If you ask Nathan Blecharczyk’s high school teachers if they’re surprised by his astounding success in life, the answer you get is: No, not at all.
That’s because even as a student at Boston Latin Academy two decades ago, he was clearly a prodigy. He wasn’t just a straight-A student at one of the city’s exam schools; there are always a bunch of those. Blecharczyk was the kind of straight-A student who started a business writing computer program after school and on the weekends, and made $1 million from it before he graduated.
He didn’t stop there. After graduating from Harvard with a degree in computer science, he went on to become one of the cofounders of Airbnb. At 35, Blecharczyk has an estimated fortune of $4.2 billion.
He also has a huge affection for his high school alma mater, Boston Latin Academy, to which he has made a point of staying connected. On Monday he will announce a gift of $1 million to the school, along with a pledge to match up to $1 million from other donors.
The gift is by far the biggest in the history of Boston Latin Academy, the Dorchester-based exam school sometimes confused with its fancier and far more affluent sibling, Boston Latin School. Boston Latin boasts an endowment of roughly $53 million; Latin Academy’s is less than $1 million. Blecharczyk’s donation will be used for a new computer lab and for STEM education — though his donation will probably be enough to do even more than that.
“I’m extremely thankful for what I got from Latin Academy and I just want to pay it forward,” Blecharczyk said Sunday. “And objectively, putting that aside, I think the school is doing something really special.”
Latin Academy officials are quick to note that Blecharczyk is an active alumnus. Though he lives with his wife, Elizabeth, and two children in the Bay Area — where Airbnb is based — his visit Monday to formally announce the gift will be his fourth time back on campus in the past five years. He has visited classes, talked to students, and kept in touch with his favorite teachers, some of whom are still teaching at BLA.
To be sure, Boston Latin Academy is one of the crown jewels of the Boston Public Schools. US News and World Report recently ranked it the fifth-best public high school in Massachusetts. Roughly 70 percent of its students are people of color; it’s an exam school that looks like Boston. But like virtually any public high school, more resources are more than welcome.
Headmaster Chimdi Uchendu said the money will help fund after-school and summer programming, in addition to the aforementioned computer labs. His hope is also that it will also encourage other Latin Academy alumni to want to give back to their alma mater.
“I’ve worked with a lot of people who want to give back to the school, but Nathan’s different,” Uchendu said. “He’s really humble. He always says, this isn’t about me. What do you think the students need?”
Blecharczyk describes his years at the exam school as deeply formative. Its diversity was among the factors that made the deepest impression on him, and still does.
“After Latin Academy I went to Harvard and then I went to Silicon Valley; these are places that are a lot less diverse,” Blecharczyk noted. “They’re all striving for diversity. But compared to what I experienced at Latin Academy, it’s a night-and-day difference. So when I go back there, it’s just a reminder of what diversity can look like.
“Here we have a school with great teachers, and students that have shown promise and a diverse student body. I just think those are the raw ingredients that you just don’t see anywhere else, frankly. So when I think about investing my time and financial gift, what better place than there?”
Blecharczyk’s chemistry teacher, Robert Huie — now in his 26th year at the school — said the gift will resonate beyond what it can buy.
“It will help instill a sense of pride in our school that we are every bit as good as any other school and great in our own way,” Huie said. “It’s hard to be in the shadow of BLS. This will help us solidify our identity as a top-notch school. That’s very important to our students.”
Ah, Boston Latin School. Those comparisons may be annoying and unfair, but they are hard to avoid. They arise unbidden. The great divide between the two Latins may well be money.
Blecharczyk said he hopes to be a “catalyst” for the Latin Academy community to build the kind of support that Boston Latin has enjoyed for centuries.
“You’ve got to start somewhere, and I think I’ve got the unique ability to jump-start that,” he said. “Because of the financial gift, but also because of what I’ve accomplished with Airbnb. I hope the alumni feel proud that the school can create students who go off and do big things.”