Paying It Forward

Kenneth Simril has created scholarships at USC Viterbi as a way of giving back

Not too long ago, Kenneth Simril, B.S. PE ’88, turned 50, a time of reflection for the chief executive and president of Fleischmann’s Ingredients. “I remember creating a list, the 50 things you do when you turn 50,” said Simril, a married father of two sons, ages 15 and 9. “You go to Super Bowl 50. Walk the Great Wall of China. And of course, pay it forward in recognition of those who helped me along the way.”

And so he has. Last year, Simril made a gift to USC Viterbi covering much of the tuition for two black males studying engineering. He recently renewed his support in the form of a scholarship endowment.

“I simply want to enhance opportunities for our youth, many of whom face so many obstacles to a better life for themselves and their families,” said Simril, who delivered the keynote address at USC Viterbi’s 2016 undergraduate commencement ceremony, joining a group of distinguished past speakers including Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX and Tesla.

In his address, Simril recited an African proverb — “Where you will sit when you are old shows where you stood in youth” — a message he says has inspired him over the years.

As a child, Simril had an affinity for math and science, which his mother encouraged him to pursue. When she died unexpectedly when he was just 14, Simril vowed that he would somehow become financially independent. He began working at Taco Bell as a young teenager under a high school work permit. He has worked ever since. In high school, teachers and counselors encouraged him to take AP classes and apply to topflight universities with a focus on engineering.

He took their advice.

Simril became the first member of his immediate family to earn a four-year degree. He financed his education through a combination of loans, scholarships, summer internships in the oil and gas industry and surprisingly, the generosity of others. Simril recalls the time when his car, parked near campus, was stolen. He only had liability insurance and no way to replace it.

I remember vividly thinking, How am I going to get from downtown LA to Harbor City, where I worked, by 7 a.m. without a car? Public transportation was not an option back then.

Fortunately, a neighbor heard about Simril’s plight and loaned him his family’s second car, even paying Simril’s insurance. A year later, Simril had saved enough to buy his own car and profusely thanked his benefactor, who, he believes, made such a sacrifice so that an African-American engineering student could graduate from USC.

“He absolutely left a mark,” Simril said. “I said to myself that one of these days, if I have the means, I’m certainly going to give back to make a difference in someone else’s life.”

Emanuel Azage is one of the beneficiaries of Simril’s generosity. The 21-year-old junior computer science major said his partial scholarship has allowed him to take a lighter class load and minor in mobile app development. In the absence of Simril’s support, Azage said he would have instead had to take a part-time job.

“It’s really helpful and gives me more freedom to explore what I want to do,” said Azage, an executive board member in the local chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers.

Tilden Chima, another Simril scholarship recipient and a biomedical engineering major, said Simril’s support eases the financial burden on his parents. “I’m really grateful,” he said.

During a recent lunch, Simril encouraged Azage and Chima to travel the world to broaden their perspectives, become lifelong learners and embrace professional risk. The students listened with rapt attention. Simril also emphasized that the pair has a responsibility to pay it forward with their time, talent and treasure as circumstances allow, particularly in these difficult and uncertain times.

“They remind me a lot of myself when I was their age, their sense of optimism, vitality and youth,” said Simril, who hopes to continue mentoring Chima and Azage as well as future scholarship recipients.

At USC, Simril said he gained a deep understanding about the intersection of science and engineering and “loved being a Trojan.” He later attended Harvard Business School, paving the way for a career in venture capital and private equity.

Over the next 20-plus years, Simril climbed the corporate ladder, holding a variety of positions in finance and operations within Fortune 500 companies, startups and private equity-backed companies. In 2006, he became president and CEO of Fleischmann’s, a manufacturer of food ingredients. Under Simril’s leadership, the company’s sales have doubled and profits tripled due to various operational improvements and product growth initiatives.

Along the way, he continuously gave back to the community, serving as executive onloan to Rebuild Los Angeles, an organization established after the 1992 civil disturbance to spur economic development in South Los Angeles; creating public awareness as a member of the California Blue Ribbon Commission on Autism in 2005; and volunteering his financial and business expertise as an appointed trustee to the nation’s largest county public pension plan, the $50 billion Los Angeles County Employees Retirement Association pension board.

Simril lives with his family in Southern California.

“I would not be where I am today if not for the kindness, generosity and genuine interest that people from all walks of life had in me,” he said. “It’s satisfying that all of this support over the past 50 years has resulted in my ability to give back.”