Durham University has received a £7.5m donation, of which £2m will be used for scholarships for local people from poorer backgrounds.
The gift, from food wholesale boss Charles Wilson and partner Rowena Olegario, is the university's largest ever and described as "transformative".
Twenty people a year will benefit from the "empowering" annual scholarships.
Vice-chancellor Prof Stuart Corbridge said the donation was "extraordinary" and "hugely welcome".
Mr Wilson, a former undergraduate at Durham, is chief executive of the Tesco-owned Booker food wholesale group.
He said: "Rowena and I are delighted to be supporting Durham University.
"Durham is making an incredible difference to the North East, the UK, and within the wider world.
"We are pleased that our support will assist the university's objectives in each of these areas."
Prof Corbridge said: "This is an extraordinary and hugely welcome demonstration of support for the university's mission from two very distinguished friends.
"Philanthropy is changing the game for students at Durham and this record donation will leave an indelible and enabling legacy for the benefit of generations to come."
Bethany Henderson, a third year English Literature scholarship student from Bishop Auckland, said: "These scholarships are such fantastic news for students in the North East.
"As well as the money side of things, it's such a confidence boost to know that our alumni have such a strong belief in our future."
The donation will also be used to establish the Wilson Institute for Small Business and Entrepreneurship at the university's Business School.
Durham University has 16 colleges and a student population of more than 18,000.