Simple Gifts

Bill Clinton’s new book highlights the power of all people to make a world of difference.

As one of America’s most popular presidents, Bill Clinton is used to thinking big. From his early days in Arkansas politics to his position in the most important office in the world, Clinton has stood among the most powerful men and women of the world and among the most underprivileged. His speeches, all delivered with his trademark candid but friendly manner, have often been written to address the most pressing needs of our society. Indeed, many people believe that he helped to change the world.

Today, six years after the end of his presidency, Bill Clinton is still thinking big. In his latest book, Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World, he challenges us to think big as well. Everyone, Clinton believes, has the potential to give, regardless of background or income level. In his book, he shares with us stories of givers young and old, rich and poor, highly educated and virtually illiterate, and everyone in between. His chapter on “Giving Skills” is particularly helpful for understanding how we can give regardless of income. “Most of us know how to do something not everyone can do as well as we can,” Clinton writes. “Transferring that knowledge and the ability to use it can empower others in amazing ways.”

For instance, Clinton shares with us the story of Diane Stevens of Greenbelt, Maryland, a beauty salon owner who felt compassion for the people of the West African nation of Sierra Leone, who suffered through a decade-long civil war in the 1990s in which rebel forces regularly cut off the limbs of noncombatant civilians, including children. Stevens, along with three of her stylists and church members, went on an eight-day trip to Sierra Leone to teach hundreds of women beauty techniques such as hair treatments, manicures, and pedicures. Stevens’ simple and unique approach to giving made a great difference in the lives of many in Sierra Leone.

In our age of impersonal communication, Clinton encourages us to think about how much better the world would be if we actually saw each other. In a recent interview, he related the story of how some early tribes in Africa had a remarkable way of greeting one another. When one person would say “hello,” the response would be “I see you.” Taking his cue from this ancient greeting, Clinton shares many alternative ideas on bringing us closer together, such as working as a reading tutor or volunteering with an organization such as the National Academy Foundation, which forms small, career-themed learning communities in large urban high schools. There’s also Women for Women International, which helps move women survivors of war from crisis and upheaval to self-sufficiency and stability so they can become active participants in their communities and rebuild their countries.

Another inspiring passage in the book shares the story of Zell Kravinsky, a wealthy real estate investor who gave away most of his $45 million in his mid-forties to health-related charities, keeping only his home and enough money to meet his family’s living expenses. When Kravinsky learned of the thousands of people who die each year waiting for a kidney transplant, he donated one of his own kidneys to a stranger.

“We need a culture change here and an organizational change. Things that entrepreneurs do well,” Clinton said, describing their role as private citizens doing public good. “Everybody can give something, whether it’s time, money, or talent.”

The troubles of modern small businesses haven’t escaped his eye, either. During a recent trip to Chicago, Clinton unveiled plans to expand an inner-city mentorship program to entrepreneurs across the nation. The Inner City Entrepreneur Initiative, a partnership between the William J. Clinton Foundation and Inc. magazine, pairs inner-city business owners with successful entrepreneurs in order to foster their professional growth and to help them gain a competitive edge in their communities. Over the course of a year, the business owners work with their assigned mentors to help them to identify areas for growth and to develop new business strategies.

The Initiative began in 2006 as a pilot program with entrepreneurs in Harlem and the Bronx, and because of its success, the William J. Clinton Foundation and Inc. will be launching the program in other cities across the nation, including Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Oakland, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh.

Clinton recognizes the fact that small business owners already work hard; this program is designed to help them work smarter. For Evetta Petty of New York’s Harlem neighborhood, Clinton’s commitment to thinking bigger and smarter changed her life forever after her business, Harlem’s Heaven Hat Boutique, was chosen to participate in the William J. Clinton Foundation’s Urban Enterprise Initiative in the Emerging Entrepreneurs Program.

According to Petty, Harlem is an intensely booming community, which creates problems for the smallest businesses. “All of the major chain stores are starting to move in, and had it not been for the Urban Enterprise Initiative, we probably would have gone out of business,” Petty said. Petty said that the most important thing that the Initiative did for her was to help her design a website. She now has a customer base that spans the globe and gets several orders from online shoppers each month.

“We’ve always had a great product, but people just didn’t know we were here,” Petty said. “Everyone knows us now. We are the hat people in Harlem.”

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