Ernst van Löben Sels was born in Oakland in 1879 to parents of Dutch ancestry. He studied engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, and at Cornell University, and served in WWI as an Army engineer. After the war, he worked at various engineering jobs, then became involved in farming ventures in the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta. He concluded that farming was not for him and turned to investing.
Ernst married Sarah Eleanor Slate, daughter of U.C. Berkeley Professor of Physics Frederick Slate and Ella de Wolfe Slate, in 1909. Ernst and Eleanor had no children of their own but they supported the Berkeley Day Care Nursery (one of the first such facilities in California that served poor working mothers and their children), and they provided financial support to college students. Also, they were very active in entertaining soldiers on leave during World War II and kept in touch with many of the young men they met. One of these was John M. Burnett who later became Ernst’s personal attorney and laid the groundwork for the Foundation. Sarah passed away in 1958 and Ernst in 1965. The Foundation was created by Ernst’s will and Mr. Burnett served as its first president.