University of Illinois CIO Ellen Ellison on Agriculture

One overlooked aspect of endowments is that each of them support a unique school with its own history and idiosyncrasy. For the University of Illinois, it’s farming.

Ellen Ellison took the helm at the University of Illinois five years ago and found herself in the heartland of America. The University has a long and storied history in agriculture, and the endowment regularly receives tracts of lands as gifts. She began talking to the most well-regarded experts in agribusiness, many of whom were loyal alumni of the university, seeking to maximize the value of the donated holdings and source new opportunities.

In a short period of time, Ellison dove deeply into the field, invested in attractive local opportunities, and leveraged the newfound expertise to source attractive opportunities as far abroad as Brazil and sub-Saharan Africa. She even reviewed a pitch to buy a single cow (and politely declined). The endowment’s allocation to agriculture today sits at a disproportionately high 12 percent and is growing, and the investments have earned outsize returns, measured every conceivable way.

The Edge You May Be Overlooking, Institutional Investor

She recognizes that the University of Illinois is the center of knowledge and expertise on agriculture, similarly to another school located in Silicon Valley on tech, and she is exploiting that advantage.

Ellison says she wants to build on the example of Stanford’s success with venture capital, leveraging the expertise of Illinois alumni and professors, including those from its renowned ag school. “Let’s do what we actually know about,” she says. “We have a means of sourcing new ideas long before everyone else is paying attention.” In addition to land, the portfolio invests in agriculture-related private equity. Ellison recalls one alum who wanted her to make a venture capital investment in a cow—just one cow—that would produce more milk. In that case, she declined.

Why the University of Illinois Is Investing in Farmland, Bloomberg Businessweek

Who wouldn’t want to milk that investment?

By the way, how much does it cost to rename an engineering school?

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s College of Engineering will become The Grainger College of Engineering, recognizing a new $100 million gift from The Grainger Foundation and more than $300 million in total support, after consultation with the Chancellor’s Joint Advisory Committee on Investment, Licensing, and Naming Rights and pending approval by the University of Illinois Board of Trustees.

The Grainger Foundation’s total support represents the largest amount ever given to a public university to name a college of engineering, with more than $200 million provided in the last six years.

Illinois Engineering to become The Grainger College of Engineering

Learn more of how the University of Illinois Foundation oversees the endowment by listening to Ellen Ellison on Capital Allocators.

Episode 27: Ellen Ellison – Playing to Your Strengths

The Alma Mater on campus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
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Post by Marcelino Pantoja