Liz Koch: Maker space at Wichita State is ‘human ingenuity at work’

Liz Koch, center, and others applaud during the announcement Tuesday that Koch Industries and the Fred and Mary Koch Foundation are giving $11.25 million to Wichita State University. It’s the largest single-time gift in university history. (December 16, 2014)
Liz Koch, center, and others applaud during the announcement Tuesday that Koch Industries and the Fred and Mary Koch Foundation are giving $11.25 million to Wichita State University. It’s the largest single-time gift in university history. (December 16, 2014) The Wichita Eagle

Liz Koch, the wife of Charles Koch, gave another rare interview the other day.

She seldom talks publicly about herself or her husband.

But she’s passionate about charities she likes. So she talked about why she approved the $3.75 million gift that the Fred and Mary Koch Foundation gave the new maker space at Wichita State University, to provide high-tech equipment and design space for inventors.

“The maker space at WSU is a sexy project with young, motivated people, and I wish it were mine,” she said. “I think that for all kinds of reasons for all kinds of people, it’s pretty exciting, because it is human ingenuity at work.”

She talked also about grandchildren, and her hopes for the future, giving insight into life with one of the more influential corporate chiefs and political activists anywhere.

She also made wry fun of herself. And of him.

He has said she can do that because she’s the smartest person he knows. She said, “I can say things to him because he knows that I love him deeply, and will defend him to the last.”

He is 79. She is 70; they know they can’t go hard and fast forever.

“It’s good that the maker space is for young people, because we are at the place where we need to pass the baton around here,” she said.

“I am so ready. In the Youth Entrepreneur group now I’m looking for young people to come in who will carry it on when I’m long past the point of wanting to. I’m already stacking the membership with young people for that day.”

She has two grandkids. “But I want 10 more,” she said. After they arrived, she stopped traveling a lot in winter.

“I go see them here (in Wichita) instead of running off to California. Here, it doesn’t matter – snow, rain, sleet, cold – I go see the grandchildren. The smell of diapers is like perfume to me.”

She wishes Charles, who runs Koch Industries, a worldwide company, worked less.

“He’s still starting at the office by 7 a.m. When we go to the desert (for a rare three-day vacation) he still gets up at 6 and he falls into bed around 9. He plays golf for two days, but also works, until 6 o’clock. Even when he’s not in Wichita, which is annoying to me,” she said.

“But he’s not going to change, and I decided long ago there’s no point in having a war over something you won’t win.

“He is working harder today than when we were first married. I don’t think that’s right.”

He doesn’t want to let business partners and employees down, she said. “But now he works like that also because he is obsessed about getting things done, and making life better for everybody, and not just the cronies in bed with government,” she said.

“I know it’s a hard sell to people that that is what he is doing. It’s a hard sell to people who think (wrongly) that he’s doing it for money, when in fact he’s long past that.” He does what he does, including his political involvement, because he’s passionate about it, he believes it, his wife said.

“(Some) people don’t want to think of him as human. If he ever talks publicly about anything, they want him to damn himself to be a rich and greedy old man. …

“I watch him like a hawk. I don’t want anything to happen to him. He’s so good, as a person, so warm as a human being. And people have made him into this monstrous person that I’ve never seen.”

Liz Koch says she has seen “a little softening,” though, in public criticism of her husband.

“Maybe it’s got to the point where people are sick of hearing all the negative things about him.”

She paged through “Sons of Wichita” earlier this year, a book Daniel Schulman wrote about Charles, his father and brothers. It surprised her.

“It wasn’t entirely a hatchet job,” she said. “I skimmed the whole book in an hour. I think it did not do that much damage.”

She said she’s told Charles she’ll write her own book someday.

“Trust me, I’m saving up stories for my own.”


“No, not really, but it is fun to threaten. After all, if anybody could do a hatchet job on the Kochs, I could,” she said.

“He just laughs. He knows I love him with my whole heart and that I’d kill anyone who doesn’t.”

Charles himself is writing another book, a follow-up to “The Science of Success,” which he wrote in 2007. The new book is “a much more definitive piece than the first one, which was basically intended as a teaching manual for new hires. With too much theory. And too much lecture. The next book will be more lifelike,” she said.

“It’s about how to run a bazillion-dollar company and teach others the lessons he has learned. And this time, you might even get good examples illustrating things. And it will show how hard it is, how it is not easy, and how you have to be dedicated – and work your ass off.”

Since its founding in 1953, the Koch foundation she runs has given $35 million in grants and scholarships. In the past 14 years, it has given $18.5 million to education, arts and arts education, environmental stewardship and human services/at-risk youth causes, Koch officials said.

The foundation, like the company, doesn’t just give money, she said. It invests in projects she hopes will grow, including the maker space.

“The other thing you’ve got with this is the discovery process, where people can invent things. And the reason this is a great idea here is that … it’s not like there are a hundred labs sitting around where you can just walk in and try something.

“So for someone with the mind for it, this can work for them,” she said. “They can come in and try things, and do it without bankrupting themselves.”

When she first heard the term “maker space,” “I had to ask, ‘is that really a word?’” Liz Koch said.

“Not being all that techie, it was hard for me to understand. I really do try to keep up, but it’s all I can do to run a computer and a cellphone.”

Has she told Charles about the new WSU innovations she’s heard about?

“As if I could tell him anything! Are you kidding? I have to ask the questions and then he tells me what I have learned. That’s how this works.

“But … I don’t care if he does have three degrees from MIT – all this tech stuff is happening so fast, it’s hard to stay up with it, and even he doesn’t always see what’s coming.

“I tell him that. And you know what he says? He says he can’t screw in a light bulb, but ‘I understand the theory of the light bulb.’”

Reach Roy Wenzl at 316-268-6219 or rwenzl@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @roywenzl.