Bruder's vision gets results

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"They think they've lost the geographical lottery," Bruder says. "Not having a job yields low self-esteem and depression and makes them fodder for radicalism."

So by stimulating employment in the Middle East, Bruder hopes to drain al Qaeda's talent pool.

Bruder's vision has already borne fruit on a small scale. Thanks to his foundation, several hundred young Jordanians, Palestinians, and Moroccans have solid jobs as accountants, computer programmers, land surveyors, and the like. Bruder plans to place thousands of students in coming years, and eventually he hopes for nothing less than the economic and social transformation of the Islamic world. He likes to cite the example of Northern Ireland, once racked by sectarian violence but today enjoying relative political stability and an economic renaissance.

"When people have jobs," he says, "religious strife disappears - maybe not entirely, but [Protestants and Catholics] are working together in a way that you couldn't have imagined ten years ago."

This raises a chicken-and-egg question: Did the Irish troubles end because the economy picked up, or did the economy improve because a calmer political situation made it safer to do business? It's hard to know, just as it's difficult to understand why anybody would immolate herself and murder innocent people in the process. Are suicide bombers really frustrated accountants?

Bruder, a financier by background, seems like a poster boy for the American dream. His ancestors were Eastern European Jews who moved to America in the early years of the 20th century. His father was an optometrist; his mother taught remedial reading. Bruder's first job, at 17, was selling encyclopedias door to door.

"It was great business training," he recalls. "I had a lot of doors slammed in my face."

In what would become a recurring pattern, he studied the encyclopedia business carefully and found a new angle. He hired welfare mothers to do phone solicitations and employed their children to stuff envelopes through doorways all over Brooklyn.

"Each kid's envelope had a code," he says. "If their work succeeded, they got a bonus."

In his first real estate venture, Bruder converted an electric generating plant in lower Manhattan to residential use. He founded a real estate company called the Brookhill Group: The name has a WASP-establishment ring but was in fact coined by Bruder as a private joke, combining the first syllable in "Brooklyn" with "hill" - "because everything is uphill from Brooklyn."

Bruder also founded a medical technology company and an oil-and-gas business, and he redeveloped a number of shopping malls. But his biggest success came in the brownfields market. Here, again, he found his niche in a seemingly unpromising business: contaminated commercial properties that other developers avoided because of liability issues. Bruder came up with an ingenious new way to invest in brownfields. He brought in engineering, insurance, and finance partners that, respectively, cleaned up the properties at a fixed cost, insured investors against any unknown risks, and securitized the debt so that the risk could be spread out among many investors. In a few years Brookhill had become one of the largest buyers of distressed properties in the U.S.

"He's always been good at getting people excited about investing in his projects," says Bruder's daughter Jessica, a reporter for the Portland Oregonian.

Bruder committed $10 million of his savings to launch the Education for Employment Foundation. Based in Washington, D.C., it operates in Egypt, Gaza, Jordan, Morocco, and Yemen. In each country Bruder partners with local companies that provide funding and agree to hire a set number of graduates from his training programs. EFE launched its first training program in 2005 in Jordan, and opened in Gaza the following year.

Gaza produces around 10,000 college graduates a year, according to Mohammed Naja, a Palestinian who runs the EFE office in Gaza City. But for the past several years Gaza has been riven by factional violence. Israel has largely sealed its border with Gaza in an effort to stop suicide bombers, and Egypt has done its best to fence Gazans in as well. As a result the unemployment rate has shot up to nearly 40%. Most Gazan graduates wait three to four years to land their first job.

"Young people are left on the streets with nothing to do," Naja says. "So they join factions and do negative things."

In the past three years EFE has put 35 local accounting graduates through a three-month mini-MBA program. Bruder worked out a deal with Consolidated Contractors International (CCC), a Palestinian-owned construction company with projects all over the Middle East. CCC provides accounting jobs, mostly in the Gulf, to all mini-MBA graduates.

"We support EFE anyway we can," says Tayma Khouri, a CCC representative in Amman. "We want to help our youth get skills so they can succeed in corporate jobs and not just as construction workers."

Rami Samir Fayez Alshaikhyousef is a 23-year-old Gazan who completed EFE's first mini-MBA course and now works as a junior accountant at CCC's office in Abu Dhabi. Alshaikhyousef is single. He hopes to save enough money working for CCC to return home and open a business-education center. Meanwhile, his salary supports his parents and five siblings back home.

He's grateful for his EFE training and for his job but worries about his family at home in Gaza. When we spoke on the phone last summer, Hamas militants had recently seized control of Gaza from the rival Fatah faction. Hamas and Fatah gunmen were fighting running battles in the streets.

"There's so much trouble," he said matter-of-factly. "And the economy is very weak. But I believe that all Palestinians should discuss how to solve their problems. We must reach peace."

EFE has placed a total of 980 program graduates in jobs since 2005. So far, it must be said, the Middle East doesn't seem appreciably safer or more prosperous as a result of Bruder's efforts. As FSB went to press in early March, Hamas militants based in Gaza had killed two Israeli soldiers and one civilian in the past week. Israeli troops had just wound up an assault on northern Gaza that left more than 100 Palestinians dead, including many civilians.

But like any committed entrepreneur, Bruder stays focused on his vision.

"Ten years on we'll have created thousands of jobs - millions maybe," he says. "No one throws stones through somebody else's window if they have a window of their own." To top of page

Can Ronald Bruder's efforts change the social scene in the Middle East? Share your opinion in our forum.

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