Our History

From an immigrant’s wish to show his love for America, a foundation was born that continues to profoundly impact our world. 

More than 60 years ago, John and Fannie Hertz established the Hertz Foundation to help build a stronger nation. It was a goal that might be considered lofty and ambitious for a businessman from humble beginnings. 

But John Hertz was no ordinary businessman. He embraced the daring innovation that has become a hallmark of the Hertz Foundation, risk-taking that continues to lead to transformative breakthroughs in science and technology. 

  • Fannie Hertz
  • John Hertz
  • Budding Entrepreneur
  • Racehorse Owners

An Immigrant's Story

Arriving in the United States as a poor immigrant and achieving success through hard work and ingenuity: It is the classic rags-to-riches American story. It is John Hertz’s story. And like others who have benefited from this land of opportunity, he sought a meaningful way of giving back. 

On September 20, 1957, two weeks before the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, newspapers coast to coast spread the news that financier and auto industry entrepreneur John D. Hertz, an Austrian immigrant who hawked newspapers on the streets of Chicago at age five, would donate his multimillion-dollar fortune to set up a scholarship fund for engineers, subsidizing more than 100 undergraduate students a year. 

“I had for some years been looking for a way to show my gratitude and love for America,” he told reporters when making the announcement. “Then one day I read that Russia was turning out 100 percent more mechanical and electrical engineers than the United States. It gave me a jolt—and also an idea.” 

Hertz established the Fannie K. and John D. Hertz Engineering Scholarship Fund. The first board of directors included noted nuclear scientist Edward Teller, Robert Lehman of Lehman Brothers, and many other leaders in science, industry, and government.

Shift in Focus

After the death of John in 1961 and Fannie in 1963, a committee of the board of directors, in consultation with engineering and science educators throughout the country, recommended a major modification in the foundation’s program. The undergraduate scholarship program was phased out, and financial support shifted to postgraduate fellowships for PhD students. The scope of studies expanded to include the applied sciences, with an emphasis on innovation. 

The Hertz Fellowships, first awarded in 1963, are notable for the freedom they provide. Renewable for up to five years, the fellowship gives recipients the opportunity to pursue research of their choosing and the flexibility to attend any participating university. In return, as John Hertz specified, they must commit to making their skills available to the US in times of national emergency. 

To date, more than 1,200 fellowships have been awarded. Hertz Fellows have gone on to become university presidents and faculty, military officers and generals, company founders, and patent holders. Recognized as some of the most notable leaders in science, engineering, and mathematics, fellows have received countless awards and accolades, including MacArthur Fellowships, the Fields Medal, the National Medal of Science, the National Medal of Technology, and the Nobel Prize.  

  • Driving Ambition
  • Commitment
  • Civilian Honors
  • A Lasting Legacy

A Public Foundation

When the Hertz Foundation was established, John and Fannie put their fortune in the hands of appointed trustees, who honored their wish that the process be simple, “not be a complicated venture wrapped up in red tape and complicated rules,” and awarded as many fellowships as they could for as long as they could. 

The original funding, however, was not intended to last forever. In 2000, the board of directors faced the decision of if, and how, to move forward. Funds were limited, but the remaining endowment was still a strong foundation that could be built upon. They took stock of the impact generated by the fellows and delivered an unequivocal decision: The fellowship program, which for decades had been quietly advancing some of the boldest ideas and most innovative solutions in science, engineering, and mathematics, should continue in perpetuity. 

The wheels were set in motion, and in 2010, the Hertz Foundation moved from being a private to a public foundation. Today, the Hertz Fellowship Program has grown to be so much more than the undergraduate scholarship fund it was at the beginning. Over the last 60 years, it has become an incubator of innovation, providing fellows with the freedom to take risks and think in daring new directions. 

Growing Impact

The foundation continues to grow in scope and impact, thanks to support from fellows and friends. Since it became a public foundation, gifts have grown to almost $4 million annually. Partnerships with like-minded organizations have grown as well, with over 40 fellowships supported by individuals and organizations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Google, Draper, and The Hertz Corporation.

The Hertz fellows themselves are a community of scientists who give their all to their scientific innovation and give back. Nearly 30 percent of fellows give to the foundation each year, the second-highest rate of alumni giving in the nation when compared to graduate institutions. Fellows also are engaged in the fellowship selection process and as directors and council members.

Edward Teller (left), physicist and first Hertz Fellowship interviewer, with Hertz Fellow Ed Boyden, a Hertz Fellow since 1999.

Timeline of Events

Explore these notable firsts and other significant milestones in the history of the Hertz Foundation.

Fannie and John Hertz Foundation established.

John Hertz dies at age 82.

Fannie Hertz dies at age 82. First doctoral fellowships awarded.

Margaret Fels becomes the first woman to receive a Hertz Fellowship.

Roscoe Giles, the first African American to receive a PhD in physics from Stanford University, becomes the first African American to receive a Hertz Fellowship.

Wilson K. Talley named the president of the Hertz Foundation, a position he held until 1999.

Hertz Fellow John Holzrichter named the president of the Hertz Foundation, a position he held until 2009.

The Hertz Foundation establishes an endowed professorship at the University of California, Davis, in honor of Edward Teller, who urged John Hertz to support education in the applied sciences and became the first interviewer for the Hertz Fellowship.

Jay Davis named the president of the Hertz Foundation, a position he held until 2015.

Fannie and John Hertz Foundation becomes a public foundation.

Robbee Kosak named the first woman president of the Hertz Foundation.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation partners with the Hertz Foundation to establish the Hertz Fellowship in Global Health and Development.

The Hertz Corporation sponsors Hertz Fellow, Bailey Flanigan, marking the first partnership between the Hertz Foundation and the Hertz Corporation.