Bobby Sager is an entrepreneur turned philanthropist who, for the last twelve years, has traveled with his family to some of the most dangerous places on the planet to make a difference.
“Be selfish, go help someone!” This is classic Bobby… very thought provoking, often controversial, but always authentic. This is his perspective of the amazing philanthropic work that he is doing globally. During a recent trip to Dubai he passionately said, “I’m not a do-gooder. I’m a doer who has figured out that hands-on, eyeball to eyeball making a difference is a way to live a very full life,” now that can resonate with a lot of us.
Bobby’s personality is as intricate, dynamic and colourful as his jacket he was wearing, woven by Palestinian women in one of his various global empowerment initiatives. It reminded me of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” from the Book of Genesis, where the favourite son of Jacob, who was a dreamer, destined for greatness and saved people from starvation. Fast-forward 4,000 years Bobby is pioneering his unique brand of practical philanthropy and impacting millions of people through his initiatives wearing his dream coat!
Bobby spends up to 10 months of the year in the some of the world’s most remote, forgotten and war-torn places working “eyeball-to-eyeball” with the poorest and most devastated people. Since 2000, he spends most of his time in these areas of conflict, including Rwanda, Palestine, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal and more recently Syria and Zimbabwe. He takes his wife and young family to all of these crisis ridden places, and personally oversees his development initiatives. He says that it is not a “spectator sport”. On any given day you might find Sager living in a tent in Karachi, sharing a toilet with 40 monks in the Himalayas, working alongside President Kagame in Rwanda, or discussing science education with the Dalai Lama.
Wherever the Sager Family Traveling Foundation goes, “they live as close to the ground as possible. Our way of travelling has always been to jump in. We will eat food, sleep there on the ground or whatever – because you are not there to observe, you are there to be a part of it.” This is where a lot of his authenticity comes from and then the locals start trusting him. Any skepticism just dissipates and we start engaging with the man and his unique message.
Sager says that he only wanted to make money so that he would have choices in life, then use those choices to experience the fullest existence possible. It was his desire, rather than altruism that led him to take this path. Bobby says that the impact of incremental wealth is now quite marginal in his life. However, his philanthropic ventures with the same effort provide quantum impact and exponential personal ROI, making the biggest difference in the most difficult areas on the planet. Rock star Sting, a great supporter of his work, describes Bobby as “a big brash guy from Boston…flamboyant, eccentric, inexhaustible world traveler and practical philanthropist.” I also see him as authentic, charismatic and very versatile. He seems to be a complex cocktail of extremes, potentially controversial and quite unorthodox taking on seemingly insurmountable challenges.
He deals with big dictators like Mugabe and Bashar-al-Assad, while on the other hand supports anonymous children. He is working on projects alongside living legends like Mandela and the Dalai Lama while simultaneously engaging with child soldiers in Rwanda to give them hope. He seems just as comfortable in boardrooms in Boston to rugged mountains in Afghanistan. He is a techno visionary with Polaroid (with the ambition to make it the next Apple) to a technophobe claiming that he does not even use Google (is that really possible in today’s world?). Although he is Jewish, he is deeply engaging with and helps Palestinians. He is also moderating an ongoing dialogue, currently with limited success, between Indian and Pakistani YPO organizations to improve understanding. And the story goes on.“Hope isn’t just nice, it’s a game changer,” says Bobby. He spoke about the inspiration for his book and from Sting’s song, The Power of the Invisible Sun, which is used as a metaphor for hope. He says, “by looking into the eyes of children, there is a light to ignite our optimism, perhaps even our action.” Sting uses images from the book in his concerts and said, “to see these children laughing is to see the invisible sun made visible.”
Inspired by Moses, an anonymous Rwandan child soldier (who had killed 3 people by the time he was 9), Bobby invented the indestructible football as a symbol of hope for kids, which they have to earn. Then in his inimitable way he gave us the calculation of ROI (Return on Investment) on this project. “The cost of the ball is $15, lasts 30 years, so 50 cents per year, 1 cent per week. For this investment these kids have something permanent in their life and learn life skills with it. All this has a multiplier effect and quantum impact on the entire psyche and community. Now that is ROI.”
It is amazing how Bobby bridges business, entrepreneurship and philanthropy. He set up micro banks and micro enterprises in Rwanda focused on empowering women. This was nice but not a good enough ROI for Bobby. He wanted healing and reconciliation as part of the construct. So the deal was that 6-12 women (whose husbands, fathers, brothers were murdered) start a business together with 6-12 women (whose men folk were involved in the murders). This is an extremely uncomfortable scenario, however, slowly it enabled the women to build their dreams and put aside their differences for a better future for their children. This set the tone for sustainable and fundamental reconciliation between them. This initiative has more than 10,000 women now. This is Bobby’s way of using business to impact society and encourage genuine healing.
He ends his inspiring message by insisting that those people who think “I cant make a difference” by saying that “your concrete baby steps do matter”. We left the event very touched thinking how do we connect all these dots in our own special way and make ourselves the currency for change and impact.
Bobby’s Key Messages
- Money certainly matters, but when you make ourselves the currency, it matters even more.
- It’s hard to be happy unless you’re thankful and its difficult to be thankful without some context to appreciate what you have. The children provide context on steroids
- Hope is a game-changer.
- Eyeball-to-eyeball making a difference is a way to live a very full life.
Bobby’s Career & Achievements
- Sager Family Foundation & Roadshow (2000-Present)
- Chairman of the Board Polaroid (2009-Present) – Pledged to give away all his earnings from Polaroid.
- Gordon Brothers Group – partner & president, grew it from $10 million to $6 billion (1985-2000)
- Young President Organization (YPO) – Founding Chairman of YPO Peace Action Network; First ever Recipient of YPO Global Humanitarian Award
- Author – The Power of the Invisible Sun
- Executive Producer – “A Guide to Recognizing your Saints” award winner at Sundance Film Festival and Inspiration for NBC primetime show “The Philanthropist”
- Yale University – Master’s in Management
We will eat food, sleep there on the ground or whatever, because you are not there to observe, you are there to be a part of it.”
“The cost of the ball is $15, lasts 30 years, so 50 cents per year, 1 cent per week. For this investment these kids have something permanent in their life and learn life skills with it. All this has a multiplier effect and quantum impact on the entire psyche and community. Now that is ROI.”