SIR STELIOS HAJI-IOANNOU

Born in Athens, Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou is best known for founding budget airline easyJet in 1995, when he was just 28. Prior to this, he set up the Stelmar shipping company with financial help from his late father Loucas, himself a self-made shipping tycoon. Stelios received a knighthood from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in 2006 for services to entrepreneurship, and since 2009 he has been the Honorary General Consul for the Republic of Cyprus in the Principality of Monaco where he now lives. The Stelios Philanthropic Foundation (registered in the UK and Monaco) was created by Stelios to organise his charitable giving in areas such as scholarships, the environment and promoting entrepreneurship in his “home countries” of Greece, Cyprus and the UK. His latest project “Food from the Heart” has focused on Greece and Cyprus since the economic crisis.  

How did your philanthropy begin?

My first experience of philanthropy was not with my own money, as is often the case with the second generation of businessmen. It was giving scholarships from my father’s funds. My father passed away in 2008 and he left funds to his children to continue his legacy. He had very specific views about charity beginning at home, so he focused on Greece and Cyprus . He didn’t go to university, but he thought that university education was something noble and worth doing, so that’s why he directed his philanthropy to supporting university education. As I was pushing 40 and had made my own money, the first donation I gave was to the universities I went to [the London School of Economics (LSE) and the Cass Business School].

How did that come about?

I think the usual trick is that they see your name in the newspaper and, invite you to speak at the school – they stroke your ego, invite you back to the school for a trip down memory lane and the job is done!

We now have alumni of around 200 graduates from Cass and the LSE [who have received scholarships from the Foundation]. That’s about ten a year from each university over ten years. Many are very smart so they have gone on to get the best jobs. So the question is how do you remind them that they now have a duty to repay? Next April [2016], we are inviting all the alumni to Monaco, where I live now, for a re-union . And we are going to say to them, “now it’s your turn”. It will test my theory about exponential giving. I am going to suggest that they fund scholarships at their universities and I am going to offer a match, for every £1 they give I will give £1. The original pledge I made to the universities is finished so the idea is to now encourage them to fund scholarships. 

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The first principle, which I follow in business and apply to my philanthropy, is to be diversified – I don’t put all my eggs in one basket. 

What is your motivation for philanthropy?

I think generally wealthy people owe a debt to society. Wealthy people have a duty to give back.

How do you decide which causes to support?

The first principle, which I follow in business and apply to my philanthropy, is to be diversified – I don’t put all my eggs in one basket. It might be more difficult from a communications point of view as it is more difficult to communicate what you do: it’s easier to say you do one thing and one thing only.

The causes I support change from time to time as I respond to needs or crises. The classic case was having given awards for entrepreneurship in Greece, when the financial crisis really hit home in 2013 I thought, “is it the best form of charity to give €50,000 to relatively wealthy entrepreneurs?”. Yes, there is hopefully an exponential effect in the sense an entrepreneur will create jobs and help society by building the economy, but when people are starving this may not be the best strategy.

I therefore went to the opposite end of the spectrum and started to give small donations to many very needy people. This became the ‘Food from the Heart’ programme. I looked at the soup kitchens in America, the food banks in the UK and applied experience and logic from the business sector to develop the programme. Through trial and error, I decided that the best way to help as many people as possible with the lowest unit cost was to provide pre-packaged and sealed food. I worked with existing companies and distribution systems, one in Greece and one in Cyprus, to make snacks and co-branded the products so it’s harder for them to be resold.

I discovered that the more you give, the more people come and take. It sounds like stating the obvious, but you have to strike a balance to make sure you help the neediest. The snacks are provided without discrimination.

What I like about Food from the Heart is that you are helping many people in dire straights in a very cost effective way. At the moment there is a refugee crisis, and many are travelling through Greece. A mayor of one of the Greek islands, where around 700 refugees were passing through each day, contacted me and asked for the snacks to be sent there so they could be distributed. We ensure that for the short time they are on the island they are not desperate for food.

Food from the Heart was very topical for me. I was born in Athens and my parents were born in Cyprus, and I was lucky enough not to be affected by the financial crisis, so I am in the unusual position of being able to help.

You have also helped to strengthen relations within Cyprus - how did you go about that?

Yes, I think we are in a landmark year for the relations between the Greek-Cypriot community and the Turkish-Cypriot community. For the past seven years I have been supporting an awards or grants programme for people who work across the divide. It used to focus on business, but now it can focus on anything – sports, science, arts. The important point is that they talk to each other and are less likely to be in conflict. Once peace prevails maybe the awards will be irrelevant, but it is good to support the transition period.  

How did the Leonard Cheshire Award for Disabled Entrepreneurs come about?

I categorise that under entrepreneurship. The charity approached me for funding so I said rather than write a cheque, let’s do something together that will last. Now in its ninth year, we are inviting people who have a disability and are starting a business. It’s a niche programme. It’s close to my heart as it involves people being entrepreneurial and helping those who are disabled create their own businesses. The original pledge was ten years.

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Try and find what you enjoy. You have to enjoy it, otherwise it is not worth doing.

The environment has also been a focus for your philanthropy, why is that?

My family and I have made money from transport businesses that have an effect on the environment. So I have always believed that I have a duty to be respectful of the environment – the marine environment, wildlife or conservation. It has always played a role in my giving.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is one of our partners and I have been working with them since I first wrote a cheque to them about 25 years ago when I was a young Greek shipping guy. Now we have an annual event in Monaco with Prince Albert’s Foundation to fundraise for them.

You do a lot more than just give money to charitable organisations. What motivates you to give your time and expertise?

I don’t believe we have a monopoly on good ideas. And we don’t just run our own programmes. Philanthropy can be very time-consuming; for example, Food from the Heart is like running a retail chain. So we have another programme that we call internally  ‘ad-hoc giving’, for the lack of a better term, that supports recognised charities [that I am not actively involved with]. Sometimes writing a cheque once per year to the Red Cross or Unicef is just as “good” as trying to feed the needy on the streets of Athens …

What have you enjoyed most about your philanthropy?

When you see that the beneficiaries appreciate what you do. Sometimes I go and distribute the snacks in Greece [Food from the Heart] and I can see the people that benefit. I spend about a third of my time on my philanthropy at the moment. Although I don’t keep a time sheet - it could be more or less depending on the time of the year …

What is your experience of working with the organisations you support?

It’s really important to me that organisations report on what they have done. I always notice who signs letters. Our ad-hoc giving is done on the basis of how much feedback we get from each of the charities we donate to from the previous year.

What are your future plans for your philanthropy?

You need to be flexible and adapt to changing circumstances and needs. When I first started Food From the Heart I thought maybe no one would turn up to collect what is the very modest offering. Today the situation in Greece is getting worse by the day and the influx of refugees makes it more urgent.

What advice would you give philanthropists who are just starting out?

Try and find what you enjoy. You have to enjoy it, otherwise it is not worth doing.

What needs to happen to help grow philanthropy?

Different people respond to different motives. Some seek recognition. I usually say you need to find the right mixture of ego and guilt. Giving back should be part of one’s day-to-day life; you should spend X% of your time making money and Y% of your time giving it away.