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The Kids of Business Icons: Andrea Soros Colombel


Conspiracy theories have long dogged her controversial billionaire father. Now the younger Soros is attracting rumors about her low-key foundation work in China and Tibet.

Like many adventurous young people in the late 1980s, Andrea Soros went to Asia after graduating from university, and fell in love with what she found there. She spent time as a volunteer teacher in the northwestern Chinese province of Qinghai, where she became entranced by the local culture and developed what has turned out to be a lifelong relationship with its people.

Unlike a lot of people, though, Andrea Soros is the daughter of a multi-billionaire, and so when she returned from her adventures in China she was able to use some of her father's wealth, influence, and expertise to start a foundation dedicated to improving the lives of the people by whom she'd been so impressed. And so in 1993, she started the Trace Foundation, an organization devoted to the development of the indigenous peoples she'd met in northwest China, and the preservation of their culture.

But Soros, who now goes by her married name Andrea Soros Colombel, isn't just the daughter of any ol' billionaire, of course. She's the daughter of one of the most controversial billionaires there is -- the currency speculator, investor, and philanthropist/activist George Soros, a man vilified by both the far left and the far right, noted for his exceedingly well-publicized funding of emerging democratic organizations in Eastern Europe during the crumbling of the Iron Curtain, as well as his fierce, heavily funded and unsuccessful opposition to the Republican party during the 2004 elections, and a lightning rod for conspiracy theorists of every political stripe.

And Qinghai province isn't your average Chinese province. A vibrant, historically fascinating melting pot of different ethnicities, including Mongol, Turkic, and Han populations, it sits beside and is very much connected to that nation's most politically troublesome region: the Tibet Autonomous Region. Tibetans make up more than 20% of the province's population -- and it was those Tibetans in particular that Soros Colombel, like many Western visitors before her, had fallen in love with.

Given the histories involved, it would be no surprise to discover that Soros Colombel and her foundation have inherited a serious wealth of controversy along with her father's money. And indeed, as with most things connected with the Soros name, the Trace Foundation has found itself accused of all manner of activities by conspiracy theorists: It's a running-dog CIA front or a conduit for Soros to fund and abet revolution in Tibet in the manner that he assisted the Velvet Revolution in his native Hungary and the Rose Revolution in Georgia, according to some of the milder fringe theorists. Dig a little deeper and the concoctions get darker, more toxic, with overt anti-Semitism not long in rearing its head.

Given all of this, it's fairly remarkable that Soros Colombel and her organization have remained active and achieved so much in a low-key way over the last two decades. Through earthquakes and uprisings, shifts in power and endless political maneuverings by all the myriad players, the Trace Foundation has kept its profile close to the ground, its public statements cautious and its activities ongoing.

Since 1995, when the organization first handed out emergency relief grants to Tibetan communities in the wake of devastating snowstorms on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, Soros Colombel's Trace Foundation has been providing development funding and expertise in education, rural development, primary health care, and, perhaps most contentiously, culture, among threatened Tibetan communities in the Tibet Autonomous Region, Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan provinces.

Maintaining three locally staffed field offices in the region and careful to ensure the participation and support of local governments, the foundation has, aside from its more heavy-lifting attempts to aid the denizens of the region, supported attempts to create a local commercial Yak cheese industry, aided the publication of folk tales, histories, and children's book in threatened local languages -- not just Tibetan, but also Kazakh, Mongolian, and Uighur -- and provided training to doctors in traditional Tibetan medicine. In New York, where the organization is based, it maintains the Latse Contemporary Tibetan Cultural Library.

Soros Colombel's philanthropy isn't restricted to the Tibet region. She's also a founding partner and director of the Acumen Fund, a global venture fund that invests in entrepreneurial attempts to take on global poverty.

Despite all this, of course, she is her father's daughter, for better or for worse, and still manages to attract rumor and controversy with little or no effort.

During the media insanity over the Chelsea Clinton wedding this summer, for example, there was a brief flurry of attention when it was reported that the senior Clintons would be staying at Soros Colombel's house in Rhinebeck, New York. This wasn't the case, but that didn't stop the rumors from flying -- or the wild conspiracy theories from taking flight.

In light of this sort of attention, the stability and quiet competence of the Trace Foundation's activities in one of the world's most geopolitically fraught regions is even more impressive.
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