A Billionaire With a Davos Of His Own

We think you will enjoy this article from the April 17 Sunday NYTimes by Alessandra Stanley. We’ve promised to show you the good side of the very rich, so here goes. For every Caspersen (see our April 10 blog) there is a Berggruen (see below).

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In a wood-paneled conference room in Stanford, Calif., a score of scholars, many of them eminent and some from as far away as Johannesburg and Beijing, gathered last month to compare philosophical notions of hierarchy and equality.

The gathering itself had no overt hierarchy, though one participant seemed a little more equal than the others. When Nicolas Berggruen spoke, no one interrupted. Only he occasionally checked his phone. And at dinner, the guests received fruit tarts for dessert — except for Mr. Berggruen, who was served chocolate mousse.

Mr. Berggruen, 54, is an investor and art collector who was once known as the “homeless billionaire” because he lived in itinerant luxury in five-star hotels. Now he is grounded in Los Angeles where he presides over a bespoke think tank, the Berggruen Institute.


“I am a person who likes to engage in learning.” Nicholas Berggruen at home in Los Angeles.

The institute is a striking example of how wealthy philanthropists are reshaping the landscape with smaller versions of the foundations established by Bill Gates and George Soros. Sean Parker, one of the entrepreneurs behind Napster and Facebook, has a research institute, The Parker Foundation, which this month pledged $250 million for cancer immunotherapy. He is also a co-founder of the Economic Innovation Group, which labels itself an “ideas laboratory.” Tom Steyer, who made his fortune as a hedge fund manager in California, has several environmental nonprofit groups, and last year created the Fair Shake Commission to redress economic inequality.

“There is a generation of new donors who have huge assets, and their own ideas, and think traditional think tanks are old-fashioned,” said James G. McGann, the director of the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program at the University of Pennsylvania — a think tank that thinks about think tanks. In a money-fueled culture where tweets, not position papers, shape the national conversation, these kinds of philosopher-kingpins “are likely to be more influential than we are,” Mr. McGann said.
Mr. Berggruen stands out because he is a little-known but well-connected player at the nexus of wealth and rumination who is also a bit mysterious — a Gatsby who shows up at his own parties.

“I am a person who likes to engage in learning,” Mr. Berggruen said, in an accent reflecting his Parisian upbringing and dual German and American citizenship. The next step was “to see if I can produce some ideas,” he said.

Mr. Berggruen’s investment company, Berggruen Holdings, is registered in the British Virgin Islands and his charitable trust is based in Bermuda. The institute bankrolls several conferences a year, and Mr. Berggruen attends almost every session, takes careful notes and sometimes even appears to dress the part. At a dinner for philosophy scholars at the Stanford Park Hotel in March, he wore a dark blazer and a crisp white shirt unbuttoned to his sternum, the signature look of the French celebrity philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy.

There are conflicting views about this kind of endeavor.
“One of the delights of philanthropy is that it isn’t programmed, it is scattershot, with so much room for idiosyncratic choices,” said Karl Zinsmeister, author of “The Almanac of American Philanthropy.” He cited the example of Daniel Guggenheim, who championed the rocketry pioneer Robert Goddard in the 1930s when he was widely dismissed as a crackpot.

“Of course there is a high percentage of waste,” Mr. Zinsmeister said, “but that’s how discovery works.”

Others worry, though, that at least some of these initiatives are vanity projects. Mr. Berggruen’s institute “seems like a mini-Davos of his creation,” McGann said, referring to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland — the Ascot of conferences for the global elite.

Mr. McGann publishes an annual report on the world’s top think tanks, ranking them in more than 50 categories. The Berggruen Institute is not included in any of them.
Mr. Berggruen happens to be a Davos habitué, but his institute has a more eclectic mandate. Besides philosophy, he has spent time and money on efforts to reform the California budget. He has established councils to study European integration and China.



Nicolas Berggruen, working with Nathalia Ramos, an aide, center, and Marissa Fraering, an assistant, at his home in Los Angeles.

The Berggruen Institute will award an annual $1 million prize in philosophy beginning this year. It is presently funding five Berggruen graduate scholarships to China and other places, and it has selected 16 others for the 2016-17 academic year.
Mr. Berggruen says he bought more than 400 acres in Brentwood, Calif., and has commissioned the renowned Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron to design his institute’s headquarters. Craig Calhoun, who is leaving the directorship of the London School of Economics this summer, was appointed president. Mr. Calhoun said his mandate was to “deepen the conversation.”

Mr. Berggruen has a gift for networking. “He knows everyone,” said his friend Stefan Simchowitz, an art dealer. At the philosophy conference in Stanford, he hosted a conversation about artificial intelligence with Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist who heads the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California, and Reid Hoffman, a co-founder of LinkedIn.

Mr. Hoffman met Mr. Berggruen through a mutual friend who mentioned Mr. Berggruen’s interests in California governance and Chinese philosophy. “I said, ‘Yeah, that’s interesting. Let me meet him,’” Mr. Hoffman recalled.

The luminaries listed on the institute’s advisory boards are the kind who pop up at White House state dinners or on Barry Diller’s yacht: Arianna Huffington, cofounder of The Huffington Post; the SpaceX founder Elon Musk; Tony Blair, the former British prime minister; Francis Fukuyama, the Stanford professor; and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

“I’m not really involved anymore, but I like Nicolas,” Ms. Rice said in a phone interview. She served on the Think Long Committee for California, a brain trust Mr. Berggruen assembled in 2010 to address the state’s budget crisis.

Mr. Berggruen makes it easy for even very busy people to lend their prestige. He foots the bills, booking guests in luxury hotels and sometimes ferrying them on his private jet. In workshops, he asks the kind of big-picture questions that politicians, intellectuals and billionaires like to answer.

Last November, Mr. Berggruen convened former prime ministers and other eminences in Beijing to discuss the future of China. Upon the group’s arrival in Beijing, the roads were cleared for their motorcade to the Great Hall of the People for a meeting with President Xi Jinping.

Orville Schell, a China scholar at the Asia Society in New York and an adviser to the Berggruen Institute, said that Mr. Berggruen gained access to Chinese leaders because he focused on philosophy and culture, not politics and human rights, and noted that his approach was “astute.”

It also helped that Mr. Berggruen did not appear to have a business agenda. “In some ways he is a thinking man’s Donald Trump,” Mr. Schell said. “He doesn’t want anything from anybody, except to be of consequence.”

While Mr. Berggruen has arrived, even in his early days he wasn’t exactly an arriviste. His father, Heinz Berggruen, was an art dealer who fled the Nazis in 1936, romanced Frida Kahlo in New York and befriended Picasso in Paris.

The younger Mr. Berggruen attended Le Rosey, an exclusive Swiss boarding school, and studied finance at New York University, but he says he began investing as a teenager, borrowing a few thousand pounds from a friend to buy stocks. Forbes estimates his fortune to be about $1.5 billion. Last year, Town & Country magazine named him one of the world’s 50 most eligible bachelors.

And last month, he became a bachelor father. Or, as he put it when asked who the mother is: “Me. I am the mother and the father.” Mr. Berggruen has two newborns, a boy and a girl, born three weeks apart to different surrogates and conceived using eggs from two donors.

Single fatherhood has now tethered him to Los Angeles, he said, but not too tightly: He bought the apartment one floor down for the children and their nannies.

Since 2015, his institute has been funded by his Bermuda-registered charitable trust. He says it has a $1 billion endowment. Foreign status means that Mr. Berggruen forfeits United States tax breaks but can give away money as he chooses. Bermuda has almost none of the restrictions or disclosure rules that bind American nonprofits.

In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, Mr. Berggruen said, he began to question his life’s purpose. That led him, in 2010, to hire professors from the University of California, Los Angeles, to tutor him in philosophy.

Brian Walker, a political science professor and expert in Chinese philosophy, was one of those. Professor Walker would discuss Plato and Confucius with Mr. Berggruen over lunch in his suite at the Peninsula Hotel. “It was sort of a surreal setting, but he always did the reading and asked good questions,” Mr. Walker said. “I found him a little mysterious. He didn’t invite personal confidences.”

Mr. Berggruen is courteous and even courtly: In restaurants, he stands when his date leaves the table. But he isn’t a schmoozer. His Stanford conference ran from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. with little time for small talk.

At the philosophy dinner, he asked that his guests discuss harmony and freedom in the East and West. He was playful, but only on topic. “I am going to say something that will make all of you want to kill me,” he said, bringing conversation and forks to a halt. “The West is absolutist, India is pluralist, and China is — and I don’t mean this in a negative way — conformist.”

Mr. Berggruen spoke proudly of the work his Think Long Committee did to address California’s deficit, including supporting Proposition 31, which among other things would have barred lawmakers from creating expenditures over $25 million without finding the money for them. Mr. Berggruen spent more than $1 million to get the proposition on the ballot. The initiative was voted down in 2012.

Think Long was on the winning side, though, of a 2014 measure to make ballot initiatives more transparent. Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause, which supported the measure, said that she didn’t recall the Berggruen Institute’s adding much to policy ideas, but that it did help finance legal advisers and recruit experts. “I wouldn’t say it was deep thinking,” Ms. Feng said, “but he did bring in some very high-profile individuals.”

In 2010, Mr. Berggruen took the Giving Pledge — which has become a kind of social register for big-time philanthropists — joining billionaires who have promised to give away more than half of their fortunes. But he is not a spendthrift. He is a trustee of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and tax records show that in 2014 he gave the museum $100,000, the minimum annual gift required; many give double that amount, or more, according to two trustees. That year, Mr. Berggruen gave U.C.L.A. $4,750.
Mr. Berggruen says he wants to nurture innovative thinking, not just donate to causes. His institute, he said, is “not just a money-giving operation; it’s an ideas and energy-producing operation.”

Several scholars say that Mr. Berggruen’s interdisciplinary approach to philosophy is refreshing in an academic world that can be siloed. Kwame Anthony Appiah, a philosopher at New York University, said he attended a Berggruen event because it gave him a chance to talk to experts about Confucianism, which is not his primary field of study.

“I can’t say whether it’s the best use of his money,” Professor Appiah said. “I can only consider whether he is making the world better or worse, and in this case I would have to say, better.”

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