Philanthropic couple a Major force for change

John and Susan Major gave $1 million last month to the La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology

RANCHO SANTA FE — Twenty-two years ago, John and Susan Major bought Penwern, a lakefront home in Wisconsin built in 1902 by the famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright. They’ve been lovingly restoring it to its original glory ever since.

The Rancho Santa Fe couple say their goal is always to leave things in a better state than they find them, and their latest passion project is the La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology. Last month, the Majors gave $1 million to the institute to help expand its research in biological analytics.

John Major — a wireless technology innovator who has chaired the institute’s board of directors since 2010 — said he hopes the gift will inspire a spirit of philanthropy among its contributors.

“I always ask potential board members if they can carry the message to their friends,” said John, 70. “We want to get the word out.”

The institute is just one of many philanthropic causes the Majors support. They also give to their alma maters, the University of Rochester and University of Illinois (John) and Northeastern University (Susan); the Girl Scouts of San Diego; The Old Globe; the San Diego Zoo; the Village Church of Rancho Santa Fe; and the Frank Lloyd Wright Society.

The Majors’ generous checks are almost always delivered with a great deal of their personal time and business expertise. They serve on many of these organizations’ boards, and their shared goal with each is to drive development.

“We get involved to make change. We’re not very good passengers,” said John.

The Majors met 33 years ago in Chicago, where they were both working for Motorola. He was a chief technology officer with more than a dozen patents to his credit and she was a marketing executive with a couple of patents of her own. They moved to San Diego with their two children in 1997, when John was hired to lead Qualcomm’s wireless infrastructure division.

Later, he ran Novatel Wireless for three years and the startup Wireless Knowledge. Today, he runs MTSG, a telecommunications investment and consulting firm.

Susan has spent more than 18 years in the wireless and telecom industry, the past 12 in the headhunting industry. Now 64, she is the founder and CEO of Major Executive Search and co-founder of the Women in Wireless networking group. She said she has two major goals in her business and philanthropic life.

“My mantra is to make things better than I find them. Also, I have a passion for helping women succeed in business, especially the technology field. Now I’m focused on getting more women on corporate boards,” she said.

The Majors both list work as their No. 1 hobby. They also collect 1700s-1800s furniture, John likes to hit golf balls and Susan enjoys gardening. But for more than two decades, they’ve been the generous guardians of Penwern, one of several stunning homes Wright built on Wisconsin’s Delavan and Geneva lakes around the turn of the 20th century.

Working from Wright’s original drawings, the Majors rebuilt the compound’s boathouse, which was destroyed by fire in the late 1970s, and they have restored its gatehouse lodge. They enjoy using the Delavan Lake property as a family compound where they can spend time with their children, who both live in San Francisco. John B., 27, is an attorney, and Barbara, 24, is an investment banking analyst.

While living and working in the Midwest, the Majors said they gave back to their community and colleges in a private way. But when they arrived in San Diego, they discovered that the local corporate culture encouraged executives to find a cause to support in a more public way. Qualcomm co-founder Harvey White asked Susan to look into one of his own passion projects, The Old Globe, and she ended up serving nine years on the theater’s board.

John’s first big charitable investment in San Diego was EvoNexus, a then-underfunded and little-known tech startup incubator. As chairman, he helped grow EvoNexus from a budget of $300,000 to $3 million and helped it emerge an an industry leader.

“It wasn’t an important industry group at the time, and I thought we needed one,” he said.

John is what you’d call a lifelong learner. He holds a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering, a bachelor’s and master’s degree in mechanical engineering, an MBA, a law degree and an honorary doctorate. He said he loves learning new things and enjoys being on the frontier of new technological and medical discoveries.

That’s what attracted him in 2009 to La Jolla Institute, which is overseen by president and chief scientific officer Mitchell Kronenberg.

“It’s been my pleasure in life to walk with giants,” John said. “Mitch, he’s a giant. I knew he was going to change the mold.”

Founded in 1988, La Jolla Institute is focused on understanding the immune response and its role in preventing, treating and curing disease. In his years as board chairman, John has worked to expand the board and diversify the panel with some non-scientists. The institute’s staff has grown from 17 to 22 professors, and today it is one of the world’s top five research organizations of its kind.

The Majors’ $1 million gift was used to recruit bioinformaticist Ferhat Ay, Ph.D., who will hold the Institute Leadership Professorship in Computational Biology. His research will use informatics (computer analysis) to tap into the immune system’s power to heal.

Susan Major said she believes the institute is poised to change the human health landscape.

“Gaining a much more complete understanding of how the immune system works and how it can be manipulated to maintain good health will have a profound impact on the future of medicine,” she said.

Kronenberg said the Majors’ confidence in the institute’s research has been an important component of its growth over the past three years.

“John and Sue have been tremendous advocates of the institute’s mission,” he said. “Their longstanding commitment and generosity are a compelling testament to the vital importance of the exemplary research our scientists are pursuing.”