For the Cherngs, making a $30 million gift to name and endow the Andrew and Peggy Cherng Department of Medical Engineering at Caltech was a matter of heart and mind. During more than four decades working as business owners and entrepreneurs in Pasadena, they have developed a strong appreciation for the institutions and people who call this city home.
As co-chairs and co-CEOs of the privately held Panda Restaurant Group, Inc., the Cherngs operate some 2,000 Panda Express restaurants across the country and around the world. But their first family restaurant, Panda Inn, opened its doors in Pasadena. “We were warmly welcomed,” says Andrew Cherng, who established the restaurant with his father, master chef Ming-Tsai Cherng, on Foothill Boulevard in 1973.
Building on the success of Panda Inn, the Cherngs grew a business enterprise that has afforded them the opportunity to give back. And they elected to direct their first major philanthropic investment to another prominent Pasadena institution. “We wanted our first major commitment to make a meaningful connection, so we gave to a school that is located in the same city where we started,” says Andrew Cherng, adding that many Caltech faculty became regular Panda Inn guests over the years. “I got to know Richard Feynman, Murray Gell-Mann, and Fredrik Zachariasen—we seem to be most popular with physicists,” he laughs.
“We always thought of Caltech as a shining star of Pasadena,” Peggy Cherng adds. So, when one of the couple’s friends, David Lee (PhD ’74)—chair of Caltech’s Board of Trustees—invited her to get involved, her interest was piqued.
With an MS in computer science and a PhD in electrical engineering from the University of Missouri, Peggy Cherng has a mind for science and engineering. She worked in software development at McDonnell Douglas’s aerospace division and Comtal/3M before joining the family business in 1982. Then, she says, “I took a different career path.” Nevertheless, she leveraged her engineering background to streamline operations at Panda by developing systems to track inventory, purchasing, and customer feedback.
Peggy Cherng was elected a member of Caltech’s Board of Trustees in 2012, and has seen herself as an ambassador for the Institute ever since. As they learned more about Caltech, the couple also wanted to support Break Through: The Caltech Campaign, a fundraising effort that aims to raise $2 billion to secure Caltech’s future as a source of transformative discovery for the world.
“Andrew and Peggy Cherng’s story is a quintessential example of success rooted in Pasadena and impact felt across the world,” says Caltech president Thomas Rosenbaum, the Sonja and William Davidow Presidential Chair and professor of physics. “In the same way, their extraordinary gift to support the country’s first medical engineering department here at Caltech will enable new discoveries and cures, rippling out to improve human lives everywhere.”
The Cherngs have a keen interest in the pioneering work of Caltech’s scientists and engineers, from planetary explorations conducted in partnership with JPL to climate dynamics research using robotic ocean gliders. But the couple elected to focus their personal philanthropy on medical engineering because, as Peggy Cherng explains, “In between the sky and the sea, Caltech is also uniquely positioned to make a difference for humans on earth.”
The Cherngs’ gift is congruent with their commitment to “paying it forward” to improve the quality of life for people in their community and around the globe. Caltech’s medical engineers apply multidisciplinary engineering principles in the health sphere to design and fabricate devices and systems for translational medicine—including diagnostics, therapeutics, implants, and non-invasive imaging—that will lead to cheaper, more effective, and more accessible health care.
“We are here to build the American dream, but not just for us,” Peggy Cherng elaborates. “We want to give to the right cause, and medical engineering will help others. I see Caltech helping to create a bright future ahead.”
The Cherng Department of Medical Engineering, one of seven departments in Caltech’s Division of Engineering and Applied Science (EAS) and 21 overall at Caltech, is the first of the university’s departments to be named and endowed. Augmenting the potential impact of their contribution, a portion of the Cherngs’ gift will create a leadership chair fund that the department head can allocate flexibly and quickly to advance the most promising research and educational initiatives.
“From the beginning, one of the strengths of this department has been that it draws upon the expertise of faculty members across engineering and science disciplines,” says Ravi Ravichandran, holder of Caltech’s Otis Booth Leadership Chair in EAS and the John E. Goode, Jr., Professor of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering. “I am very grateful to the Cherngs for this gift, which will allow us to sustain and build upon the transformational research and educational approaches of this department, and seed future breakthroughs.”
From a practical standpoint, Peggy Cherng considers it an advantage that Caltech doesn’t have its own medical school. “This way, research is not restricted to the expertise of one place, no matter how great it may be,” she explains. “Caltech forms dynamic collaborations with many hospitals.”
Currently, Caltech researchers are partnering with colleagues at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, the Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, Huntington Memorial Hospital, and City of Hope on projects ranging from ocular microimplants to mechanical heart valves. The Cherngs have a personal connection and appreciation for the work done at City of Hope, since Andrew Cherng’s father received care there in 1981.
“In 2014, Peggy and I worked with the then-division chair of EAS, Ares Rosakis, to host a full-day seminar that brought together investigators from Caltech and physicians from City of Hope to report on promising areas of research and development,” recalls David Lee, who serves as co-chair of the Break Through campaign in addition to chairing the board. “She heard specific examples of how scientists and engineers are collaborating with physicians to break open complex medical problems in order to develop new diagnostic and treatment options. I believe that was when she saw the potential impact and began thinking about how to support these endeavors.”
The Cherngs’ decision to endow the medical engineering program at Caltech aligns with their overall approach to philanthropy and corporate responsibility. Through Panda Cares, for example, the philanthropic arm of Panda Restaurant Group, they have supported health care, education, and disaster relief efforts since 1999. Additionally, they have cultivated a giving spirit in their restaurants by prominently displaying donation boxes and asking associates to conclude every guest transaction with an inquiry about making a donation. Five years ago, the Panda Express giving program raised just over $1 million; by 2016, guest donations reached $21 million.
The Cherngs have been inducted into the National Restaurant Association Hall of Fame and were named Los Angeles Business Journal’s Business Persons of the Year. In 2015, Panda Restaurant Group was included in Forbes’ list of America’s Best Employers.
Andrew Cherng, who was recognized by Forbes magazine in its list of 25 notable Chinese Americans in 2008, is a member of the Committee of 100—an organization of Chinese Americans dedicated to the spirit of excellence and achievement in United States. He holds a BS from Baker University and a master’s degree in applied mathematics from the University of Missouri. He received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, in recognition of his innovation, entrepreneurship and community outreach.
In addition to serving on the Caltech Board of Trustees and its Technology Transfer Committee, Peggy Cherng is a member of the board of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, Los Angeles Branch.