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Omidyar to invest more in Hawaii

Dave Segal
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EBay founder and billionaire philanthropist Pierre Omidyar said he plans to put more capital into Hawaii projects.
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EBay founder Pierre Omidyar spoke to reporters after a luncheon in Waikiki yesterday at which he pledged to invest more capital into Hawaii projects.

EBay founder and billionaire philanthropist Pierre Omidyar, who pledged $50 million last year to the Hawaii Community Foundation, said he plans to put more capital into Hawaii projects.

Omidyar, speaking to reporters after a luncheon in Waikiki yesterday, said he would be spending more on his Ulupono Initiative, which promotes food sustainability, renewable energy and waste reduction in Hawaii. The Ulupono Initiative is separate from Omidyar’s $50 million pledge to the Hawaii Community Foundation.

"Getting folks to do things slightly differently than they have in the past takes time," Omidyar said. "As Ulupono is effective doing that, we will be deploying more capital through Ulupono. So that means dollars are going to be flowing through Ulupono to these projects."

The 43-year-old Omidyar and his wife, Pam, live on Oahu with their three children and recently joined 40 of the world’s richest people in a pledge to donate at least half their fortunes as part of a philanthropists’ pact. The Omidyars’ net worth was estimated at $5.2 billion this year by Forbes Magazine.

When asked how much of their fortune they plan to donate to Hawaii charities, Omidyar said, "There’s a lot of need here."

"In terms of Hawaii, I believe it is very important to work with the people that are here, work in partnership with folks, and not overwhelm existing institutions, existing funders."

"It’s very important that it is not just one family that shows up with a lot of money and says, ‘Oh, yeah, we like Hawaii. So let’s, you know, do a lot of stuff,’ and then, ‘Oops, guess what? We like California now. We’re going over there.’"

He said he is focused on providing necessary capital to for-profit companies or nonprofit organizations in ways that are sustainable for Hawaii "and where the things we become involved in are not overly dependent on us as the primary source of funds."

Last year the Omidyars promised to give $50 million over six years to the Hawaii Community Foundation, a charitable services and grant-making organization. The first part of that donation has gone this year toward helping families weather the economic recession.

Omidyar, who as a 28-year-old in 1995 wrote the software code that eventually would become eBay, said the company’s initial public offering in 1998 left him with the sense of responsibility that his overnight wealth should be put to good use.

To date, the Omidyars have committed more than $900 million to their philanthropic efforts worldwide, including $150 million to for-profit companies and $750 million to nonprofit organizations.

One of the organizations the Omidyars established, Humanity United, is dedicated to ending mass atrocities and modern-day slavery. Omidyar is also a shareholder in Maui Land and Pineapple Co., whose former subsidiary, Maui Pineapple Co., has been linked to a recent human trafficking case.

Last week federal prosecutors indicted employees of a Los Angeles-based labor recruiting company, Global Horizons Manpower Inc., in what the FBI said is the largest human trafficking case ever charged in U.S. history.

Global Horizons is accused of enticing 400 workers from Thailand to U.S. farms — including Maui Pineapple Co.’s farm — based on false promises of lucrative jobs. Instead, recruiters allegedly confiscated the workers’ passports, disregarded employment contracts and threatened deportation.

In 2007, Omidyar invested $10 million in Maui Land and Pineapple Co.

Omidyar said yesterday the alleged human trafficking occurred before he became a shareholder and he had no knowledge of the incident until "a year or two" after buying into the company.

"It was terrible circumstances that occurred certainly, but it occurred and then it stopped before we even became shareholders," Omidyar said. "We didn’t even know about it until a year or two later. With the quality of the management that’s there now and the issues they’re focusing on, I’m happy to be a shareholder today."

Omidyar said the MLP episode demonstrates how hard it is to eradicate human trafficking, and "how easy it is to become involved in a business or to buy a product, buy a pineapple, or whatever, and sort of unknowingly kind of taint yourself with these terrible practices."

"What I’ve learned through engaging in a nonprofit like Humanity United is it’s very difficult to identify when this happens," he said. "You really need to go and take a very close look at who are your partners. If you’re doing any kind of recruiting for migrant labor or temporary workers, you really need to know who are they coming from? Do they have translators available where they can speak to inspectors? There’s a need for a much greater level of oversight and enforcement in this country and other areas around the world where transient labor comes in to make sure that folks are not being held against their will."


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