“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” That is what Jon Huntsman Senior, the self-made billionaire who has given away over 80 per cent of his wealth, told City A.M.
“One of the greatest advantages of wealth is to bring joy to other people,” he says. “Humans must seek to lift one another up.” The 77 year-old businessman is worth an estimated $1.1bn (£700m), but he’s been giving away his money for 35 years, and is one of just 19 billionaires worldwide (out of 1,200) to have given away over a billion – in fact, about $1.6bn. “At one stage, I did manage to get off Forbes, but they found a way to put me back on there,” he laughs. He was one of 40 billionaires who signed up to the Giving Pledge in 2009, agreeing to give away half of their wealth. “Warren [Buffett] wanted to get commitments of 50 per cent first, but I said, ‘why not pledge 80 per cent?’” After all, he tells me, no-one needs half of $10bn to live on.
Huntsman didn’t come into the world rich – far from it. Born in 1937, he grew up in rural Idaho, with a school teacher father and a stay-at-home mother. His dad went back to studying when Huntsman was 13, meaning he frequently held down three jobs to support the family. “When you come from nothing, giving is emotional and inspiring,” he says. “I’ve been on both sides of the track. I have a very difficult time understanding why people with a lot of money don’t give to their fellow human beings.” In his latest book, Barefoot to Billionaire, Huntsman says: “I desire to leave this world as I entered it – barefoot and broke.”
Philanthropy has always been a big part of Huntsman’s life. Over the years, he and his wife Karen have donated hundreds of millions to the homeless, abused women and the sick.
Aside from their contributions to the war on cancer, the Huntsmans have a strong monetary – and emotional – connection to Armenia. Jon watched footage of the Armenian earthquake on 7 December 1988, which killed 45,000 and left 50,000 homeless. Something in him, he says, told him he had to help. The next day, he got on a plane, heading for a country he’d never been to before. To date, he has given Armenia $53m. He funds 26 four-year university scholarships a year. The only proviso for recipients is that they return to the country after their studies to work on rebuilding. Armenia has made Huntsman a citizen, and he and his family have visited 46 times. “It has been an honour to work there,” he says.