Jon Sr & Karen Huntsman
Jon Sr & Karen Huntsman
Amount donated: $1.5bn
Philanthropic Causes: cancer research, education, Armenia
Region of philanthropic focus: USA
Ranking: #35 Forbes America’s biggest givers 2014
Net Worth: $1.1bn
Source of wealth: chemicals
Only nineteen living people have given away more than $1bn – styrofoam billionaire Jon Huntsman Sr. is one of them, and in 2009 he signed the Giving Pledge with his wife Karen, saying that he intended to give the rest away in his lifetime: “The people I particularly dislike are those who say ‘I’m going to leave it in my will.’ What they’re really saying is ‘If I could live forever, I wouldn’t give any of it away.'”
One of a generation of industrialists who were born into relative poverty, as a young man he worked a variety of menial jobs including picking potatoes in order to fund his alcoholic father’s graduate school education. Clearly gifted even at an early age, he was awarded a scholarship to study at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He has previously talked of the influence that this had on his philanthropic instincts. “As a senior in high school with no money working several jobs, I was sent to a wonderful school on the east coast by a wonderful Jewish man. I’ve sent over 5,000 young people to school around the world in memory of him.”
After university, he started his career working at Karen’s family egg business, Olson Farms. His restless entrepreneurial instincts soon had them expanding into egg carton production, and it was through this venture that he became involved in developing the styrofoam egg
carton. Having discovered that this new material was a highly efficient way to store and transport foodstuffs, he founded Huntsman Chemical Corporation in order to produce styrofoam for the emerging fast food industry. With no finance forthcoming, he was forced to mortgage his house to fund the business.
In another brilliantly unconventional financing move, he helped found K-tel Records in order to provide start-up cash. Twenty of their first 23 records went gold, so he sold up and funnelled the money into Huntsman Chemical Corporation. Soon he was providing his styrofoam to clients including Burger King and McDonald’s, and by 2014 the business was worth $10bn.
A four time cancer survivor, Huntsman has since stepped down as CEO and switched his attentions primarily to alleviating the misery caused by the disease. Having also lost his mother, father, grandmother, stepmother and brother to cancer, in 1993 a $10m endowment from him founded the Huntsman Cancer Institute. This was swiftly followed by a $100m commitment in 1995 to fund the institute’s goal of finding a cure for the disease. In 2014, he linked his search for a cure for cancer with his passion for improving the lives of children by giving $50m to the University of Utah to fund research to combat cancer in children.
Whilst helping defeat cancer is his primary concern, he has spread his philanthropy widely through education and the environment. As well as giving $50m to his alma mater, the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, he has funded over 1,500 college scholarships and given $26m to the Jon M Huntsman School of Business at the University of Utah. He has also given $1m to the Huntsman Environmental Research Centre at the University of Utah, saying that climate change is the number one concern that humanity faces.
His giving is not limited by borders, either; despite having no links to Armenia, he gave $50m after it was levelled by an earthquake in 1988. This money established the infrastructure to produce building materials and provide Armenians with jobs, as well as build houses, a school, and providing scholarships to send Armenians to the University of Utah.
Having committed money to charity, when recessions have threatened his business, he borrowed money simply to fulfill his charitable commitments, a risky position that he laughed off in a recent interview, saying “I call it sportsmanship, competition! I’d do it all over again”. So why does he risk everything to give money away instead of acquiring private jets or yachts? “It’s a high, a real feeling of excitement and exhilaration to be able to help people. I haven’t always been wealthy – the opposite in fact. But I have always felt that I wanted people to share it with me.”