Why I Became a Philanthropist

Why I Became a Philanthropist
困难 2252


Why I Became a Philanthropist

I never dreamed that one day I would become a philanthropist. I was born in Beijing in 1965, and spent my teenage years working long hours as a factory girl, sewing collars and buttons onto dress shirts in Hong Kong. Today, I am the chief executive of SOHO China, the country's largest prime office property developer.

China has seen rapid economic growth over the past three decades, and it is now one of the world's fastest growing producers of billionaires — 242 and counting, according to Forbes — which is extraordinary considering that just over a decade ago, there were none.

Though many Chinese have grown wealthy, few have embraced the practice of philanthropy in a manner and scale that is comparable with their counterparts in the West. But I believe we are on the cusp of change. With a new generation of Chinese who feel grateful for the opportunities the country's growth has provided, social consciousness is rising, contributing to a growing urge to give back in innovative ways and to contribute to the nation's future and to the betterment of our society.

My generation's success stories are unique. We were born into Communist China, at a time when almost nobody had access to material wealth. The guiding philosophy was to "serve the people," but no one had the economic means to give back to society, nor were there many philanthropic foundations. It was an impossible time to have a culture or tradition of philanthropy nurtured by the generous individuals and families like the Rockefellers or the Carnegies. There were no philanthropic role models under communism. China was completely insulated from the rest of the world, with very little access to outside information. As children of that society, we could not have imagined the possibility of becoming a philanthropist.

But in 1978, Deng Xiaoping opened China's doors to economic reform and capital markets. China's entrepreneurial spirit was reborn and my generation blossomed. We studied abroad, we started businesses and many of us prospered in unprecedented ways.
For many Chinese of my generation, our first point of contact with Western philanthropy was the financial aid we received when we studied abroad. Very few of us had money — most only had raw ambition. We were "PHDs": poor, hungry and determined. Financial aid transformed our lives.

I studied in the United Kingdom on a full scholarship in the 1980s, earning a bachelor's degree from Sussex University and a master's from Cambridge University. My education would eventually lead to a job on Wall Street, and then in 1995 I returned to China and founded SOHO China with my husband, Pan Shiyi, who grew up in rural western China. He had also attended university, which carried him away from village life and into our growing and changing nation's business community.

That opportunity to study was the most dramatic turning point in my life. My education opened my eyes to the world, provided me with the academic grooming necessary to pursue an international career, and gave me the courage to return to China, build an enterprise and innovate. Without financial aid, I, and so many other Chinese who have played various roles in advising, consulting and building the modern China we know today, may have never had the chance to attend university.

In the decade after I returned to China, many of my peers returned as well. China became increasingly globalized, joining the World Trade Organization in 2001 and preparing for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. The economy boomed. At the same time, the Internet and social media gained remarkable momentum. There was a push for increasing transparency and pressure mounted on businesses and the government to become more socially responsible now that China was on the world stage.

In those early days of post-economic-reform, most philanthropic giving went to disaster relief and to the construction of schools in remote areas of China. My husband and I joined that philanthropic wave, giving to aid victims of the Asian tsunami disaster in 2004. We then started donating funds to help build schools in China's highly impoverished western provinces of Qinghai and Gansu, where my husband was born and raised. We also gave to the Sichuan earthquake relief efforts in 2008 — a disaster that took the lives of nearly 70,000 people, devastating communities in southwestern China. The suffering of those affected prompted an outpouring of donations from the public, and philanthropy became a topic that people understood, discussed and debated.

At that point, the giving my husband and I were involved in was sporadic and focused on dire need and immediate solutions. It became clear that this Band-Aid approach did not work, since many communities required long-term aid to deal with chronic problems. We needed a cause that would capture our long-term philanthropic aspirations. Looking back on how my education had opened new doors for me, I knew that was the cause closest to my heart: I believe that education is the primary factor in improving social mobility.

My husband and I founded the SOHO China Foundation in 2005, which focuses on improving the quality of education in underprivileged communities. Our first project was a teacher-training program in rural western China. Over the course of five years we brought more than 1,700 teachers from rural communities to Beijing for summer training, improving the level of education provided to more than 80,000 primary school students. When we learned of the poor sanitary conditions at the schools, we also built 45 school toilets, impacting more than 35,000 students.

As I worked with the rural schools, I saw that these students have few opportunities. China's growth has been accompanied by an intensified divide in income distribution, with large cities prospering much more than smaller cities and rural areas. Many wealthy Chinese send their children abroad to study, but countless outstanding rural students lose out on such opportunities due to a lack of financial means. There is a danger that the chance for Chinese youth to study abroad will become purely privilege-based instead of merit-based. Some of our best students are now so intimidated by the economic burden of pursuing a world-class education that they don't even apply to top universities.

It is with this understanding that we decided to create the SOHO China Scholarships, pledging to endow $100 million in financial aid scholarships for Chinese undergraduate students attending leading international universities. Our first gift agreement of $15 million was signed with Harvard University and our second gift agreement of $10 million was signed with Yale University.

This instantly created controversy in China. On the one hand, we received overwhelming encouragement, while on the other our decision to partner with international institutions instead of with domestic universities was heatedly questioned. Philanthropy became a hot topic online and across social media.

My answer to those questioning our choice: The most striking feature of our time is globalization. It is important for China to be integrated with the rest of the world. Our aim is to enable China's best and brightest to act as a bridge between China and other nations — an important tool for modernizing the Middle Kingdom.

When I look back at our decision to create the scholarships in 2014, I recall the time I met Warren Buffett and the deep impression he left on me. Buffett and Bill Gates had traveled to China in 2010 to encourage high-net-worth Chinese to think about philanthropy. Buffett explained that he had always given, and then one day he realized that the rate at which he was giving was slower than the rate at which he was earning money. He was 80 years old at the time, so he decided to entrust a large part of his fortune to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. I walked away inspired by the vision behind his large-scale, highly impactful giving, and ultimately thought, "Don't wait until it's too late."

Soon after the announcement of our SOHO China Scholarships, I heard that my friend the Hong Kong property developer Ronnie Chan and his family made a $350 million gift to Harvard's School of Public Health, and a $20 million gift to his alma mater, the University of Southern California. I have also heard that Jack Ma of Alibaba, the e-commerce giant, along with co-founder Joe Tsai, have said that they will commit 2 percent of Alibaba's equity to a charitable trust.

I believe that the year 2014 is a turning point in Chinese philanthropy. This tradition is finally getting the impetus it needs to flourish because of an emerging group of Chinese entrepreneurs who are socially conscious, globally engaged and hoping to make a positive and lasting impact on China and the world — they're not looking for quick fixes. They feel responsible.

With the help of financial aid, I went from factory worker to university student, then became an entrepreneur and eventually, chief executive of my own company. But of my achievements, I am most proud of my work as a philanthropist, and I hope to continue with it for the rest of my days. The world is waiting to see what Chinese philanthropists will do next.
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  • 易读度:困难
  • 来源: 2016-10-21