The Wisdom of Solomon
Life lessons from Solomon Graham, Montgomery County's 2013 Philanthropist of the Year
Six weeks into an eight-week boot camp, 17-year-old Solomon Graham closed his eyes and prayed.
He was in San Diego, at a naval base thousands of miles from home in Georgia. Though he knew his goal—the college education he’d get after four years of service—would be worth the struggle, being away from home on his own was harder than he’d imagined.
“I prayed to the good Lord,” Graham says, “asking him to help me get through this and promising him that if I had any success in life, I would make absolutely certain that no one in my lineage would have to go through what I went through to go to school.”
Graham got through basic training and went on to launch a long and successful career in biotechnology, eventually founding Quality Biological Inc., a Gaithersburg company that now generates up to $10 million in revenue each year. But he never forgot that promise.
Graham not only paid for his own daughters to go to school, he created scholarships through Montgomery College and his own foundation to put dozens of other young people through college, as well.
Those efforts, along with other philanthropic work, helped the Rockville resident earn the 2013 Montgomery County Philanthropist of the Year award from The Community Foundation for Montgomery County.
At 70, Graham has a gravelly voice and an iron-grip handshake that hints at the determination that brought him to where he is today. His philanthropy continues a legacy started by his mother, who trained to become one of two midwives in their rural Georgia county despite having only an eighth-grade education.
“Many times she didn’t get paid for the babies she delivered,” Graham says. “My grandfather was the same way—he was a farmer, and no one in the community went hungry if he had food he could give away.”
Graham and his four siblings were all expected to help on the family farm, where they grew corn, tobacco, cotton and peanuts, and raised cattle and hogs. A man with a third-grade education, Graham’s father often worked side jobs off the farm, but he was adamant that the farm remain in the family. He would tell Graham and his brother to stay home from their one-room schoolhouse to work in the fields when he was away. But Graham’s mother was determined that all her children get an education.
“My mother would get the girls dressed and sent off to school,” Graham says. “Then, once my father was gone, she’d come out to the fields and tap me on the shoulder and say, ‘Go on, boy. Get dressed and get ready for school.’ Then she plowed the fields for us all day—not with a tractor, with a mule.”
Graham and his younger brother still did their share of work on the farm, and while doing so they talked about their dreams. Graham’s brother wanted to be a businessman, and Graham wanted to attend Morehouse College in Atlanta and become an educator.
But during Graham’s senior year of high school, his dad dropped a bomb: There was no money for Graham to go to college. He would have to stay home and work on the farm to save money for school.
“It was like someone had taken a knife and stabbed me in the back,” Graham says.
Graham graduated from high school on a Friday. He left for basic training for the U.S. Navy the following Monday, intent on getting out of Georgia and earning his GI Bill.
In the Navy, Graham trained as a hospital corpsman in San Diego. His first set of orders took him to Charleston, S.C., less than 200 miles from his hometown.
“Part of why I joined the Navy was to see the world,” Graham says. But “the Navy decided to send me back to the South.”
He immediately started looking for opportunities to transfer elsewhere, and applied to attend tissue-culture school at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda. “I didn’t even know what tissue-culture school was,” Graham says. “I just knew it was a way out of South Carolina.”
Graham excelled at NIH, and soon found weekend work with the commercial life science supply company his commanding officer operated on the side. The company shipped tissue cultures to biologists throughout the country for research purposes.
Graham left the Navy after four years, and earned his associate’s degree from Prince George’s Community College shortly after. He continued working for biotech companies in and around Montgomery County, eventually landing at Hem Research, a Philadelphia-based company with a Rockville office.
During his 17 years with Hem, Graham took night and weekend classes at Montgomery College and the University of Maryland University College in hopes of earning a degree in marketing, though his classes grew fewer and farther between as he rose through the ranks to the position of manager of sales and marketing.