Wendell McCain had dreamed of attending Princeton, or maybe even Georgetown, since he was in the fifth grade.
But when the North Mecklenburg High School graduate earned a Morehead Scholarship to Carolina, he never looked back.
“I was pleasantly surprised at the diversity of students here, and got just as great of an education as I would have at an Ivy League school,” said McCain, who earned his economics degree in 1992. Living in an international student community at Carmichael dorm played a big role in his experience at UNC and later as an entrepreneur and philanthropist.
Twenty years after graduating, McCain is committed to a global education more than ever.
He recently established the McCain Family Fund for Excellence in the department of African and Afro-American studies, the department’s single largest gift. It will provide faculty and students with critical funds for travel, research materials, technology and other resources needed for their work as scholars and educators.
“The economics department was a huge influence on my career,” said McCain, who mentioned professor emeritus Sandy Darity as a mentor. “But a gift to African and Afro-American studies makes a bigger impact and supports this important discipline. Africa is the world’s most resource-rich continent. As a student of world markets, I know that the study of Africa is especially relevant in understanding our international markets. I also hope the gift inspires others to give back to the department.”
The gift is welcome news to its chair and 21 faculty members.
“Income from the fund will enable us to establish our first fellowships for faculty and majors, who will be selected through a competitive process,” said Eunice Sahle, department chair.
Reginald Hildebrand, the faculty member who will coordinate the awards, notes that the McCains are among the “first families of freedom in North Carolina.”
“Wendell has been a pathbreaker in the world of global finance, and the fund that he established will further his family’s commitment to learning and expanding opportunity for our students and faculty to conduct research, especially in North Carolina.”
McCain’s inspiration for the greater good is a family tradition.
Wendell’s father, Franklin, now retired from a distinguished career as a chemist at Celanese Corp. in Charlotte, was only 17 when he entered the national spotlight as a civil rights activist. A member of the Greensboro Four, Franklin and three classmates from N.C. A&T University staged a two-day sit-in at the downtown Woolworth lunch counter in February 1960 after they were refused service because of the color of their skin. The sit-in launched similar protests nationwide, re-energizing the civil rights movement and forever ensuring Franklin’s role in American history.
Wendell, the middle son of Franklin and Bettye McCain, traveled widely abroad as a child.
“I have always been interested in traveling and learning about different cultures,” he said. “It makes you appreciate home that much more. It also allows us to understand how other economies operate.” A family trip to Cape Verde, the island country and his wife’s childhood home, in the coming months will include the couple’s two young sons, both avid Tar Heel fans and already seasoned world travelers.
After graduating from Carolina, McCain put in long hours with BankBoston, Lazard Frères and J.P. Morgan in Boston and New York as an investment banker. While the work led to a great lifestyle, it wasn’t satisfying intellectually, he said.
For that, McCain enrolled in Northwestern University’s Kellogg School where he earned an M.B.A. and thrived in its entrepreneurial and collegial environment. It was ideal preparation for his work as a founding partner with Parish Capital, and more recently, Onset Capital Partners, another private equity firm he created in 2011 based in Chapel Hill.
As McCain’s career flourished, he created the Financial Futures Foundation with his brother Franklin Jr. and Parish Capital to introduce careers in the financial services industry to minority and female high school students, two groups vastly underrepresented in leadership positions in finance. UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School is among the foundation’s partners.
“The measure of a great life is the number of people you’ve brought with you,” said McCain. “Our abilities give voice to those who need to be heard and understood, people who have not had the same opportunities.”
By Del Helton