By Michael Ross, an EO Orange County member, founder of Altitude 7 Group and the 2012 EO Global Citizen of the Year
Every day, members around the world are making a mark in their communities by leveraging their talents, time and resources. One member making a global impact is EO Orange County’s Michael Ross, the first recipient of the EO Global Citizen of the Year Award. Michael has supported several philanthropic ventures, including financial assistance for orphanages in Latin America and the coordination of a conference on HIV/Aids education in Panama. In this interview, Michael talks about the power of philanthropy and the role engagement plays when giving back.
How can other entrepreneurs leverage their companies to make a difference within their community?
MR: You can start with your own company by building a culture that rewards employees for giving back. It doesn’t need to be complicated. Either pick a cause that speaks to your heart or consider asking your team how they would like to give back. You’ll find this will inspire teamwork and empower others! Also, it’s important to be aware of the needs of those around you. Don’t assume you already know the answers. The hardest part is not imposing your personal bias, agenda or customs onto others. I never want to be the foreigner saying, ‘This is how to fix your problem!’ I want the problem identified and its solution to come from working within the local community. When people do this, they will have a sense of pride and accountability in the outcome.
You’re a testament to EO’s call to action to “engage the world.” In your opinion, what role does engagement play in philanthropy?
MR: To borrow our Global Chairman Rosemary Tan’s analogy, philanthropy is about throwing a pebble into the water and creating a powerful ripple effect. We all have the power to make a significant impact in our family, business and community. So many people think they need to form their own foundation to give back … it’s much easier than that. We simply have to decide to engage. You can start by finding an organization that’s making a difference in a way that resonates most with you. You can also leverage the EO and MyEO networks, two powerful outlets for connecting to entrepreneurs who have worthy causes and need support, or who can share their experiences to help you make a mark. It all starts with engagement.
You’ve made a significant mark on the people of Latin America. What have your experiences taught you about the power of philanthropy?
MR: It taught me that you don’t have to be a subject matter expert to make significant things happen in and beyond your community. As an entrepreneur, I’m constantly learning as I go. If I waited to plan everything, I would never get ahead. This has also been my experience in philanthropy. For example, during a trip to Panama, the president of the Panamanian psychology association asked me to find an expert on HIV/Aids to educate the country’s psychologists. There had been no resources for formal training, and it was a growing concern. I agreed to find someone and create a three-day conference. It took six months of work, but I found a Spanish-speaking expert; established sponsorships with UNICEF; and connected with the Panamanian Minister of Health to give continuing education credits to the psychologists, the University of Panama and others. I helped create the country’s first international conference on HIV/AIDS, which started an important dialogue and stimulated awareness of the issue. This experience taught me that if you have a clear vision and desired outcome for giving back, you can align the right individuals and organizations, while inspiring them to help make your vision a reality.
What do you want your EO peers to take away from your experiences?
MR: When I first visited Panama, I was touched by some amazing people, all of whom wanted to give
back to their community but didn’t know how. They wanted to establish programs that serve as long-term solutions, and they needed help. This presented an opportunity for me to empower others to become engaged in the act of philanthropy. It’s similar to how we encourage our own employees to leverage their experiences in service of our business goals. As entrepreneurs, we can inspire others to donate their time, talents and resources. There is still a lot of work to be done to help those whom are less fortunate. I challenge each of my EO peers to think about the one thing they can do to start making an impact on others. We must lead by example in our businesses, families and communities, in order to make a lasting difference in the world. It all starts with us.