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The Responsibility of Billionaire Leadership

By Will Schneider on March 21, 2007No Comment

When Forbes Magazine recently published its annual list of the world’s wealthiest people, many eyes were drawn not to Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, but to the richest man in Mexico, Carlos Slim Helú. Slim (as he is known) advanced on the list by $20 billion, and is a mere $3 billion from passing Mr. Buffett and becoming the second wealthiest man in the world.

More than anything, his sudden rise on the list has highlighted how spoiled the philanthropic community has been under Mr. Gates’ reign. Our standard-bearers, Mr. Gates and Mr. Buffett, have spoken of giving as the highest calling, and the most satisfying activity of their lives. In fact, their example has moved people at all levels of income to follow in their generous footsteps.  In contrast, Mr. Helú celebrated his ranking by mocking his fellow billionaires’ philanthropic spirit, saying he would rather strengthen his company than “go around like Santa Claus.”

Mr. Helú’s rise to fortune has aroused suspicion in a country where the average income in less than $6,800 a year. If an American were to control the same percentage of the economy, his net worth would be $784 billion.

Happily, Mr. Helú has indicated that he will be paying more attention to his long-neglected foundation in the coming years. The foundation, which for years has had assets of only a few million dollars, will soon see an infusion of $10 billion.

But beware; many who have followed Mr. Helú’s rise to power indicate that even his philanthropy will be designed to benefit his business. In an interview, Mr. Helú said, “My new job is to focus on the development and employment of Latin America,” a goal which many in Mexico view suspiciously, as many of his business interests will benefit greatly from success in this endeavor.

Although he has never been accused of illegal activity, or even investigated for any wrong-doing, Mr. Helú’s fortune was certainly built on charging high prices for telephone service, in a country where the minimum wage is $.50 an hour. Timely investments in the 1980’s and 1990’s propelled Mr. Helú to a new stratosphere of wealth.

When the 2008 Fortune list comes out, it is likely that Mr. Helú will capture the top spot. No longer having the richest man in the world as a champion of philanthropy will be a serious loss for the philanthropic sector. Although Mr. Gates and Mr. Buffett will clearly continue to make headlines, the reigning leader of the world of billionaires has the ability to keep philanthropy on the main stage, and to teach the public that a philanthropic spirit is critical to success.  Currently, it doesn’t seem like Mr. Helu has any interest in doing either. 

As Mr. Gates has said, “With great wealth comes great responsibility, a responsibility to give back to society.” Mr. Helú has every opportunity to redeem himself in the eyes of this fundraiser in the coming years. If in fact Forbes Magazine announces that he is the richest man in the world next year, I look forward to seeing how he handles his great responsibility.

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