Chairman, Wolfensohn & Company, LLC
“You can’t just shrug your shoulders and say, ‘Africa is a hell of a problem,’ and then forget about it.”
During thirty years in international finance, James Wolfensohn’s remarkable successes only strengthened his belief that those who prosper in business are obligated to serve the greater good. His decadelong presidency of the World Bank provided the ultimate opportunity to pursue that mission on a global scale. Wolfensohn’s subsequent involvement with the Middle East peace process, and recent endeavors to nurture businesses in emerging economies and promote sustainable sources of energy, show his continuing determination to bridge the gap between policies and people.
In the course of one two-week trip last May, James Wolfensohn traveled from his office in New York to an advisory board meeting at the Shanghai Stock Exchange, to an education conference in Dubai, and to the University of Ghana, where he delivered a lecture on partnerships for success in Africa. The hectic pace and diverse agendas were not unusual for Wolfensohn, who, at 74, is deeply involved in the work of the Wolfensohn Center for Development, a new global poverty research initiative at the Brookings Institution. He is also relishing the opportunity to work with his son, Adam, and daughter Naomi at Wolfensohn & Company, LLC, a privately held firm that invests in alternative energy initiatives and backs companies that do business in emerging economies. “After I finished my negotiating role in the Middle East, I thought I’d hang up my spurs and relax,” he relates. “But my children decided that maybe I know something after all, so we developed a business together.”
Wolfensohn’s current work is the latest chapter in a celebrated career marked by a succession of high-profile accomplishments that include the presidency of the World Bank from 1995 to 2005, followed by an appointment as special envoy for Gaza disengagement for the Quartet on the Middle East. Those posts followed several distinguished decades in the investment world, service on nonprofit boards and think tanks, and management of the financial turnaround of both Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, not to mention a midlife decision to study the cello.
Wolfensohn believes his career path has been influenced by a sense of being “an outsider in the world of privilege.” He chose banking “because it’s a profession where you are judged by what you produce rather than where you come from.” Born in Australia to middle-class Jewish parents, Wolfensohn, a member of his homeland’s 1956 Olympic fencing team, had just $300 when he arrived at HBS. Through contacts at Harvard, he began a long-term association with the Rockefeller family, who kindled in him an awareness of “the wide canvas of global problems and the difference money could make.”
In 1981 he launched his own firm in New York and rapidly became one of Wall Street’s most successful investors, while simultaneously spending 25 percent of his time supporting arts and nonprofit organizations. “I’ve always believed that those who do well in business have a responsibility to get involved in public sector issues such as health, poverty, and education,” explains Wolfensohn, who speaks with quiet authority and more than a trace of his native accent.
At the World Bank, Wolfensohn acted decisively to decentralize operations, root out corruption, utilize technology to improve communication, and upgrade systems for deploying resources on the ground. When traveling to 140 countries with his wife, Elaine, a specialist in early childhood education, he made it a practice to spend time with people in poor areas before visiting with heads of state or ngos. “We learned a lot that those leaders didn’t know,” he says. “My philosophy of development has been shaped by sensing the human experience first and then moving into policy.”
Wolfensohn’s current projects, as well as a family foundation run by his daughter Sara, reflect his continuing belief that the growing gap between poor and wealthy nations must be a priority. Underscoring the need for a “change of course,” he says that the United States and Europe need to pay closer attention to the emerging influence of India and China with regard to Africa’s economic and humanitarian challenges, global energy issues, climate change, and the Middle East conflict. “We’re all linked now,” he emphasizes, “and when I look to the future, that’s what engages my imagination.”