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The Kids of Business Icons: Susan Alice Buffett


Warren Buffett doesn't believe in inherited wealth, so his daughter -- a philanthropist -- leverages the currency of her name.


Susan Alice Buffett got the first hint that her father wasn't your average Midwestern dad on a visit to a cousin's house when she was around 10 years old. That was when her cousin pulled her aside with some gossip, Buffett told the BBC:

She said "Come upstairs, I have to tell you something. I have this great secret my mom told me." We went upstairs and she said "Your dad told my mom that he's going to have a million dollars by the time he's 30." And I thought, pssh, no way, this is nuts! And that was the one reference in all those years that I sort of remember thinking that somebody was talking about some money.

Forty billion dollars or so later, her father Warren Buffet is one of the richest private individuals in the world. But as his eldest child Susan Buffett can be sure of one thing: Her father isn't leaving his fortune to her. Or to her two younger brothers, Howard and Peter.

Instead, as Buffett famously announced in 2006, the vast bulk of his billions -- 85% of it, or roughly $30 billion -- is being handed over to the Gates Foundation, Bill Gate's massive, game-changing global charity initiative. This enormous philanthropic disbursement is an illustration of two of the Sage of Omaha's most cherished truisms:

1. Put your money where the expertise already is.

2. Inherited wealth is an abomination.

That doesn't mean he's left his children in the cold, not by any means. Although Susan Buffett has added her share to the store of Buffett just-folks mythology -- a man of vast wealth who lives in relative modesty in the US heartland, eating ham sandwiches for dinner and playing online bridge late in the night -- and has told the story of how she was once unable to get her father to fork over a loan for a $41,000 kitchen renovation ("He said 'Go to the bank and do it like everyone else' "), all three of the junior Buffetts have regularly received sums of money that would be life-changing for most people. On every fifth birthday, for a stretch, each child received a gift of a million dollars. When their mother, Susan Thompson Buffett, died in 2004, each received a bequest of somewhere around $10 million each.

And all have inherited at least one thing from their father other than cash: the philanthropy itch. They each have personal foundations devoted to their particular set of causes, and have had their philanthropic careers deeply and deliberately influenced by their father, who once told Charlie Rose that "I want to give my kids just enough so that they would feel that they could do anything, but not so much that they would feel like doing nothing." As part of that 2006 handover, he galvanized his children's philanthropic initiatives by disbursing $1 billion in shares for their charitable foundations.

As a result, at 57, Susan Buffett is now one of the nation's most powerful philanthropists. She's chairman of three Buffett foundations: the Sherwood Foundation, her own Nebraska-based and oriented charity devoted to public education and poverty alleviation, which has some 50 million to hand out annually; the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation, which deals globally with women's health issues and is the largest of the Buffett charitable groups with assets of some $4 billion; and the Buffett Early Childhood Fund, a nationally-minded organization focused on early childhood education for low income families. She also serves on several national nonprofit boards including Girls Incorporated and the Bono-led, African-focused foundation One.

Second-oldest child Howard, a Midwestern farmer (his father bought him his first farm, but charged him market-rate rent for it), first started his Howard G. Buffett Foundation as a wildlife conservationist organization, running a cheetah preserve in South Africa. But since the 2006 disbursement he's widened the scope of the Foundation's activities, using his interest and knowledge in farming to assist the spread of sustainable farming technologies in the third world.

Peter Buffett, the youngest at 52 and a fairly successful new-age musician in his own right (his work has appeared in films such as Dances With Wolves and The Scarlet Letter, and he won an Emmy in 1999 for his score for the documentary Wisconsin: An American Portrait) runs the NoVo Foundation with his wife, specializing in supporting women's issues around the world.

Though not heirs to any of Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A)-related institutions, Susan and her two younger brothers have extended his tradition of supporting progressive, even -- dare it be said -- liberal causes, controversially funding Planned Parenthood and birth-control initiatives both at home and abroad, for example. As well, one major side-effect of the high-profile 2006 announcement has been the multiplier effect it's had on the Buffett siblings' actions, especially Susan's. Her decision to support the Educare initiative, an experimental educational program for at-risk, low-income preschoolers, for instance, has attracted millions more dollars to that program from other funding sources, who figure, reasonably, that if it has the Buffett seal of approval it must be a damn good idea.

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