Q&A: USTA Foundation President Thomas Chen

December 8, 2017 10:51 AM

By Ashley Marshall, USTAFoundation.com

Thomas Chen has served on the USTA Foundation's board of directors for five years, including almost three years as its president.

Born and raised in Butler, Pa., Chen (pictured above, right, with USTA Foundation Executive Director Dan Faber) is a vice chairman at Morgan Stanley, where he works in the investment banking division specializing in financial institutions and M&A. Prior to joining the USTA Foundation, Chen was on the board of directors of The United Way of New York City and on the board of trustees of his alma mater, Allegheny College.

USTA Foundation: How did you first become involved in tennis?

Thomas Chen: I first discovered tennis when I was 10 years old when I saw someone playing tennis and immediately became fascinated with it and wanting to play. The other early tennis memory I have was when I got my first tennis racquet, a wooden frame that came with those super-heavy head presses that would keep the racquet from warping. The most exciting moment was when I got an aluminum Head racquet; I remember sleeping with it on the first night. 

Tennis wasn’t a big sport where I grew up in western Pennsylvania and certainly took a backseat to football. But I loved it and still do today.

USTA Foundation: How did you become aware of the USTA Foundation and the work it does?

Chen: I first became aware of the Foundation when I purchased a paver at the US Open in 2010 and I learned that all the money being raised was going to help in-need youth through tennis. I went on the USTA Foundation's website and figured out who to talk to, because I was so curious about learning more. I had just come off the board of The United Way and I wanted to do something else philanthropic. I ended up speaking to the [then] executive director, Deborah Larkin, and had a couple nice conversations with her and she got me interested and ultimately a seat on the board.

USTA Foundation: What made you first want to become involved in the Foundation?

Chen: I have a lifelong love for tennis, so doing something philanthropic for something you personally enjoy was compelling. My wife plays tennis, my 16-year-old son plays tennis and my twin 7-year-old daughters play tennis. It’s something everyone in the Chen family does at least three to four times a week.

To do something philanthropic, in an organization that is so impactful, and in association with a sport the whole family enjoys, is just a terrific combination and passion for me.

USTA Foundation: Why is it so important to you to make a difference in the lives of underprivileged youth?

Chen: Having grown up in western Pennsylvania in the 70s, when the steel mills were shutting down and unemployment was rampant, being able to find a nonprofit that was focused on helping children in need was important. I’ve seen how discouraging environments can extinguish people’s faith, outlook and optimism. I’ve seen it and in some form I know everyone has.

To me, tennis creates community. It is a sport that helps build character, sportsmanship and engagement. Those are perfect ingredients for children who need help and direction. What we do is terrific and I love our mission.

I think tennis is an individual sport. Within that individual sport you have coaches and, in some settings, teammates that help and support you, but you still have to do it yourself, and that is very similar to life. You will have parents or teachers or mentors or somebody in your life who will help you along and give you opportunities, but at the end of the day, you have to do it.  

For me, that's the primary similarity between tennis and life. The sport itself is one where you learn sportsmanship and learn to win and lose because no matter how good you are, there is always somebody better. My children are privileged and may have more opportunities than others, but on the court they have to work just as hard and have the same opportunities and challenges as everyone else. It works both ways. 

USTA Foundation: Why did you decide to invest so much time in the USTA Foundation?

Chen: My life is divided into three areas: my family, my day job at Morgan Stanley and the USTA Foundation. So the Foundation is an important part of my life, and it's not just something where I wait to get a reminder that I have a meeting. I'm always thinking about how can we be more impactful, grow the NJTL chapters, help more kids, raise more money, create greater awareness and to help grow the sport of tennis and deliver our mission. There is a lot to do, and perhaps the best part of it all is seeing the number of passionate and engaged volunteers grow. 

USTA Foundation: Can you share your favorite story about working with the USTA Foundation?

Chen: I don't think there's one particular one. But when I first became president, I had a lot of lofty goals. The first one was to rename the Foundation from USTA Serves to USTA Foundation. Nobody today even remembers USTA Serves, so I think it has been a very impactful change. Another has been the integration of NJTL with the USTA Foundation. If you survey the NJTL chapters, they view that as an extremely important and impactful thing for them. 

I also had a fundraising goal. When I first joined the Foundation board, we were doing annual revenues of under $2 million, and I said the USTA Foundation should be a $20 million organization. I said we were going to dot “20 by 20,” so there was this catchy phrase of $20 million by 2020, and it sounded ridiculous at the time because we were one-tenth of that, but we are well on our way to meeting that goal in 2020.

I should note, too, that I don’t deserve any credit for this all I did was help show what the art of the possible is. The Foundation, staff, board, USTA, NJTL chapters and thousands of volunteers and donors make all of this happen.

2019 will be the 25th anniversary of the founding of the USTA Foundation and the 50th anniversary of the founding of the NJTL by Arthur Ashe. That’s going to be a big year for us.

USTA Foundation: There are so many worthwhile charities out there. What would you say to someone who is considering making a donation to the USTA Foundation?

Chen: First of all, thank you. The message would be that your donation isn't just disappearing into thin air. There are very tangible ways to see where the money is going. There are 300 local NJTL chapters, probably one close to where you live so come out and see and participate in what we are doing.  By the way, donating money is great, but volunteering your time is even more powerful.



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