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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Through the eyes of renowned human rights activist Alison Lawton

April 14, 2009

By Doug Ward, Vancouver,
The Vancouver Sun
April 10, 2009

Three years ago, Alison Lawton found herself in a
northern Uganda village, plying government
soldiers with food and liquor to get information
for a documentary film about the abduction of
young children by rebel soldiers from the Lord’s Resistance Army.

Lawton returned to her decrepit hotel room and
struggled to fall asleep on a concrete bed with a
foam mattress. She could hear gunfire in the
distance and thought about her two young children
back home, in one of the most palatial houses on West Vancouver’s waterfront.

Lawton, a successful entrepreneur and investor
who was married at the time to one of Vancouver’s
wealthiest mining financiers, wondered how she
got to this strange and anarchic place. And she
questioned why she thought she could do anything
about the tragic civil war that had led to the
abduction of thousands of children and the deaths of millions of people.

"It was a complicated, overwhelming feeling. And
I think that’s when I had to make a decision on
whether to let go, or drive on. And there were
enough people who said we should drive on. And that’s what we did."

Among those Lawton talked to later about her
struggle to publicize the plight of the Acholi
people of Uganda was former U.S. president Bill
Clinton. She also flew to India to consult the
Dalai Lama at his home. The exiled Tibetan
spiritual leader told her to stop worrying and
"work from a place in your heart."

In the end, Lawton funded and produced a
documentary, Uganda Rising, which played at a
number of film festivals. The movie became an
important media component in a campaign she
helped spearhead -- called Act for Stolen
Children — which brought pressure on the United
Nations to do something about the humanitarian crisis in northern Uganda.

These days Lawton, 38, remains committed to
raising awareness about under-reported political
and social issues in the Third World. Only now,
she’s using her personal wealth to help others produce the media coverage.

"That last film (Uganda Rising) and campaign cost
me a million dollars and three years of my life
and just about killed me," she said. "I can’t do that again."

So the Vancouver entrepreneur and human rights
activist has donated $1 million to fund a new
international journalism program at the
University of B.C.’s graduate school of
journalism. The money, to be dispersed over 10
years, will finance overseas journalism on
under-reported projects and involve UBC journalism faculty and students.

The idea for the project came from UBC School of
Journalism professor Peter Klein, a former
producer at CBS-News’ 60 Minutes. The two had
been introduced by a mutual connection,
well-known pollster and market analyst Angus
Reid. They shared concerns over the decline of
foreign affairs coverage by major private and
public broadcast and print media seeking to cut costs.

"If we only take a bottom-line approach to
foreign coverage, then we are compromising
society’s interest in global issues," Lawton said.

She asked Klein how he could "leverage" a
$1-million donation from her -- the amount she
spent on the Uganda campaign. He eventually came
back with the international journalism proposal.

Earlier this year, 10 UBC journalism students and
three faculty members travelled to India, China
and Ghana to produce a documentary on the
humanitarian and environmental problems caused by
the disposal in developing countries of computer waste from western countries.

The documentary will be broadcast later this year
on the Public Broadcasting Service’s documentary program Frontline/World.

As philanthropic entrepreneurs go, Lawton is an unusual case.

Her business success in the 1990s in Vancouver
with real estate partnerships and high-tech
start-ups, she says, was as much driven by a
desire to give money away to non-profit groups as
it was to enhance her personal net worth.

And while she says, "I’m not a socialist" and is
a skilled investor, Lawton has long been
concerned by unrestrained free markets. In her
2005 masters’ thesis at Simon Fraser University
on the mass media and the financial industry,
Lawton presciently concluded — using neo-Marxist
analysis — that “the blind belief in the power of
capitalism may be leading our economy into an abyss.”

She used the financial scandal involving the
American energy company Enron to indict America’s
financial industry and wrote that the system’s
key challenge lies "in the difference between
being at the top tier with the capitalist elite,
or at the lower levels struggling to rise up to wealthier levels.”

At the same time, Lawton herself has operated
successfully inside of Vancouver’s "capitalist
elite," even, in 2000, marrying Frank Giustra,
the former Howe Street wunderkind, Lions Gate
Entertainment founder and mining merchant banker.

"I think it’s given me a peekaboo view into the
way that world really works so that I can speak
from experience and not just theory," Lawton said.

"When you run in these circles, you can see that there is a lot of good there."

She noted, as an example, the move by her former
husband to donate $100 million US -- plus half of
his future mining earnings -- to a philanthropic
project developed with his good friend, Bill Clinton.

The donation, possibly the largest single
philanthropic gift ever made by a Canadian,
kick-started the Clinton-Giustra Sustainable
Growth Initiative, a plan to fight Third World
poverty with help from the global mining industry.

Giustra credited Lawton at the time for urging
him to place his money and extensive contacts behind the initiative.

(Lawton said she and her ex-husband kept their
business and financial interests separate during
their marriage, which ended last year.)

Lawton recently spent a week in South Africa with
British billionaire Richard Branson, who is using
money from his Virgin brand of companies to fund
medical and entrepreneurial training projects in that country.

Lawton has partnered with Branson’s philanthropic
arm, Virgin Unite, on these efforts and on an
entrepreneurial education project involving first
nations communities in Canada.

"She’s a seasoned business executive with a
successful track record," said Virgin Mobile CEO
Andrew Black, "who also has an incredible passion
to tackle some of the major social issues of the day."

Lawton said the culture of business has to change
so that companies are concerned about their
contribution to society, not only their share price.

"I think the social component of business hasn’t
really existed, except in a philanthropic sense as an after-thought."

Entrepreneurs have to consider the greater social
good so that "if we are exploring new
technologies, we shouldn’t just be concerned
about the marketability and profitability of the
product. We should also be concerned about the benefit for society."

One industry Lawton is trying to change is the
pharmaceutical industry, which she believes has
for too long kept prices high for life-saving
drugs such as antiretrovirals designed to halt
AIDS, while also being overzealous about guarding intellectual property.

Lawton is funding research by UBC business
students into the development of different models for big pharma companies.

She praised GlaxoSmithKline for its plan to cap
the price of medicines in 50 of the poorest
developing countries at no more than 25 per cent
of the cost they are sold in developing
countries, and for its new willingness to share
data on drugs through patent pools with competing companies.

Among those who worked with Lawton on the Uganda
campaign is Erin Baines, an assistant professor
at the Liu Institute for Global Issues at UBC.
She described Lawton as a “new-generation"
philanthropist who invests in individuals and
their social change campaigns rather than in political parties or institutions.

Lawton has also used her business savvy to
connect a variety of actors who normally don’t
work together: politicians, academics, businessmen and activists, added Baines.

Baines, who travelled to Uganda with Lawton,
added, "I’ve seen her act exactly the same with
refugees in a camp in Africa as she does with
celebrities or Bill Clinton or other people in the political elite."

Lawton’s facility with making money and giving it
away can be traced back to events in her youth in
Montreal. Her father, who worked as a printer at
the Montreal Star and started a series of
businesses, was convicted of embezzlement and jailed for six months.

Her mother and siblings were forced to give up
their house and move into a basement apartment.
Her mother returned to nursing. Lawton was 12 years old at the time.

"It made me determined to take care of myself and
have my own financial independence."

Friend and market analyst Reid said the
difficulties of her youth shaped her later
business success and philanthropy. “She’s one of
those people who had adversity when they were
young and turned that experience into a passion
to make the world a better place," he said.

(Lawton was an early investor in Reid’s Vision
Critical, an online market research company.)

Lawton studied communications at Concordia
University and then moved to Vancouver in 1991.
She initially worked for Earth Day International,
producing videos for the environmental group.

She decided around that time that she could bring
about more social change as an investor in
non-profits than as an employee or activist. "I
decided to understand business in order to find
solutions that engage industry and business to be
more open to the social good."

She took the Canadian securities course and
joined Dave Richardson’s Investor First Financial
firm in 1994, arranging real-estate limited partnerships.

She moved on to setting up tax shelters in the
film industry for companies like Alliance Films.

In 1997 she founded Winfield Venture Group, an
investment and corporate finance firm. She
co-founded the high-tech incubator IdeaPark two
years later, which was later bought by mining entrepreneur Ian Telfer.

She gradually moved towards the non-profit sphere
and in 2001 set up Mindset Media, a foundation
that uses mass media campaigns to promote social
change, including the awareness campaign around the Ugandan civil war.

Lawton is currently chairwoman of the Unite for
Children Unite Against Aids Campaign for UNICEF Canada.

She produced a documentary movie for UNICEF
Canada about African children living with the
human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS.
The organization also produced a short
fundraising public service announcement for
UNICEF Canada. Lawton donated $150,000 to the two UNICEF Canada projects.

In 2006, Lawton and Giustra staged a
$10,000-a-couple fundraiser for tsunami-related
relief at their home, raising $1.7 million. They
later held another fundraising dinner, with Clinton as guest of honour.

Lawton declined to discuss her marriage to
financier Giustra, which ended last year. She did
call him a "fantastic man," adding that |we still
share stories about things we are doing on a day
to day basis, and I get a lot of encouragement
and support for everything that I do.

"We co-parent our kids beautifully together."

Lawton said her awareness of the long trip she
has taken from her troubled Montreal youth to the
higher echelons of Canadian society has made her
determined to keep giving back.

"To whom much is given, much is expected in return."

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