Denis O’Brien, the Irish billionaire who runs Digicel, says he has made “loads of money in Haiti” since starting his cell phone business there in 2005. He has also built 175 schools that educate 60,000 children. “Even before we started, I said ‘we need to get involved, and make sure we are seen as people who are interested in social development.’”
I had breakfast with O’Brien yesterday, to talk about his unique approach to globalization. Digicel operates in 33 markets in the Caribbean and Oceania, and provides cell service, mostly to poor people who weren’t being served before he arrived. The company now has worldwide revenues of about $2.7 billion. “No one thought poor people would buy a phone.” With innovative low cost plans, he has proved otherwise.
In each market, the company devotes substantial resources to social development. When I ask him how he decides how much to invest in those projects, he smiles, licks his finger, and holds it up to the wind. Employees drive the projects, he says. He gives them a budget at the beginning of the year, but then if they have good ideas he will frequently come in and “top it off.”
“To me, this is modern business,” O’Brien says. “If you make a profit in a community, you reinvest in social projects.” He believes the rising influence of millennials in the workforce will lead more companies to behave in the same way. “Things have to change.”
O’Brien was in New York for the annual meetings of the Clinton Global Initiative, which these days is caught up in a firestorm of controversy for mixing its good works with the personal and political ambitions of the Clintons. While O’Brien’s business philosophy predates CGI, he praises the former president for encouraging business to act differently. “When I see people attack the Clinton Foundation, I’m aghast.”