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From Adventure Travel To Business With A Purpose

The founders of Lonely Planet Publications, Maureen and Tony Wheeler, have turned their philanthropic attention to business ventures in the developing world, donating $14 million to the new entrepreneurially focused Wheeler Institute at London Business School

The co-founders of one of the world’s best-known travel guidebooks want to make the world a less-lonely place for entrepreneurs in developing countries. Tony and Maureen Wheeler, founders of publishing giant Lonely Planet, have donated £10 million ($14 million) to London Business School to fund LBS’s newly established Wheeler Institute for Business and Development — a massive infusion that will help the new institute apply business and entrepreneurship solutions to pressing social and economic problems in the developing world.

The Wheelers have sent scores of backpackers to the far corners of the world. Now they want to send businesspeople, to be a force for good where it is needed most.

“The Wheelers have had a long-standing interest in emerging markets and development in the world of business,” says Wheeler Institute Director Rajesh Chandy, a professor of marketing at LBS and, for the last nine years, the Tony and Maureen Wheeler Chair in Entrepreneurship. “The purpose of the institute is to help solve some of the biggest problems facing humankind through the lens of business, through the power of business.”

‘EARLY DAYS’ IN DETERMINING HOW TO MAKE USE OF A MASSIVE GIFT

Tony and Maureen Wheeler

Tony Wheeler is a 1972 graduate of LBS’s MSc05 program. That same year he and Maureen created their best-known achievement, a guidebook series that many travelers now consider indispensable. But the Wheelers have not been content to help generations of globe-trotters find convenient hostels or avoid tourist traps in unfamiliar surroundings. After selling a majority stake in Lonely Planet Publications in 2007, they founded the international development organization Planet Wheeler Foundation, which focuses on education, health, human rights, and community development in East Africa, Afghanistan, Burma, Cambodia, and Laos. In 2017 they were awarded the 13th UN World Tourism Organization Lifetime Achievement Award.

Which makes them ideal financiers of the new institute’s mission to bring about positive social and cultural change — but this time through sharing and applying business expertise. The institute, which officially launched in December of last year as the Business and Development Institute, already had been engaged in wide-ranging research, Rajesh Chandy tells Poets&Quants, that will be brought to bear on challenges faced by some of the world’s most underprivileged communities — poverty, illiteracy, disease, pollution, lack of services, and more. Then came January’s announcement of the Wheelers’ huge gift.

“We have multiple initiatives and events coming up that will be announced soon,” Chandy says. “We don’t have specifics yet, but we will be meeting soon to finalize our plans for the year. We’re still in the early days of working out how exactly to make effective use of the Wheelers’ gift. Of course we have many ideas, but given the nature of the gift we’re ramping up our ambitions quite a bit more. Our activities, therefore, will be quite a bit different from what we had anticipated.”

‘AN OPPORTUNITY TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE’

Broadly speaking, how might those ambitions and activities manifest? Chandy, attending the American Marketing Association 2018 conference in New Orleans, uses a local example to explain.

“When Katrina happened, there were all these stories about how Walmart was able to get its trucks in before the federal government could get its trucks in and get the logistic system working — even before the emergency management folks could do so,” Chandy says. “Amplify that by many times and that is the situation in developing countries, where governments are unable or unwilling to do as much as they could, and the private sector, to an extent — based on enlightened self-interest — has an opportunity to make a difference.”

Students and faculty alike get excited about these opportunities, Chandy says — they are a chance to see an immediate and life-changing impact of something they do.

“The Wheelers’ interest in emerging markets and development dovetails very well with the interest of a fairly significant number of LBS faculty who are also working in this area,” he says. “It’s one of the things that’s fairly unique about LBS — given its location and its linkages to the rest of the world, the focus on emerging markets comes somewhat naturally, as does the link between business and development. And the opportunities to make an impact are huge.”

WITNESSES TO THE IMPACT OF BUSINESS ‘ON OUR WORLD’S MOST VULNERABLE COMMUNITIES’

Dr. Rajesh Chandy, director of the new Wheeler Institute at London Business School

“Tony and Maureen’s gift to the school is not only very generous,” says François Ortalo-Magné, dean of LBS, in a school news release, “it also demonstrates trust in the quality of the research and teaching produced by the school. The Wheeler Institute is underpinned by the fundamental idea that business can make a positive contribution to economic and social development. Business solutions can bring innovation, scalability, and entrepreneurial energy to tackling the great social challenges of our time; that’s why as a business school, LBS is moving the goalposts on how we can turn business research into action for good.

“Why now? This next generation of business leaders and entrepreneurs — the ones whom we are educating and training — know that we can and should harness the power of business for a bigger purpose; we can train this generation differently, so that they emerge as more inclusive, more courageous leaders for good,” Ortalo-Magné says.

London Business School is the ideal place for an initiative like the Wheeler Institute, says its namesake, Tony Wheeler. It’s an international city — unlike, say, New York, which is a very American city. What better place than London to launch an institute dedicated to international entrepreneurship? “Maureen and I have been passionate supporters of international development efforts for many years and firmly believe that business and entrepreneurship has a central role to play in this journey,” Tony Wheeler said in the news release. “It’s a privilege to lend our support to LBS and the Institute; we are grateful to be part of the institute’s long-term efforts to alleviate poverty in those regions most in need.”

Added Maureen Wheeler, who was awarded an honorary fellowship from LBS in 2011: “Tony and I are fortunate to have travelled widely over the course of our careers. We have witnessed the impact, both positive and negative, that business has on our world’s most vulnerable communities. Our donation to the Institute fits with our belief that business has a positive part to play in development globally.”

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