Paying It Forward: Merle Hinrich And Asia's Next Generation Of Leaders
Merle Hinrich transformed trade in Asia with his company, Global Sources. Founded in the 1970s to publish trade magazines, it has developed into a flourishing online portal that connects manufacturers and retailers around the world. Now, after a lifetime in business, Merle is turning his attention to philanthropy, shaking up the way scholarships are run in Asia.
Merle, like many philanthropists in Asia, your work is personal for you. Unlike many, someone else’s philanthropy was pivotal in putting you on a path which allowed you to have enough wealth to make meaningful impact. So, let’s start at the beginning with your story.
I grew up on a farm in Nebraska in humble circumstances. I had a professor who become a mentor and advisor to me. He suggested that I apply for a master’s scholarship to attend Thunderbird School of Global Management, which I was fortunate enough to receive in 1964 when I was 20 years old.
Attending Thunderbird changed my life. After graduating, I had several options to choose from but decided to take a job with the East Asia Publishing Company and move to Tokyo. In retrospect, Thunderbird also helped me to realize how important it is to combine theory and practice, as many of the professors teaching there came from business. In any case, Tokyo in the mid-sixties was still recovering from the War and new businesses and opportunities were being built. For a young guy from Nebraska, nothing could have been more exciting.
Within a few months, I became the sales manager and moved to Hong Kong. Those years were quite fun, but I was also learning a great deal both in terms of the work and also what it takes to be truly successful. By the time I launched Global Sources, I understood the companies who were our clients and the products and the brands they were trying to build.
I learned about the positive impacts of international trade and knew all the major exporters and manufacturers. But I also learned something else—the absolute necessity to have the right values. To be honest, to have integrity and to be trusted. It sounds easy to say, but being fair, being honest and basing your decisions and your sales pitch on facts isn’t always so easy.
What triggered your philanthropy?
Global Sources is primarily a media company. I needed talented journalists who understood the language of business within a global context and were bilingual. We began to work with Hong Kong Baptist University. I could see, as an employer, how valuable it is to get involved with the education of future employees.
We could help build the foundation they needed to be successful for themselves and for the companies which hired them. First, I helped build a library and then I started providing that which made such a difference for me and was so needed—scholarships.
These days, through the Hinrich Foundation, we offer scholarships and more importantly, career opportunities to people who would like to make careers in trade in Asia. We have learned that we can’t achieve this on our own. In order for us to help nurture the next generation of global trade leaders through scholarships, skills development and career opportunities, we need to build strong relationships with like-minded people.
Providing scholarships is very popular in Asia, but those the Hinrich Foundation provides are unique as they focus on the trade sector. Why have you focused on trade?
I’ve seen the benefits that trade has brought the people of Asia. Trade raises people out of poverty in a sustainable way. It creates opportunities. Countries that have healthy trading relationships have healthy geopolitical relationships.
Your scholarships also build in work experience to complement time spent in the classroom. At the end, you have equipped the scholars with real on the ground understanding of trade and business as well as classroom knowledge and experiences.
Yes, we involve three separate but equally important stakeholder groups in our program. First, we invite employers to participate in the design of our scholarship program and we give them the opportunity to hire our scholarship graduates. Second, we work with university faculty to develop innovative and more practical education specific to international trade. Good schools appreciate the practical feedback from industry and are constantly enhancing their programs accordingly.
Third, of course, are the scholars themselves. We look for individuals who are passionate about the benefits of trade for their communities, who have the aptitude for further learning, an interest in language and foreign affairs and who aspire for greater opportunities, who are eager to grow their careers in trade, and importantly, who are committed to developing their leadership roles and give back to the next generation.
I am pleased to say that we find young people who not only meet these requirements, but in many cases surpass them.
Sometimes I have been surprised by employers who ask me why they should invest in training and scholarships. They tell me they worry that employees with higher skills will just leave their company. I say to them, “But, what if you don’t invest in them… and they stay”?
Another interesting aspect of your program is that you invite other companies to work with you.
It is essential. We are happy to talk with anyone who is interested in partnering with us on our scholarship work. But even if others are not interested in partnering with us, I encourage them to do more with their philanthropic investments. A really successful philanthropy program requires that the donor give their time to design the program, engage with the beneficiaries, not just allocate money. It is also a lot more rewarding for the donor. For me, meeting our scholars and seeing what they are doing with their lives is very gratifying. I enjoy supporting them in any way I can on their lifelong journey.
See also: Go For Variety: Diversification Is Key