"You will only be successful if you truly try to satisfy that burning desire inside you. And for you, that burning desire is to tell that story." – James McBride
A quick look on an American and a Swedish multi-millionaire and their respective perception of one’s right to earned wealth.
When the 30th edition of the Forbes 400 Richest Americans was published in September 2012 it carried an almost unprecedented focus on philanthropy, reflecting an increasing willingness among some of the world’s richest men and women to donate large shares of their wealth to various charitable causes.
When 264 high net worth individuals located across the globe were polled by Credit Suisse in cooperation with Forbes in mid-2012, “personal values” clearly emerged as the top reason for giving as indicated by 70 percent of respondents, followed by faith, a sense of obligation or duty, family legacy, and desire to add value to society at large, gathering yays from 36-31 percent of the polled billionaires respectively.
Personal values is a subjective hard-to-define parameter, but what it could potentially boil down to is each individual’s view of the value of his or her labor in relation to other people’s earnings.
Two very different ways of looking at this value and one’s amassed wealth emerged to me recently.
On one end is Mitt Romney. Attempting to affiliate with the idealistic American stereotype of being self-made, most recently in his presidential campaign, Romney has pointed to how he went from being a college student to a successful businessman worth $250 million and the 2012 GOP presidential candidate.
On the other end is Bengt Agerup, a Swedish Ph.D. in physiology and entrepreneur who founded Q-Med in 1987, a company producing medical implants. Agerup sold the company in 2010 for a sum just shy of $500 million.
These two multi-millionaires share one important feature; a propensity to give. One year ago Bloomberg Businesweek reported that Mitt and Ann Romney had donated 16.4 percent of their combined gross income, or just shy of $7 million, to charitable causes over the past two years. According to Expressen, Agerup has donated close to $40 million to a project run by Michael Bloomberg aiming to prevent birth-related deaths of women in Tanzania and vowed to spend his entire fortune on venture capital investments and charitable donations prior to his death.
But what set these two men apart are their differing senses of entitlement to the capital they have earned.
In his infamous speech to donors where he claimed that 47 percent of Americans believe they are victims and expect society to care for them, Romney told his audience that he has “inherited nothing” and that “everything Ann and I have, we have earned the old-fashioned way,” implicitly stating that it is hard work alone that has created his success. What Romney failed to address was his privileged upbringing in an upper class suburban family with a dad who served as executive of American Motor, a fact that significantly increased his chances of succeeding in life compared with other men of his generation.
Agerup was the small town son of a nurse and a physician who launched a stellar academic career in the free-for-all Swedish system for higher education, founded a successful firm in 1987 which he sold 23 years later – a man who also enjoyed several important privileges throughout his upbringing, free education being one vital component.
But born into a society where bragging about wealth is looked down upon, Agerup acquired a defining feature – a, from an American perspective, radical perception of the monetary value of his work and the road that brought him from middle class to affluent. His words, aired on a Swedish radio show on December 22, went largely unnoticed, but deserve to be highlighted as the constitute invaluable food for thought.
“Well it’s the meaning of life – to do good,” Agerup answered when queried by the Swedish Radio, SR, why he has chosen to not keep his wealth for personal use. “Are you becoming a support pillar of society?” the journalist subsequently asked.
Agerup delivered an astonishing response:
“No, but from a moral standpoint, the amount of money that my life has comprised… It’s not my money. Look, there is no person that could make this amount of money through what my dad would call ‘honest work.’”