Alumnus encourages student entrepreneurship with $1 million gift

Rick Sontag shares how he and his wife Susan have persevered, through recessions and illness

9/28/2011 - By: Claudene Wharton
Sontag, Mosier and Carothers Alumnus Rick Sontag, founder of Unison Industries, presents a $1 million check to College of Business Dean Greg Mosier and Vice President of Development and Alumni Relations John Carothers. Photo by Theresa Danna-Douglas.

RENO, Nev. – As the University of Nevada, Reno College of Business hosts its annual Business Week, the College welcomed to campus today alumnus Rick Sontag, who brought a special gift to the University and its students – a $1 million check.

The gift will establish an endowment in the University of Nevada, Reno Foundation with the goal of presenting an annual Sontag Entrepreneurship Award of about $50,000 to a student or group of students who demonstrate an ability and intention to start or expand a business.

Sontag, who earned his bachelor’s degree in physics at Harvey Mudd College in 1964 and then his master’s degree in physics from the University of Nevada, Reno in 1966, presented the check to College of Business Dean Greg Mosier and Vice President of Development and Alumni Relations John Carothers after addressing students this afternoon at the University’s Joe Crowley Student Union Theatre. Sontag shared with the students that while at Nevada, he had an epiphany that he was “more interested in the administration and management of science than actually doing the sciences,” so he decided to get his MBA.

“It’s easy to get channeled into a certain direction because people see you are good at it, but I think in the end, you have to follow your heart and your intuition,” he said. “You have these inner voices telling you what you ought to be doing and you need to listen to them.”

After earning his MBA at Harvard, Sontag worked in a variety of mostly sales and marketing positions for companies in the scientific, medical and industrial fields, and although being quite successful, he also experienced some difficulties, including being fired three times.

“I think I probably set a record for a Harvard Business School graduate,” he joked. “I think I was the only graduate who stood in the unemployment line in three different states. So, I started thinking that maybe I didn’t do too well working for other people and needed to go into business for myself.”

So at age 36, Sontag purchased a small company in Rockford, Ill., with $50,000 that he had saved, and almost $8 million that he borrowed. He then grew the company into a worldwide leader in aviation technology, Unison Industries, which had nearly 1,500 employees before he sold it to General Electric in 2002. With the proceeds from the sale, Sontag established the Sontag Foundation and The Spring Bay Companies, a group of investment businesses with activities ranging from venture capital to real estate. But, it is his philanthropic activities that he now finds to be the most meaningful.

“It’s taken me almost all of my 69 years to learn that God put me here for a reason,” he said. “I am supposed to improve the lives of others.”

The Sontag Foundation supports research in the area of brain cancer and rheumatoid arthritis, as well as organizations addressing vital social concerns, especially those that help people become more self-sufficient. Rick’s wife, Susan Sontag, who accompanied Rick in his visit to Nevada, was diagnosed with brain cancer in 1994, and her battle with the disease was the main inspiration for the formation of the Sontag Foundation. He shared in detail learning of his wife’s illness and receiving the call from the neurosurgeon telling him that Susan only had a couple of years left to live.

“Guess what? Those doctors were wrong,” he said. “Seventeen years later, she’s sitting here alive today.”

Today, the Sontags and their Foundation are the largest private funders of brain cancer research, sponsoring 29 scientists across the United States. The two clearly share the drive to persevere and succeed, and want to inspire that in others, partly with their gifts such as the one they made to the University for the Sontag Entrepreneurship Award today.

“The students who get this award – I just hope they have the spirit of wanting to succeed and don’t worry about falling on their face as they try,” he said. “I have reached that stage in life where I think it is important to give back and contribute to the kinds of causes that benefited me.”

When Sontag had finished discussing the challenges he and his wife have faced, which he said was the most detailed account of their lives he has ever shared, Dean Mosier announced the $1 million gift the couple was making to the University for the annual Sontag Entrepreneurship Award for students.

“This is a momentous occasion,” he said. “This is the largest gift that has ever been given to the College of Business, so it’s really a hallmark for us going forward. Students, no matter what you’re studying, I encourage you to get ready, go forth and create innovative and exciting ventures.”


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