writes frequently about public policy issues in major publications; and he is a widely sought-after speaker at conferences around the world. He and his wife, Lori, who have three children and 10 grandchildren, have been married since 1968.
Milken has met with heads of state around the world, including seven U.S. presidents and the leaders of ten other nations. Introducing him during a 2020 podcast, former President George W. Bush called Milken “one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. I’m proud to call him a friend.”
Mike and Lori Milken have joined with Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates in The Giving Pledge, which commits them to give the majority of their assets to philanthropic causes during their lifetimes.
In 2016, Milken joined with leaders of the International Finance Corporation (IFC – a member of the World Bank Group) and the George Washington University (GW) to create the IFC-Milken Institute Capital Markets Program at GW. The goal of this first-of-its-kind initiative is to create a network of hundreds of practitioners – IFC-Milken Institute Scholars – in emerging regions around the world who will lead capital-market development in their countries.
In 2021, Milken and South African philanthropist Patrice Motsepe announced the Milken-Motsepe Innovation Prize program, a $2-million global competition for solutions to problems faced by farmers on small African farms. It provides incentives for global innovators to develop advanced technologies that will accelerate progress toward poverty relief and hunger elimination in sub-Saharan Africa.
Summing up Milken’s profound impact in multiple fields, New York Times columnist David Brooks said, “Michael Milken is one of those guys who just soaks you in. He just wants to learn everything from every single person he meets. That is a pretty valuable trait.”