Robert "Bob" M. Solmson
MOST Founder and Board Chair
President of Fairwood Capital, LLC
B.A. in Economics, Washington and Lee University
How did you get the idea to start MOST?
I read an article in Forbes magazine about a fellow named Patrick Rooney. Included in it was a mention of a private voucher program that he started in Indianapolis. He was giving partial scholarships to financially disadvantaged kids to go to private and parochial schools. As a follow-up, I called him and went and saw him and his daughter, who ran their charitable foundation, and that really started the idea of MOST. He was offering only partial scholarships because he wanted the parents and the schools to have some “skin in the game.” He impressed upon me the importance of starting the program in the earliest grades possible.
When you founded MOST in 1998, did you imagine it would be still be around and have grown to serve over 500 students annually?
Naively but candidly, my thought was that this voucher program would serve kids on an interim basis and that eventually the public school system would get its act together or there would be a state-funded voucher program, in which case there would be less need for MOST. I really didn’t think it would be around for 18 years. The idea, really, was just to help as many students as we could for as long as we could.
You are a Christian Brothers High School alumnus, and one of your two children graduated from a private school. Why do you think it’s important for all families to have private school options?
In a perfect world, I would have opted to send my children to public schools. I don’t think I have any preconceived notion; education is not a onesize-fits-all experience. I do think that the private schools make the public schools better. They provide an element of competition, and it says something when a parent opts to write a check to send their child to a private school when they could go to a public school for free.
Why should Memphians looking to support local nonprofits consider donating to MOST?
Obviously, everybody has their own priorities, but my view is that it all starts with education. If you want to mitigate crime or any other socioeconomic problem, then provide better education to more students. Kids who are well-educated and feel like they have an opportunity to achieve something in life generally turn out to be productive citizens. A lot of the problems in Memphis relate to educational issues. If MOST can help educate 500 kids a year, or 3,000 kids over 18 years, and give them an option that they otherwise wouldn’t have had, then it has a benefit that goes well beyond just those students and their education.
In early 2016, a Tennessee school-voucher bill made it to the House floor for the first time before being stalled indefinitely. What are your thoughts on state-funded vouchers?
I was disappointed that the voucher bill didn’t pass because I have seen firsthand the value of parental choice when it comes to education. I wish MOST could offer scholarships to more children, and having a state-funded voucher program would only expand on what we’re trying to do at MOST. Regardless of whether another voucher bill makes its way through the legislature, MOST will continue to provide additional school-choice options to as many Memphis-area families as possible.
Which books are currently on your nightstand?
I’m reading a book right now on third-world debt. How’s that for a dry subject? I’m also reading The Courage to Act by Ben Bernanke, and I like to read things by Warren Buffet and Tom Friedman. A while back, I read two books on Israel that are really good – My Promised Land by Ari Shavit and Startup Nation by Dan Senor and Saul Singer.
Tell us something interesting that most people don’t know about you.
I just finished a grilled hot dog. I worked out and made a hot dog. That was my reward.