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Meet Hansjörg Wyss, National Geographic Philanthropist of the Year

Philanthropist Hansjörg Wyss shares why he was inspired to donate $1 billion towards conservation.

In 1958, a Swiss student named Hansjörg Wyss boarded a propeller plane across the Atlantic to Denver, Colorado. Between his time hiking and climbing, Wyss fell in love with the landscapes of the American West. At 30 years old, he made his first donation: $200 to a conservation organization.

Now a businessman and entrepreneur, Wyss has leveraged his success to become one of the most influential philanthropists in the world of conservation. Just last October, he announced that he would be donating $1 billion over the next decade through the Wyss Campaign for Nature to help expand land and ocean conservation efforts around the world. This donation amount would make it the single largest commitment in history to protected areas by an individual.

In honor of Wyss’ commitment to nature and conservation, National Geographic Society awarded him with the inaugural Philanthropist of the Year Award. Hear his thoughts on the importance of conserving our planet through a photo essay by National Geographic photographer Pete Muller.

What inspired you to give a billion dollars to the natural world? What made you want to focus on a target of protecting 30% of the planet by 2030?

Hansjörg Wyss: Well, we started defining that target years ago when we started working to support efforts to establish national monuments. From there, it went to help to create parks. We spent close to $400 million over the last 20 years helping NGOs, helping indigenous people, helping park services.

This was just a continuation of what we’re going to do in the future. The number could be higher; it could be lower. It depends on the opportunities. I hope it’s going to be higher than a billion, personally.

I feel that, if you make a large amount of money, you just have a duty to do that. Not enough people understand that they can’t take it with them.

What exactly was that job when you originally moved to Colorado?

It was spending four months with the Colorado State Highway Department. They assigned me to a crew of people who were born in the Southern United States. My English was reasonably OK, but I didn’t understand their accent at all.

It was a surveying crew, and we surveyed the first part of the interstate highway that eventually was going to go to the Eisenhower Tunnel on the Loveland Pass. I was lowest on the totem pole, and I had a hammer to put the sticks in. Little did they know that I already had a very advanced degree in mapping and surveying.

For about five weeks, I worked my way. Then I told them they could do certain things a little differently, and they accepted it. So that was fun.

Portrait image of Mr. Hansjörg Wyss, a Swiss engineer and philanthropist, at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts and along the bank of the Charles River. Photo by: Pete Muller.

What was your impression of the landscape of the American West and the people?

It was unbelievable. I had never seen anything like it. Remember, there was no interstate highway system. It took you nine hours to drive from Denver to Aspen. There were these wild, beautiful and open spaces on the western side of the Rockies.

I saw the national monuments there. It’s now a national park, the Great Sand Dunes. You just can’t believe, when you come from a country that is only 2,400 square miles, and you see these places, and you see the sky changing. It’s just unbelievable.

I grew up in a very small apartment. About 200 yards from our apartment were the soccer fields and a huge forest where all the kids explored. In the winter, we built sled runs, et cetera. We were always very close to nature. We were close to the natural world. We were within 30 minutes from skiing and from the Prealps, which are a favorite for hikers around Switzerland.

I was living in an artificial world in school during the week and in the natural world during the weekends.

If you were to look back at your life and think about what were the most meaningful successes for you, what are the top two?

Well, I think it’s what we’re doing now. The Campaign for Nature is really number one because that’s the most important and most threatening issue to the world. I think we have to finally make everybody understand that the climate is changing and that the planet doesn’t care [about us]. If we want to have an acceptable environment for people 100 or 200 years from now, climate change is the biggest challenge we face.

Number two is to work on social issues which affect women, minorities, indigenous people and so on. So it’s working to protect nature and to work on social issues.

Portrait image of Mr. Hansjörg Wyss. Photo by: Pete Muller.

What would be your advice to somebody starting out that’s trying to drive an ambitious career and change the world?

I’d advise to make sure at the beginning of your career to have a mentor around that prevents you from making big mistakes, that advises you. Also, make sure you have friends around you that help you and you can trust. I always had somebody protecting me, and now I have a board that tells me, “You can’t do this. You haven’t thought this through.” That’s true, and if you look for those two groups of people around you, you’ll be very successful.

Try to figure out something you want to do and do it. It’s so simple. Have a dream. Work on it. Don’t give up.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

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