These are the twelve finalists for the Business & Interfaith Peace Awards
When Tayyibah Taylor died in 2014, her obituaries were full of the titles of this accomplished woman — entrepreneur, magazine founder, peace activist, feminist, mother of five, sister, mentor, teacher and friend.
All of those roles Taylor played were as important as the two roles for which the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation is honoring her — interfaith activist and business owner able to seamlessly blend the two to provide a platform for Muslim women to present their voices within the Muslim community, or ummah, and to the broader world.
“When I first met Tayyibah, she illustrated the word ‘celebrate,’” said Nina Soerakoesoemah, a longtime friend of Taylor’s. “She felt that we Muslim women are so full of talent, of skills, of life that we have to celebrate who we are, and that meant everything from our accomplishments to our struggles. She encouraged people to be who they are and to tell their stories.”
Yaya Winarno Junardy likes to tell the story about how he was just a boy from a small village in East Java, Indonesia, when he arrived in Jakarta in the 1960s. Pretty soon, he had four jobs — as a street cigarette seller, a high school biology teacher, a university student and a casino worker. He worked seven days a week.
The experience taught a lesson he still applies in his business and philanthropy today.
“I found myself in four different environments with four different kinds of customers in four different subjects,” he told a group of National University of Singapore students in 2012. “It taught me how, as an individual, to adapt to different situations. I learned that in my life and in my work I have to adapt.”
Adapt he did, taking on a fifth job — an operator for IBM — before he had the university degree the company required. He spent 25 years with IBM in a variety of executive positions in cities around the world. He has also held high posts with Bank Universal, ExcelCom and several other Asia-based telecommunications corporations. He is one of the most prominent businessmen in Jakarta.
Not a lot of businesspeople make the covers of both Forbes and Sports Illustrated magazines. But Kathy Ireland, supermodel and founder of kathy ireland Worldwide (kiWW) can.
Ireland, whose first business was selling painted rocks on the beach in her Southern California hometown, is known as both a supermodel and a supermogul. She appeared in 13 consecutive Sports Illustrated swimsuit editions and graced the covers of three, and her eponymous licensing company now encompasses 17,000 products that bring in $2 billion a year, according to Forbes.
Ireland learned at the hands of some of the biggest business moguls in the world. She once cold-called the actress Elizabeth Taylor, who made her own fortune licensing her name to fragrances and women’s accessories, and asked if the movie star would be willing to mentor her. The two were very close until Taylor’s death in 2011.
Aziz Abu Sarah and Scott Cooper like to joke that they met on JDate, the Jewish-oriented dating service.
They did not. But the joke is typical of these two men who are friends, business partners and, above all, peacemakers.
They met at a peace-building event in New York City in 2009 and quickly realized that even though Abu Sarah is Muslim and from Palestine, and Cooper is Jewish and from Indiana, they shared a vision of how interpersonal relationships across cultures, like theirs, could change the world.
In 2013, Abu Sarah and Cooper started Mejdi Tours, a tour company with a purpose — to expose tourists in age-old conflict areas to what they call “dual narratives” by bringing them together with tour guides from different sides of the conflict. The first tours were to Israel and Palestine, and the company has since expanded to Egypt, Jordan, Turkey and Ireland.
Don Larson knew his way up the corporate ladder. As an executive for Hershey’s, he was well- regarded as a “turnaround man” — someone who would take on a struggling area of the company for a year or more, get it into shape and move on, each time advancing further up the rungs.
He could, he said, have all the toys he wanted. But he didn’t want them. “The more income I made, the more dissatisfied I was. At the top of my career I felt like God wanted me to surrender.”
One day, Larson, a nondenominational evangelical, got a hotel room and got on his knees to pray. “I said, ‘Lord, I have had the greatest first half of my life. The second half of my life I give to you.’”
For two years, Larson, now 52, tried to discern what the next step would be. He went to seminary. He volunteered at the school where his wife was a teacher. He dabbled in a lot of things. And always, he prayed.
Emma Nicholson, Baroness of Winterbourne, knows about distilling — the process of purification. She was born into the family that founded the London gin company J&W Nicholson & Co.
But Nicholson, the lone politician among the finalists, doesn’t purify spirits, but injustice. She is the founder and chairman of the AMAR International Charitable Foundation, which she started in 1991 to improve the plight of Iraq’s Marsh Arabs, the targets of extermination and persecution by Saddam Hussein. She was among the first political leaders to label the actions against the Marsh Arabs as genocide.
“The Marsh Arabs were targeted specifically: All of their cities, towns, villages, farms and individual dwellings were attacked by aircraft or artillery, and burned or demolished; weapons of mass destruction were also employed,” she said in a speech at Harvard University in 2004. “The survivors were forcibly displaced at gunpoint, not once but many times.”
Jonathan Berezovsky has a big title — CEO and founder of an organization that stages cultural education programs in Sao Paolo, Brazil. But there is another title that matters more to him.
“I am an immigrant because I come from a family of immigrants,” he said.
Embracing the title of immigrant has taken the 29-year-old from Argentina, a country adopted by his Eastern European grandparents after World War II, to Israel, where he worked for a microfinancing nongovernmental organization. Four years ago, he moved to Brazil to start his own microfinance organization aimed at immigrants and refugees.
But when the legal obstacles to that proved too high, Berezovsky pivoted — how could he financially empower immigrants and refugees and, at the same time, enable their acceptance by the broader Brazilian society?
Many religious and cultural communities face “otherism” due to differences in education and underlying economic issues that often spur violence from perceived differences. Frank Fredericks, Founder and CEO of Mean Communications, led his organization in a coalition with the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations, UNESCO, and other partners to produce a coordinated social media effort to spread awareness for the worldwide campaign “Do One Thing for Diversity and Inclusion.” His efforts prompted individuals on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to participate in specific endeavors that support inclusion and cultural diversity and to show how their engagement in these actions helped overcome religious and cultural differences in their communities.
After her first year of college, Brittany Underwood thought she’d head to Uganda with some girlfriends, work for the summer and come home with some cash for school and a few experiences under her belt.
Instead, at age 19, it changed the course of her life. A local pastor, noticing Underwood was unhappy and having a tough time adjusting to the Uganda’s extremes, suggested she meet his friend Sarah.
Sarah was 22 and living in a dirt-floor hut. She was an orphan with almost nothing, but she had taken in more than a dozen street children — also orphans — and did everything she could to clothe, feed and shelter them.
“I thought two things in that moment,” Underwood, who is now 32 and lives in Dallas, said. “I thought, ‘Here I am, someone who has been given so much and I’ve literally never done anything for other people at all,’ and ‘I am standing before a woman who has nothing but shares what she has so others can live.’ That shook me out of my complacency. It stuck with me.”
Divinity school is not the most likely place to find a venture capitalist, an investment banker or a published poet. Well, maybe a poet.
Yet H. Bruce McEver, 72, is all of those things, and more. The man who founded Berkshire Capital Securities LLC, a global merger and acquisitions investment firm, in 1983 went on to complete a master’s in theology at Harvard Divinity School in 2011.
At Harvard, McEver noticed a lack of religion and culture courses for students at its prominent business school. With his friend Ron Thiemann, a theologian at Harvard, McEver founded a program called Business Across Religious Traditions — BART, for short — that brought the foundational ethics of the world’s religious traditions to the business school classroom.
“Jesus, the Buddha, Muhammad, Joseph Smith, these were religious entrepreneurs,” McEver said recently from his New York City office. “Almost all of our ethics spring from the religious traditions these entrepreneurs founded. If you understand the religious background of these ethics it makes them much more full-fleshed, more powerful for businesspeople.”
Abdo Ibrahim El Tassi was born on a farm in Lebanon, a long way, both culturally and in terms of climate, from Winnipeg, Canada. After college, his brother and sisters who had already immigrated to Manitoba, persuaded him to join them, promising to support him through a Canadian college.
But El Tassi had other ideas. "I didn't want them to pay for me," he told a Winnipeg newspaper in 2012. "I figured I'd work for a year and go back to school."
El Tassi emigrated in 1969. His older brother had a job at Peerless Garments, a major provider of military uniforms, and got him a job there too. Within six months he went from “bundle boy” to managing the company’s leather division, and in 2006, he became president and chief executive officer.
The adjustment to Canada was difficult. For one, it was freezing cold, nothing like the temperate valleys of Lebanon. For another, the Muslim community — the ummah — consisted of 10 families, had no permanent mosque or halal grocery and often had to improvise.
Fouad Makhzoumi and his family experienced a terrible loss In 2011, his only son, Rami, then 33, died of a brain aneurism after working out.
The Makhzoumis were devastated. Adding to their pain was the necessity of dealing with the family business in this time of intense grief. Rami Makhzoumi had taken over the family business, Future Pipe Industries, from Fouad when the son was only 23 and in 10 years grew the Saudi Arabia-based manufacturer from a $100 million business to a $1 billion empire.
Fouad Makhzoumi, then 62, resumed the helm of Future Pipe Industries, but not before recommitting himself to his son’s legacy — a business philosophy of good governance, of thinking of others, of listening to subordinates and of respecting the potential in each individual, regardless of their religion.
“Rami had a vision,” the elder Makhzoumi said in a 2012 British radio interview. “He wanted to reposition the image of young Arab leaders. He believed there was goodwill in that world, it was just a matter of showing it.”
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