Jynwel chief Jho Low: My vision for sustainable social investment

Jho Low speaks about his grandfather Meng Tak Low, who passed away from cancer in 2013 after paving the way for his family’s business and philanthropic ventures. Photo by: Jynwel Foundation

Editor’s Note: Since the publication of this article, Mr. Jho Low has come under growing scrutiny for his apparent role in an unfolding corruption scandal in Malaysia. The allegations call into question the source of funds he has used to make philanthropic donations and pledges. Devex is examining this story and may publish an update as new information becomes available.

Just over three years ago, Jho Low got a devastating diagnosis: stage-3 lung cancer. The curious thing: Low didn’t smoke.

Six months of treatment with some of the best doctors in the world brought bittersweet relief: His illness, it turned out, was not caused by cancer but a serious infection.

The experience made Low, a fun-loving Wharton graduate from Malaysia and CEO of Hong Kong-based investment and advisory firm Jynwel Capital, realize: “If I can be so successful in business, I should also be in social investment or philanthropy.”

The idea was born for the Jynwel Charitable Foundation, which plans to give away more than $100 million over 15 years and made headlines last November when it announced plans to invest $25 million in IRIN, the embattled United Nations humanitarian news service. That move — and Low’s embrace of what he calls sustainable social investment — have put Jynwel, which he founded with his brother Szen, at the helm of a slew of emerging international power brokers straddling the intersection of business and development.

“I like to disrupt whatever I do,” says Low, whose beaming smile, business acumen and deep pockets have endeared him to movers and shakers from Hollywood to Wall Street and beyond. (Low has been photographed partying with Paris Hilton and other entertainment stars, and he received a screen credit for connecting financiers to the team behind “The Wolf of Wall Street,” a long-stalled black comedy finally released in 2013 and directed by Martin Scorsese about the life of Jordan Belfort, a high-flying Manhattan stockbroker who spent 22 months in prison for fraud in the mid-2000s and now works as a motivational speaker.)

Low shares the pragmatic assessment of development cooperation that’s en vogue in international circles these days: Governments and traditional foreign aid donors alone can’t solve the complex challenges posed by population growth and climate change; since private investment in the developing world dwarfs government-led official development assistance, business leaders must get more engaged in social and environmental causes — ideally beyond merely donating money to some charitable fund.

But unlike some of his peers, Low unabashedly embraces the merging of business and philanthropic interests. Take IRIN, for example. Low is engaged in talks with a variety of potential investors — including several governments — and wants the news and analysis service to be financially independent in a decade or two.

“Ultimately, the efficiency of IRIN is going to affect my business,” says Low in reference to the work of Jynwel Capital. “How do I measure it? If I have a real estate project in Nigeria and IRIN identifies a problem there, I can address it. Safer living environments, for instance, can benefit both developers and residents.”

Similarly, Low is in talks with Chinese government officials about snow leopard conservation — an effort that he says may not have a direct business impact but could create opportunities for his firm and others in the future.

Is there a firewall between his family’s foundation and capital investment firm?

“I think we’re going the opposite way. You should never split it up,” Low suggests. “You have to do it from your head and heart.”

Jynwel takes what Low calls a “360-degree approach to sustainable social investments” — one that involves “digging deep” to identify root causes of complex challenges and seeking out expert partners to collaborate on ambitious, long-term projects whose performance is measured regularly.

Jynwel’s vision for sustainable social investments is nothing new, Low says — just look at electric car company Tesla or the green technology industry. Its focus on 15-plus-year grants is in stark contrast to the foreign aid community’s traditional reliance on short-term contracts, which has been blamed for the “projectization” of development and which more forward-thinking donors like the U.K.’s Children’s Investment Fund Foundation are increasingly eschewing.

The emergence of private debt notes and other innovative mechanisms to finance development is promising, Low says. The question now, in his view, is around scale: How can high finance be engaged in sustainable social investments? It’s a question that raises many more, such as: How can investors be convinced that what they’re getting involved in isn’t charity? And, how can non-monetary gains — to an institution’s reputation or brand, for instance — be quantified?

Low seems acutely aware of his own reputation as a hard-partying jet-setter with connections to big international financiers, and says he’s eager to beef up transparency at Jynwel. The foundation may also appoint more non-family board members, and it may consider more joint programming and third-party donors.

“It’s business,” Low acknowledges. “These investments in your future are going to give you a return; they’re not just about giving something away.”

How should enterprises like Jynwel separate business and philanthropic efforts? Share your thought by leaving a comment below.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been updated to better reflect Jho Low’s engagement with the makers of “The Wolf of Wall Street” and his connections to international financiers.

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    Rolf Rosenkranz oversees a talented team of in-house journalists, correspondents and guest contributors located around the globe. Since joining Devex in early 2008, Rolf has been instrumental in growing its fledgling news operation into the leading online source for global development news and analysis. Previously, Rolf was managing editor at Inside Health Policy, a subscription-based news service in Washington. He has reported from Africa for the Johannesburg-based Star and its publisher, Independent News & Media, as well as the Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, a German daily.