International Herald Tribune

Emerging-market billionaires turn to philanthropy
By Landon Thomas Jr.
December 13, 2007

ISTANBUL: Stuck in the snarl of a traffic jam in his bullet-proof BMW, the richest man in Turkey lets loose with a satisfied grin.

Since 2000, Husnu Ozyegin has spent more than $50 million of his own money building 36 primary schools and girls' dormitories in the poorest parts of Turkey. Next to the Turkish government, Ozyegin is the biggest individual supporter of schools in the country - and an official from the Education Ministry has told him that his market share is increasing.

"Not bad," he says in his gruff, cigarette-scarred voice as he pockets his mobile phone. "If I can have an impact on one million Turkish people in the next 10 years, I will be happy."

The global wealth boom has created a new breed of billionaire in countries like Turkey, India, Mexico and Russia. Propelled by their surging economies, robust currencies and globally competitive companies, they have ridden a boom in local stock markets that have reached previously untouchable heights in the past five years. Now, a number of them are using their wealth to bolster their standing and push for social changes.

These entrepreneurs, who have made their billions in private-sector industries like telecommunications, petrochemicals and finance, are distinct from a past generation of international billionaires, most with ties to Middle Eastern oil or valuable land holdings. Not only have they become the richest people in their countries, but rank among the wealthiest in the world.

For these emerging economies, where loose regulation, opaque privatization processes and monopolistic business practices abound, this extraordinary and uneven creation of wealth rivals in many ways the great American fortunes made at the turn of the 20th century. While such countries have long been used to vast disparities between a tiny wealthy elite and impoverished masses, the new elites share some characteristics with their counterparts in the United States.

And just as Rockefellers, Carnegies and Morgans once used philanthropy to sooth the rough edges of their cutthroat business reputations - as have a current generation of wealthy Americans like Bill Gates of Microsoft and Sanford Weill of Citigroup - local billionaires in emerging markets are trying to do the same.

Carlos Slim, the telecommunications entrepreneur in Mexico who is worth more than $50 billion, has pledged billions to his two foundations that will target health and education. The richest man in Russia, Roman Abramovich, with a net worth of $18 billion, has channeled more than $1 billion into the poor Arctic province of Chukotka, where he also serves as governor, building schools and hospitals.

To be sure, the sums donated are relatively small in light of the pressing social needs these countries face. But as targeted, return-driven philanthropy has gained in popularity through the efforts of Gates and others, emerging-market billionaires are applying similar bottom-line lessons at home.

"What we are seeing in these countries," Jane Wales, president of the Global Philanthropy Forum, said, "are people emerging from the private sector with tremendous wealth who are attracted to highly strategic philanthropy."

In Turkey, Ozyegin, 62, with a net worth of $3.5 billion, did not secure his wealth by buying government assets on the cheap or by belonging to a rich family with control of a monopoly - two traditional routes to great wealth in the developing world.

As founder of the midtier corporate bank, Finansbank, he cashed in on a rush of interest from foreign financial institutions in Turkish banks last year and sold a controlling stake in his bank to National Bank of Greece, receiving $2.7 billion in cash.

Flush with money and ambition, he decided to do all that he could to lift Turkish educational standards at the primary school and university level.

Sitting in his personal conference room in the Finansbank headquarters, Ozyegin recalls Aug. 18, 2006, the date that the sale of his 49 percent stake officially closed.

"I remember that day better than my birthday," he said as he leaned back in a plush leather chair. "I was not only a billionaire but the richest man in Turkey. It's a great feeling, but your responsibilities increase."

Like many self-made billionaires, Ozyegin has a direct, forceful and demanding manner and a day spent traveling with him does not yield much casual conversation.

He carries two cell phones and throughout a long day juggles calls from his wife, his assistant, his son, assorted government bureaucrats as well as the managers of his various businesses.

Ozyegin's grandparents came to the western Turkish city of Izmir from the Greek island of Crete in the late 19th century during the dying days of the Ottoman Empire. The son of a doctor, he attended Robert College, an elite high school in Istanbul, before setting off for Oregon State University in 1963 with $1,000 in his pocket.

He played basketball and led the student government, but logged mediocre grades. Harvard Business School seemed like a long shot given that he was in need of a scholarship. But on his application, he attached a picture of himself welcoming Robert F. Kennedy to Oregon State, and was accepted.

"I guess they liked me for my leadership abilities," he said.

After a successful banking career, he founded Finansbank in 1987, selling his two homes and borrowing $3 million to get the deal done.

At the outset, the bank's ambitions were small, providing corporate banking services to Turkish businesses.

The bank's fortunes fluctuated in line with the volatile economy, expanding rapidly during the heady years of strong economic growth, but facing extinction on two separate occasions, in 1994 and 2001, when the Turkish markets suffered brutal contractions.

As a businessman, his frequent interaction with Southeast Asia, China and Russia have impressed upon him the need for Turks to become more competitive in the global economy.

"The most important problem that Turkey has is education," he said.

He cites the rapid increase of applications to Harvard Business School from Chinese and Indian students. Turkey, albeit a smaller country, sends only four to eight students there a year, said Ozyegin.

"I would like to see that figure go higher."

Beyond his public school investments, Ozyegin has plans to spend as much as $1 billion over the next 15 years on a new private university, to be called Ozyegin University.

"I want to do something on a major scale," he said. "My vision is that we can train and export people like India does."

Since he started his building program in 2000, Ozyegin has completed 36 schools and girls' dormitories at a cost that varies between $400,000 and $1.8 million each. He wants to complete 100 by 2010.

He works closely with the government, with most of the building taking place in the country's poorest regions in the south and northeast.

Turkey has the lowest ratio of girls to boys in primary and secondary school of any country in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which requires its 30 members to meet minimum requirements for living standards and democratic practices. Turkey's low standing is a result of a traditional culture that, especially in poorer areas, places a higher premium on educating boys than girls.

In a country where the governing party draws its root support from an electorate that is viewed as becoming more Islamic in outlook, Ozyegin's effort to reach out to undereducated girls touches a sensitive cultural vein.

A practicing Muslim but avowedly secular in his own outlook, Ozyegin embodies the hopes as well as fears of Turkey's elites, many of them now supporters of the governing Justice and Development Party, which has led the revitalization of the Turkish economy.

Ozyegin hopes that focusing on education as an economic development tool will help transcend the bitter disputes over religious practice, including whether the increase in the number of women wearing head scarves signifies the emergence of a more Islamic Turkey.

"I want Turkey to have the same education levels as Europe 25 years from now," he said. "Whether you wear a scarf should not matter."

At a newly built primary school in a village close to the Turkish border with Armenia, 360 students shout as Ozyegin's sister and brother-in-law, who oversee the logistics of the building program, as well as his wife, stop by.

Rarely do the children here, many of whom speak Kurdish as their first language and whose parents eke out an existence as sheep and cow herders, continue on to high school.

Clothes are frayed and toes poke through the holes of plastic shoes. But with the light fading on the snowy peak of nearby Mt. Ararat, there are glimmers of hope for a better future.

Danyan Kuba, a nervous seventh grader in a coat and tie, is asked what he wants to be when he grows up. He shifts awkwardly, looks at his shoes and back up again.

"I want to be a math teacher," he answers in a strong, clear voice.