Planting Seeds of Hope

by Genny Beckman Moriarty | Winter 2019

Financier Stephen Robert '58 has enjoyed a long and successful career on Wall Street. A graduate of Brown University, the London School of Economics and Columbia University's School of Business, Robert started in investment banking with Oppenheimer & Co. in 1968 as a junior portfolio manager. He retired nearly 30 years later as the company's CEO and largest stockholder.

But the 78-year-old's greatest professional successes are far surpassed by the life-altering work he has done through his philanthropic missions. "Life is about empathy, it's about hope," he says. "That's really what's worth something. That's what you leave behind."

While serving on numerous charitable boards, Robert felt a desire to become more involved, in a holistic way, with the projects he was helping to fund. So eight years ago, he and his wife, Pilar Crespi Robert, established the Source of Hope Foundation to provide sustainable aid around the world in the form of food, water, money, medical care and education. "We're working in often inhospitable places that are experiencing civil war, famine or terrible governments," he explains. "We try to work in areas where we can make a real difference."

Robert — who has chaired Brown University's Watson Institute for International Studies and Public Policy, and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Brookings Foreign Policy Advisory Committee — applies his knowledge of international relations when establishing small-scale, tangible projects in places such as Ethiopia, Haiti, Columbia, Palestine and Israel.

The couple fund the foundation largely by themselves, and make a point to visit each project site at least once a year. The Roberts don't pay themselves a salary and only employ one assistant, so nearly all of the money they raise goes directly into helping others. "I like the fact that we're not building up operating costs," Robert says. "I like to say, ‘We're the founders, funders and staff of Source of Hope." Supplying communities with potable water, school supplies or medicine may lack the social prestige of more traditional philanthropies ("It won't get your name on a building," he says,) but Robert hopes more young people will follow his lead.

Robert's commitment to aiding others was developed early on in life. "My parents believed in philanthropy," he says. "I grew up thinking philanthropy was just something you did, like breathing." The son of "loving and wise immigrants who had little formal education,"Robert was also one of the few practicing Jewish students in Exeter's mostly white, Anglo-Saxon community that still had daily chapel requirements in the 1950s. ("I occasionally still find myself subconsciously humming lines to ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers,' in synagogue," he quips.) Remembering himself a lonely teenager who felt overwhelmed academically and socially, Robert says, "After my graduation ... I took a bit of a break from Exeter."

That break lasted nearly six decades, but a gratifying conversation about the Exeter of today with Ronnie Dixon '07, a young alumnus working in the Office of Institutional Advancement, persuaded Robert to return to campus for his 60th reunion last year. Robert came away from both visits heartened and impressed by a school more welcoming and nurturing — and much more representative of the country at large — than he had experienced.

Invited to speak at assembly in September — in the same space where he used to attend chapel — Robert was humble, warm and witty. Praising "the beautiful diversity" he found on campus, he told the gathered Exonians that "the deepest meaning of life is how you help other people" and urged them to "chase their dreams vigorously" and become strong enough to take care of other people. He added: "Don't think of it as giving back. It's just what you do for your fellow humans."

MercyCorps at work in Palestine.

Boosting employment in Palestinian tech sector with Google.org and Source of Hope Foundation

mercycorps.org | November, 2011

Mercy Corps, Google.org and the Source of Hope Foundation have joined forces to launch the Arab Developer Network Initiative (ADNI) in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. Google.org, the philanthropic arm of Google, is supporting the first two years of this effort with a $900,000 grant, and the Source of Hope Foundation is providing $1 million. The initiative is intended to spark innovation in information and communications technology (ICT) in the region, and catalyze income opportunities for youth, reaching over 1,000 Palestinian entrepreneurs in the first year.

Through a combination of training in technical and business essentials, peer-to-peer learning, mentorship, and an initial seed fund for high potential startups, capitalized at $500,000, ADNI will help build a critical mass of Palestinian youth who are competent in multiple programming platforms and able to create and run successful web-based businesses. Furthermore, Mercy Corps' MicroMentor platform, a free online service used to link experienced business professionals with entrepreneurs looking for mentors, will be launched in Arabic to provide further support.

As in much of the Middle East and North Africa, the Palestinian population is young – 41 percent are under fifteen years of age – well-educated, and chronically unemployed. The World Bank reports that at the end of 2010, unemployment among those between the ages of 15-29 was an estimated 26 percent in the West Bank and 53 percent in Gaza.

"We believe that increased economic growth brings a better civil society and conditions more conducive to peace," said Stephen Robert, co-chief executive of Source of Hope.

"One of the biggest challenges to economic growth in Gaza and the West Bank is that people can't move freely or easily cross borders," said Neal Keny-Guyer, CEO of Mercy Corps. "But there's an incredible brain trust of educated young people in the region. Unlike most other industries, web-based businesses are not limited by the physical movement of goods or people. Fuelled by young talent, the tech sector here is just waiting to take off."

Mercy Corps hopes that ADNI will channel young Palestinians into the market opportunities of a global knowledge-based economy. According to the Palestinian Information Technology Association (PITA), over the last decade, the Palestinian ICT sector has grown at an average rate of 8% per year, while other economic sectors have declined. The technology sector still represents only 5% of the Palestinian economy, so there is considerable room for growth. The ICT industry also has a multiplier effect. For every new ICT job created, an estimated three additional jobs are added to the economy.

"This initiative is not just about ensuring Palestinian youth have access to the latest technology to create compelling content. It's also about finding new ways to connect them with the rest of the world," said Gisel Kordestani, Director of New Business Development at Google. "With only 1 percent of online content available in Arabic, there's an untapped opportunity for the talented software developers in Gaza to build applications that expand economic opportunity and access to information."

Mercy Corps and Google will employ their respective strengths in this initiative. As a leading global web company, pushing industry limits through open access tools and cloud-based business solutions, Google will focus on technical and business aspects of the program, including remote and in-person technical trainings and mentoring support. Mercy Corps, with its experience leading multi-stakeholder projects in the developing world, will implement ADNI and secure the support necessary to scale the program.

After testing and refining the ADNI model over the first year, Mercy Corps plans to expand and extend the initiative to new geographies and contexts. Other multinational companies, investors and investment advisors also will be invited to participate.