Feature May-June 2005
Feature: Philanthropy as a bridge between the Western and Muslim worlds
The events of September 11, 2001 affected most Americans in profound and long-lasting ways, and underlined the urgent need to address the social and economic divides that contribute to global terrorism. For two highly successful entrepreneurs based in New York, 9/11 prompted a period of intense personal reflection that led each to seek a new philanthropic focus aimed at addressing these divides.
The stories of the impact of 9/11 on Omar Amanat, a pioneer in the electronic brokerage industry, and Ronald Bruder, a real estate developer and national leader in remediating environmentally contaminated properties, have many common elements. Each had much at stake personally and professionally, with families and businesses located in the New York metropolitan area. Both embarked on a time of introspection and research following 9/11, seeking out a wide range of international expertise on the possible causes and solutions. And both were prepared to bring their considerable entrepreneurial skills to bear to address the problem.
As a climate of change and opportunity spreads across the Middle East, Amanat and Bruder are refining philanthropic approaches that hold promise for addressing very different, but interconnected needs in the region. One seeks to harness the power of the media to create and reinforce positive images of the Muslim world to replace inflammatory and pervasive negative stereotypes in a bid to increase understanding between the in the region and with the West. The other intends to create a stronger link between education and jobs in the Middle East to address the economic roots of unrest. Both have recently joined the Global Philanthropists Circle as a means to share their experiences in philanthropy and learn from others. Their stories trace paths that begin in the dark aftermath of 9/11 but aim for a brighter era of stability and peace, social and economic opportunity and mutual understanding and respect.
Omar Amanat: Tapping the power of media to build self-esteem
Amid the tragedy and loss of September 11 are many examples of survival and transformation. One such story belongs to Omar Amanat, founder and CEO of Tradescape Corp., a financial technology firm that revolutionized the electronic brokerage industry on Wall Street.
The story would have had a much different ending if Amanat had shown up on time at his office in the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11, but an interview with a local radio station ran longer than expected, delaying his arrival.
Remarkably, all 60 employees of Tradescape's largest branch office, located on the 83rd floor, managed to make the long and harrowing descent down a smoke-filled internal stairway to safety before the building collapsed with great loss of life.
While his business survived and prospered -- it was sold to online broker E*Trade for $280 million in 2002, making him E*Trade's largest individual shareholder -- Amanat, only 29 at the time, says the events of 9/11 served as a catalyst for a period of intense personal reflection and study that has profoundly influenced his philanthropic vision.
The education of a philanthropist
"What really affected me was when I found out who had actually carried out the attacks. For a long time, I didn't want to admit it. I felt uncomfortable in my own skin for the first time," said Amanat, an American-born Muslim, whose parents immigrated from India following Partition. "So I started doing research and analysis and in the immediate aftermath, I said, I have to do whatever I can in my capacity as an individual to make a change in this particular problem because I bestride both worlds, in a sense."
A central theme, the power of media to heal -- or inflame -- divides, began to emerge from his readings and conversations with opinion leaders from a wide variety of fields. These included New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who has written widely on the Middle East, and Lee Hamilton, the former US Representative who served as Vice Chairman of the 9/11 Commission, the blue-ribbon panel charged with investigating the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center. Hamilton was introduced to Amanat by Ron Bruder, who is also profiled later in this article.
Particularly influential was a book, Black Rage, which traces the history of violence and extremism in the African-American community, highlighting the primary role played by television and media images of minority groups in shaping the self-esteem and identity of members of these groups. Amanat also cites another book, Real Bad Arabs, a study of the Western film industry and its overwhelming reliance on negative stereotypes of Arabs. Both books posit the psychological theory that members of minority groups tend to derive more of their self-esteem from media images of themselves than from their own interactions with others.
Amanat links studies showing a rise in self-esteem -- and a near simultaneous drop-off in violence -- among African-Americans in recent decades to watershed developments in US broadcasting. These include the launch of the Black Entertainment Television (BET) network in 1979, and breakthrough programming such as the Cosby Show, which for the first time in television history featured a successful, middle-class black American family. Seeing potential parallels for the Muslim world, Amanat believes that through efforts to use the media to enhance self-esteem, some portion of today's "Muslim Rage" and violence may be mitigated.
Popular media as a mirror for positive images
Amanat began to explore the possibility of starting up a cable television network that would stimulate positive models for Muslim audiences the way that BET and the Cosby Show did for black audiences, and soon concluded that he needed to focus energy on the film industry as well. "The number one thing people in the Middle East watch, ironically, is US sitcoms and films," Amanat said.
"If you have people watching nothing but caricatures of themselves -- as Tom Friedman says, 'people who are part of the world won't want to blow up the world.' If they don't feel like they are part of the world, it's a different story. What I'm trying to do, like the Cosby show did, is bridge the cultural gap," said Amanat.
Several years ago, Amanat invested in a for-profit US cable network aimed at a Muslim viewership called Bridges TV, but has decided that he can have much more cultural impact by working with the mainstream film industry to counteract negative stereotyping of Muslims and uplift the self-esteem of minorities through popular entertainment. Amanat is in the final stages of negotiation with a major Hollywood studio to launch a $100 million film that would serve these ends.
In April, at the Rubin Museum of Art in Manhattan, Amanat co-hosted a preview of the documentary Who Speaks for Islam?, a television series being broadcast this spring on Link TV, a free, non-commercial network promoting global cooperation, economic and social justice and preservation of the environment and diverse cultures. The series explores the many different aspects of the religion as it is practiced around the globe, including moderate voices not often reported in the US media. Amanat serves on the board of both the Rubin Museum and Link TV. In collaboration with the Rubin Museum, he is also creating the first comprehensive online archive of Islamic art.
Working on diverse philanthropic fronts to heal divides
Meanwhile, Amanat is working on a number of other fronts to address social and economic inequities in the Muslim world and to create stronger links between Western and predominantly Muslim countries.
He calls his work as Vice Chairman of the board of the Acumen Fund, the global venture capital fund for the poor, "one of his most enjoyable philanthropic experiences to date" because it draws on his expertise in starting up and building new organizations. Among Acumen's social investments in the Arabic world are affordable, legal housing for urban squatters in Karachi; a sustainable organic farming business outside of Cairo; and a microfinance initiative for women in Pakistan.
Amanat is currently involved in the American Sufi Muslim Association's Cordoba Initiative, an inter-religious blueprint for improving relations between America and the Muslim world. And he serves on the board of the Abraham Fund, an organization that promotes coexistence among Jews and Arabs in Israel. It was the Fund's President and CEO, Ami Nahshon, who introduced Amanat to the psychological theory about media, minorities and self-esteem.
After a period of several year's absence from the Middle East, Amanat resumed his travels to the region in 2005. In March, he was in Dubai in connection with the Wharton Global Family Alliance, on a visit hosted by the Royal Family of Dubai. The Alliance is comprised of 300 high net worth families from around the world with an interest in the region.
Amanat, who attended the University of Pennsylvania and the Wharton School of Business is a Wharton Entrepreneur in Residence (EIR) and taught at Wharton after returning from Dubai as part of the EIR program. Other travel to the region includes a conference in Doha, Qatar sponsored by the Brookings Institution's Saban Center on US-Islamic World Relations to Dubai, and participation in the World Economic Forum's annual meeting in Jordan in May.
When asked what his philanthropic priority will be in the coming year, Amanat, a dedicated multi-tasker, can't seem to resist citing a rather long list of activities that he feels "really passionate and excited about." These include media, film and minorities; poverty relief, sustainable development and human rights; and art and museums.
Ron Bruder: Training youth for meaningful employment
In the chaotic hours after the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001, Ronald Bruder was unable to locate his daughter. "I wasn't sure if she was alive," Bruder recalls. "She was downtown that day, and knowing her instincts, I was afraid she'd run to the World Trade Center to help."
It wasn't until that evening that Bruder learned that his daughter was unharmed physically, if not emotionally. The events of 9/11 left Bruder and his family, like most Americans, with a sense of profound vulnerability and uncertainty about the future, and he decided to transform his feelings of fear and anger into action.
A successful real estate developer and "serial entrepreneur" with relatively little experience in international affairs, Bruder decided to put to work the skills he had used in starting real estate, pharmaceutical, travel and oil companies. He began talking to people who knew more than he did, and reading widely to determine if there was "something that he and others of good will could do to bridge the divide between the Muslim and Western worlds."
Honing a philanthropic vision
Through a major redevelopment project that his company, Brookhill Group, was undertaking in Portland, Oregon, he met a former governor of Oregon who subsequently became a business partner and introduced him to a number of individuals with experience in government, politics and international affairs whose expertise was critical in shaping Bruder's philanthropic vision.
Bruder in particular sought input and involvement from influential figures with a Middle Eastern background and in-depth knowledge of the region. These included Ambassador Mokhtar Lamani, then the Permanent Observer to the UN of the Organization of the Islamic Conference; Moeen A. Qureshi, former Prime Minister of Pakistan; and Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland and a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Others early advisors brought a wide range of international expertise: Lee Hamilton, the former US Representative and Vice Chairman of the 9/11 Commission; Jeffrey Maurer, former Chairman of U.S. Trust Corporation; Jeffrey Smith, senior partner for public policy at the Washington, DC law firm of Arnold & Porter; Alton Frye, Counselor and Presidential Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and Ellen Laipson, President of the Henry L. Stimson Center. Ultimately, all of these individuals became members of the board of directors of the Education for Employment Foundation (www.efefoundation.org -- EFE).
While initial brainstorming focused on the construction of primary and secondary schools in the Middle East, the board advised that this approach would take decades to have an impact on the economy and could be sensitive culturally.
On the other hand, Bruder discovered that there was an unparalleled opportunity to provide supplemental technical and vocational education to the large numbers of young people in predominantly Muslim countries who had some education but didn't have a job.
Linking training directly to job creation
Unemployment figures from the region underline the urgent need for new approaches: joblessness among youth between the ages of 15 to 24 in the Muslim world alone is estimated at over 40%, and is likely to get worse as these countries prepare for a massive infusion of young people into the job market. The Arab world's population -- 285 million in the year 2000 -- is expected to rise 60% to 459 million by 2020.
With a job-creation focus, EFE was launched in 2003 as a US 501(c)(3) nonprofit with Bruder as interim CEO and $10 million in seed money from his own funds. Since the initial $10 million is earmarked for administration and start-up costs, 100% of all contributions to the initial project will be used to educate and train youth in Muslim countries for jobs.
EFE's mission is to promote increased understanding and improved relations between the people of the Muslim and Western worlds by providing constructive solutions that link technical and vocational education directly to the creation of jobs and that can be tailored to the particular needs of each country in the region. Bruder says that strong local relationships with individuals, corporations, NGOs and government are key to the establishment of successful EFE initiatives.
"I'm a strong believer that if I can't do business in Portland, Oregon without local partners, I couldn't go into the Middle East and create a viable entity without strong, local partnerships with individuals and organizations who have 'skin in the game' and are willing to make a commitment of time, money and resources," said Bruder.
Forging strong local partnerships
EFE has assembled a diverse array of partners for its first initiative in the Middle East, the Egyptian Center for Nursing Excellence in Cairo, scheduled to open in the autumn of 2006. In addition to putting university graduates to work, the Center addresses a critical shortage of trained nurses that continues to threaten the quality of Egyptian health care. From an initial class of 75, the program is expected to ramp up to train thousands of nurses over the next five years, Bruder says.
The project has received critical local leadership and support from Dr. Hossam Badrawi, founder of the Nile Badrawi Hospital and Member of the Egyptian Parliament. Developed in partnership with Simmons College in Boston, the Center will be located on the campus of an Egyptian university that will share facilities and services for the delivery of a full-fledged nursing curriculum.
Based on successful models in the US, the program will provide an accelerated second Bachelor's Degree in Nursing to unemployed university graduates and will require about two to three years for completion. Coursework will include needed bridging skills such as English, information technology, and leadership.
A number of Cairo hospitals are expected to provide loans for students in the program in exchange for a period of service in their institutions. A major hospital in New York has agreed to a similar arrangement for students, who will return to work in Egyptian health care institutions after a period of service in the US.
Tailoring solutions to regional needs
EFE is also actively working to identify opportunities to create education programs to meet the specific employment needs of other countries in the region. In Jordan, for example, there is a pressing demand for soft skills training for unemployed university graduates and for emergency medical technicians at a sub-university level. EFE is working with a local university to create a partnership school to deliver both programs. To help address these needs, EFE co-hosted a workshop in Amman in 2004 with the Information Technology Association of Jordan. EFE is also currently exploring opportunities in Morocco and Palestine.
For his part, Bruder, plans to remain personally involved in EFE, particularly in the area of development, and seeks to raise an additional $10 million to complement his initial start-up fund of the same amount. He is supported in this effort by a strong board that includes internationally regarded leaders from the Islamic and Western worlds, including a number of his early advisors in the foundation's start-up.
As part of his commitment to EFE, Bruder has sold his oil company, Devon Petroleum, and turned over the day-to-day operations of his real estate firm, Brookhill Group, to others. He estimates that he spends about 80% of his time on EFE these days. "It's stimulating and I am enjoying the process," said Bruder, but he acknowledged that success in the for-profit world did not necessarily prepare him for the challenges of philanthropic leadership.
"I found in my serial entrepreneur life that if I came up with a better mousetrap, getting people on board and raising money was relatively straightforward," said Bruder. "In the foundation world, each organization has its own niche. Everyone agrees that youth employment in Muslim countries is urgent, but actually getting checks written is not as easily done as I had thought. It's challenging because the rules of engagement are different, which just means that I have to work harder."
Read this issue's other feature on World Economic Forum initiatives bridge divides.
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