Why Liesel Pritzker Is Different From Trust Fund Babies
Image: Nana Kofi Acquah for Forbes
iesel Pritzker Simmons, American heiress, studies a blue vat of human faecal matter, pulled from Accra’s septic tanks and the communal bathrooms that slum-dwellers in Ghana’s capital pay to use. She then gestures to a nearby ocean-side cliff with an ill-chosen name, Lavender Hill, where the scene is even worse, as an orange dump truck discharges sludge into the sea. This occurrence, repeated 150 times each day, creates a brown slime trail large enough to show up on Google’s satellite maps, just be- yond a fleet of fishermen in colourful wooden boats dropping their nets.
Through Pritzker Simmons’ eyes, there’s waste in this waste. “You’ve got someone that’s here for two years, and they need to spend $30 million and so they’ll do it,” she says, her voice rising with irritation. “And then they get their new post.” She’s talking about a wastewater treatment facility behind us that was designed by the Dutch, funded by the UK and Ghana and opened in 2000—only to shut about three years later when something went wrong. Goat- and sheep-herders now squat on the land surrounding the dormant facility, adding an ironic layer of animal waste around this failed solution.
But Pritzker Simmons hasn’t come to Ghana to roll her eyes at well-intended folly. She’s here to check in on the economic opportunities such debacles have created. Last year the 29-year-old and husband, Ian Simmons, 38, invested $150,000 in Waste Enterprisers, a startup that dries out human faecal sludge and turns it into fuel. The little company, with seven employees, has recently gotten some traction and is negotiating a contract to provide 2 percent of French concrete-maker Lafarge’s fuel needs in Mombasa, Kenya.
With sanitation as the building block for public health, toilet talk has become popular among philan- thropists and social entrepreneurs, led by the Gates Foundation’s Reinvent the Toilet Challenge and John Kluge Jr’s Toilet Hack-a-Thons. Impact investing is even trendier, as billionaires like Pierre and Pam Omidyar and Jeff Skoll direct hundreds of millions toward for-profit investments that carry the twin goal of public benefit, and do-gooders like Jacqueline Novogratz and Willy Foote run funds that act similarly.
What makes Pritzker Simmons’ effort notable is the absolutism with which she’s pursuing it. She has earmarked $50 million of her total fortune—which Forbes estimates at $600 million, stemming from the $500 million windfall inheritance she received a decade ago, along with assets from her husband, a blue-blooded heir to the family that built locks on the Erie Canal, co-founded department-store chain Montgomery Ward and helped take insurance broker Marsh & McLennan public—toward venture investments in for-profit social startups. These include companies like Karibu Homes, an affordable housing developer in Nairobi, and Eco-Post, a nascent Kenyan company that turns plastic into fence posts. And while the rest of that stash is invested passively, every cent, no matter the asset class, is being reallocated through the often criticised prism known as socially responsible investing (they prefer to call it values-aligned investing). They have aligned 83 percent of their fixed-income assets and 50 percent of their equities so far, and expect to be fully in compliance with their own values (the expected gamut of fair trade, sustainable and fossil-fuel-free companies) by 2018.
“To me it’s either you’re pregnant or you’re not,” she says. “You can’t be ‘a little bit.’” With a 60-year time horizon and a grubstake that exceeds half a billion, Pritzker Simmons is fully pregnant with the purest case study ever on the efficacy of conscience-driven investing.
Liesel Pritzker was famous twice over while still in her teens, and unlike better-known members of her generation of trust fund babies, it had nothing to do with arrests or sex videos. “When I talk with other peers of mine who are also inheriting wealth,” she says, “one of the best things that ever happened was Paris Hilton’s shenanigans.”
Act One for Pritzker was as a child actress. Discovered as a 9-year-old in a local Chicago production of To Kill a Mockingbird, she played to type in Hollywood, most notably as the title character in the 1995 remake of the classic film A Little Princess and as First Daughter to Harrison Ford’s president in 1997’s Air Force One. Ford compared her to a young Jodie Foster (“Liesel is just so real, it’s like a breath of fresh air”).
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