America is truly blessed with an abundance of natural beauty, and in my opinion there are few if any places in our country more beautiful than the Upper Hoback Valley in northwestern Wyoming, where I spend as much time as I can at the Jackson Fork Ranch. But while these natural wonders may be gifts from God, it is up to us to preserve and protect them. And these days, with government budgets stretched to the breaking point, it is more than ever up to the private sector – both private corporations and individual citizens – to provide the financial resources it takes to get the job done.
I recently had the honor of hosting a lunch at Jackson Fork Ranch to celebrate a perfect example of how this sort of thing can get done. Working with a coalition of conservation groups, the Trust for Public Land and a group of private citizens got together to raise $8.75 million to buy up oil and gas leases on some 58,000 acres of pristine land in the Hoback Basin – thus protecting this spectacular wilderness forever. What I found most gratifying about this effort was the number of private citizens – more than 1,000 in all – who pitched in to make the campaign successful. As I told the group that gathered at Jackson Fork Ranch last week, I’m proud to have been able to play a role in helping to preserve this magnificent landscape for future generations. (You can learn more about the successful campaign here, and you can see a video of the event below.) The outpouring of support for this project was inspiring and demonstrates how much the people of Wyoming value the outdoors and how hard we’ll work to protect our natural resources.
On May 5, 2013, a new bison was born at Jackson Fork Ranch. I have no doubt that this “little” calf is going to be the center of attention at Jackson Fork Lodge this summer.
Until the calf gets dirty, it’s still a relatively pristine white, and it will stay that way until the dust and dirt of the prairie turns it a toasty light brown. Legend has it that there were not any white bison on the Great Plains prior to 1800 but you’ll need to come to the Lodge to hear this fascinating story! At 75 pounds, it has some growing to do; bulls typically reach 1,000 pounds or more by adulthood.
What’s the gender? We don’t yet know, as we must keep our distance for now! (Best not to cross a momma bison.)
Over the years, I’ve observed that my ideas usually follow a progression that starts with what I call the “dream phase.” That’s the time I think about a new idea, talk about it with people I respect, and give it enough time and oxygen to develop.
A lot of my ideas never get out of the dream phase; after rolling them around in my head, I realize the idea isn’t all that compelling or won’t work for some reason. But when an idea survives the dream phase and starts to become a reality, it’s very exciting for me.
Over the past few years, I’ve been thinking a lot about how technology is remaking education and what that means for Opportunity Education Foundation and its mission. I can’t imagine a better way to spend my time because I believe education will be the catalyst for breaking the cycle of poverty in both developing nations and the poorest parts of the United States. And as I’ve thought about all this, I’ve been dreaming about developing a digital curriculum, designed for a tablet computer, that Opportunity Education Foundation could give away to children in the areas of greatest need.
Well, I am very excited these days because Opportunity Education Foundation’s tablet project is moving from the dream phase to the reality phase. We’re starting in Tanzania with a 1,000-kid pilot program that will launch in January 2014. Based on what we learn from this relatively small test, we will expand the program. Over time, I hope it will reach children in all the countries where the Foundation operates, and maybe further.
The Foundation’s tablet team just got back from 10 days in Tanzania, where they tested an early version of the Opportunity Tablet. The idea was to see how the kids interacted with the hardware and software, and then to improve that experience before the pilot begins in January.
These are kids who had never before seen a tablet computer and, in most cases, never seen a smart phone. But they were quick to figure out the tablet interface and put it to work right away — something that was truly amazing to see.
There is still much to learn, but I am excited that we’ve taken this first step.
Last Friday evening, March 1, was a special night for the Opportunity Education Foundation, which helps to give hundreds of thousands of kids in Africa and Asia access to quality education and which I’ve been privileged to support for the past eight years. We were in Dallas, Texas, at the Verizon Theater at Grand Prairie, for the first-ever Opportunity Education Benefit Concert, an exciting event headlined by the talented young pop star Kelly Clarkson.
It was a wonderful evening, filled with great music and good feeling. For me, the best part was seeing so many young people having such a good time while hearing about the foundation’s important work. It was also inspiring to hear Ms. Clarkson, whose mother is a teacher, talk about the link between education and opportunity – how America became known as the Land of Opportunity because of the access to good education that so many of us take for granted and how the Opportunity Education Foundation is working to give children all over the world the same chance to succeed.
I’m so grateful to Ms. Clarkson for supporting our efforts and helping to spread the word about Opportunity Education’s vital mission.
One of the great joys of my life in recent years has been assembling a prize-winning herd of magnificent Percheron mares at my Jackson Fork Ranch. These are truly glorious animals, descendants of a breed of powerful draft horses that were brought over from France in the mid-19th century. Though we’ve been at it for not much more than four years, our Percherons – under the direction of my capable ranch manager Jonathan Harding – have already made more than their share of history. In 2010, they became the first all-mare hitch to win the Calgary Stampede’s prestigious World Champion Six Horse Hitch Competition – an amazing feat that they repeated in 2011. And this past year they earned a coveted finalist position in the North American Classic Series.
Because a number of the mares are pregnant – the result of a comprehensive breeding program we’ve initiated with a herd of prize-winning stallions from Windermere Farms in Spring Hills, Pennsylvania – we have reduced their competition schedule for the coming year. But they won’t be totally out of public view. On New Year’s Day, our Percherons will be marching in the world-famous Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, California, pulling a Jackson Fork Ranch wagon custom made for us by Hanson Wagon Works of South Dakota. To be asked to play a part in an event as celebrated and historic as the Rose Parade is a point of tremendous pride for all of us at Jackson Fork Ranch. The nobility and beauty of these animals is awe-inspiring, and I’m delighted to be able to share them with the world
I’ve long felt that being a good citizen means not just watching from the sidelines but getting actively involved in the big policy debates of our time. It was in this spirit that I started a non-partisan advocacy group called Taxpayers Against Earmarks back in 2010. Taxpayers Against Earmarks focused on educating the public about the dangers of earmarking, and early in 2011 we were happy to see Congress declare a moratorium on this fiscally irresponsible practice.
With the earmarking campaign behind us, we decided to take on an even bigger challenge — the larger issue of out-of-control federal spending and the crushing burden of government debt it leaves in its wake. We renamed our group Ending Spending and for the past two years, we have been doing what we can to educate the public and help elect political leaders who understand the importance of balancing the budget and reducing the debt.
This promises to be a much longer campaign than the one against Congressional earmarks, but it’s a battle that must be waged. With this in mind, I’m pleased and proud to report that my sons Todd and Pete are coming to work with me at Ending Spending. Given the critical importance of getting our fiscal house in order, it’s more important than ever for groups like Ending Spending to continue making the case for smarter spending and smaller government. And with Todd and Pete’s help, that’s just what we’re going to do.
I just got back from an exciting trip to India with my brother Jim and a group of technology and education experts. We were there to advance a dream I have of giving hundreds of thousands of kids throughout the Third World what I have dubbed the Opportunity Tablet – a free tablet computer loaded with powerful digital lesson plans that would replace the educational materials Opportunity Education Foundation currently gives to schools in developing nations.
For the better part of a week, we travelled across India visiting tablet manufacturers and assembly sites, along with providers of world-class digital educational content. In addition to learning a lot about how tablet computers can be made inexpensively and efficiently, I also got the opportunity to share my vision of how education can lift people out of poverty, enabling them to pursue jobs or start businesses that, over time, can transform a society.
The trip also reminded me of what a great country India is. Perhaps it’s a function of its youthful population or the widespread emphasis on education, but whatever the reason, India is a place where ingenuity and creativity are palpable. My experience tells me that if these qualities are given the opportunity to flourish, the result will eventually be lasting prosperity for everyone.
And speaking of ingenuity and prosperity, while we were in Mumbai I had the opportunity to visit LoudCloud Systems, an early-stage company in which I have an interest. LoudCloud is revolutionizing the Learning Management Systems and Student Information Systems that will form the backbone for mass high-quality, analytics-driven education. Seeing all the young faces at LoudCloud and hearing the questions they had for me was invigorating. You could feel the enthusiasm in the air – along with everyone’s belief in what they were doing and what can be accomplished with hard work . It reminded me of the early days of TD Ameritrade.
I just had the pleasure of watching a fascinating online lecture about how the most important currency of the 21st Century is likely to be not liquidity or credit-worthiness, but reputation. The lecturer was a brilliant young author and business consultant named Rachel Botsman; she was giving a TED Talk entitled “The Currency of the New Economy is Trust?” I can’t recommend it highly enough.
In the late 1990s, I had an idea for a new business called OnMoney. It was going to be a single online destination where people could maintain all their financial information in one place. In other words, a terrifically convenient service that would empower consumers. I thought it was a great idea, but I was wrong. It didn’t work, and Ms. Botsman’s TED Talk gets at the heart of why. Back in the 1990s, no one was going to trust a single financial firm to host all their most sensitive information. But as Ms. Botsman points out, it’s a different story today. Sharing this kind of sensitive financial information online is now commonplace – think of websites like Mint.com. Even more interesting is that through web-based businesses like Airbnb, WhipCar, Spinlister, and DogVacay, we’re sharing possessions that are just as (if not even more) personal: a room in our house, our car or bike, even our pets.
And more than simply creating marketplaces (and markets) where none existed before, the Internet is creating a currency of reputations. As someone who loves free markets, I can tell you that this currency was not created or regulated by a government. Rather, it sprang organically from the free market. In fact, the government’s only role in any of this was to help launch the Internet – that is, to establish the infrastructure that has permitted free enterprise to flourish and, to borrow a phrase Ms. Botsman uses, to create “micro-entrepreneurs.”
Very exciting news today from DNAinfo.com, our award-winning neighborhood news site that will soon be launching operations in Chicago. As part of its mandate to field the best team of local journalists around, DNAinfo.com Chicago has hired Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Mark Konkol, a veteran newspaperman whom one local press critic describes as a genuine “Chicago journalism superstar.” Konkol joins DNAinfo.com’s team of 20 full-time local Chicago reporters – which is more than the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times Metro staffs combined. You can read all about Konkol and DNAinfo.com’s plans for Chicago HERE.
As part of my effort to promote informed discussion of the critically important economic challenges facing our country, Ending Spending, the non-partisan advocacy group I founded and lead, recently published a book called “The Fiscal Cliff.” Carefully researched and written by Ayse and Selahattin Imrohoroglu (two well-regarded economists who teach at the University of Southern California), “The Fiscal Cliff” is a readable, fact-based analysis of how our economic future is threatened by out-of-control government spending and the ballooning federal debt it produces. The purpose of the book is to identify and explain the facts and some of the key challenges that brought us to this financial precipice. After laying out these facts, the Imrohoroglus concluded that our nation’s debt trajectory is unsustainable and decisive action is required to prevent an economic disaster.
A few weeks ago, Ending Spending sent copies of the book to every member of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, and this week we sent out fifty more – one to each governor of every state in the union. You can download your own free e-book here: www.thefiscalcliff.com. I can’t say “The Fiscal Cliff” is a fun read, but especially in an election year, it is certainly an important one.