Enabling others to succeed

German-born entrepreneur shares how he came to help the lives of hundreds of Thai children from disadvantaged backgrounds

Philipp Graf von Hardenberg, president and CEO of Thanyapura Phuket and founder of Yaowawit school in Phang-nga.

Philipp Graf von Hardenberg, president and CEO of Thanyapura, a sport, health, mind and educational complex in Phuket, is no ordinary hotelier. A man of boundless energy and great curiosity, he wears many different hats, including entrepreneur, financier, fundraiser, philanthropist and educator.

At the age of 28, he worked as general manager at Ritz-Carlton Hotel in New York, but his background includes running the first international school in Berlin, and being involved in educational activities in many states in Germany. Von Hardenberg also helped an entertainment company be listed on the stock market and set up Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation in Germany, recording Holocaust survivors' testimony.

Achieving success in many realms, the German-born CEO's focus is now providing the opportunity for poor children's education in Thailand. Following the 2004 tsunami, he founded the Yaowawit school, a public welfare boarding school, taking care of 126 Thai children from unfortunate backgrounds and teaching them to have life skills, be self-reliant, self-confident, and, above all, to be happy.

Why did you decide to come to Thailand?

During the time that I was the chairman of an international school in Berlin, one of my colleagues on the board opened an orphanage school in Chiang Mai, Thailand. I asked for his help with my project in Germany and his reply was: 'If I help you in Germany you have to help me in Thailand.' Of course, I said yes. While I was helping my friend with his project in the North of Thailand, there was the devastating tsunami in the South. It was a shock to all of us.

We travelled to Ban Nam Khem three weeks after the tsunami and helped wherever we could at the time, but I decided that I needed to do more. So, I started my fund-raising campaign in order to help those children affected from the tsunami. During 2005, I travelled back and forth between Thailand and Germany around 12-13 times to do fund-raising in Germany.

Then, I bought 126 rai of land in Phangnga and started to build a boarding school for the children of the poorest of the poor. The Yaowawit school was opened one year after the tsunami with the first 80 children. 

How did you come up with the idea of building the school?

Unfortunately, the first 80 children at Yaowawit school lost their parents and relatives and needed homes or shelters to live. Since I had been highly involved in education in many parts of Germany, I came up with the boarding school idea where we could provide them both a home and learning place all under one roof.

The Yaowawit school, a government-approved, public welfare boarding school was officially opened by HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn on April 24, 2006. I also set up the Children's World Academy Foundation to raise funds from donors around the world to finance the school's operations. Located in Phangnga's Kapong district, the school has 126 students from kindergarten to Prathom 6.

What is your mission in education?

I believe education will surely provide these children good opportunities and better lives. Education is the only way to break out of the cycle of poverty. If you are born into a poor family, the chance that you will stay poor for your entire life is high -- this is the vicious cycle of poverty. The only way to break the cycle is through education. For my part, I can give these children a fair chance at life.     

What difficulties did you find in the Thai education system?

Not only in Thailand, but I found that education systems have been mismanaged, even in Germany. Tell me right now which country has not talked about educational reforms. Schools are operated like they were in previous centuries. While the world is changing fast, the education systems have not changed. Basically, many countries have the same problems, obviously a little worse in some countries than in others. 

The first thing we can do is to understand a little bit more about how human beings' brains function. And we have to accept that each person in this world is different, everybody is, so why do we treat all children in a classroom the same? We need different techniques to motivate and inspire them.

What is unique about the learning at Yaowawit school?

Many of the children in Yaowawit don't have parents to turn to for learning life skills. So we have decided to teach them. Basic school education is by far not enough to prepare them for life. We have farms at the school with vegetables, chicken and fish. Children plant, harvest and learn how to prepare meals from the products, or sell them at local markets. 

Yaowawit has a 'Hospitality Learning Center' and our own small hotel and restaurant where children can learn cooking, serving and all other aspects of hospitality. By learning these services, they gain self-confidence by interacting with strangers. A side effect is they understand why it is necessary to speak English. We will partner this year with the best global hotel company and an outstanding public hotel school to professionalise this learning centre. 

I strongly believe in the diversity of communities. In Yaowawit we have, at all times, at least four volunteers from all over the world and we have teachers from Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines. Our aim is to turn the school into a real bilingual school but we have to do this step-by-step. Our serious task at school is to help children succeed, because success influences more happy feelings.

Any student successes at Yaowawit school so far?

Five of our students have been selected to join the science-based technology project by Ministry of Science and Technology, Ministry of Education and Prince of Songkla University. The project is fostering a new form of learning that integrates basic science, social skills and career practice for students' living and learning opportunities. We have received feedback from teachers in this project that our children are very curious to learn and want to be educated. They ask millions of questions.

What is your work philosophy behind these success?

My work philosophy is to always think about other people and to help others to succeed. When I became the president and CEO at Thanyapura, I asked my staff who is more important. I asked them this while telling them to picture a full restaurant with many more guests waiting to be served but there were no clean dishes. Are the stewards more important, or am I?

I do not believe in hierarchies, I believe in professional friendships. In organisations where I am responsible, I believe that every one is the same, because everybody has an important task to do. They are all professionals in their areas.

Do you use the same approach in guiding Thanyapura to success?

Yes, we take positive action and have helped to teach students with good hearts at Yaowawit school, while at Thanyapura, we help customers and employees to optimise their potential. At Thanyapura, we are committed to improving performance and health, inspiring the mind, and instilling well-being to optimise the potential using our three-dimensional coaching model for mind, body and soul. We have welcomed many sport stars, including world tennis player Maria Sharapova, two-time world champion Caroline Steffen, F1 driver Jenson Button and many more. Recently, we have also planned to invest an additional 300 million baht to strengthen our status as the 'Sports Hub of Asia'.

What are your personal life goals?

I will continue to strengthen Yaowawit to become a model school for rural areas. I want to prove to everybody that if underprivileged children are given a chance with life skills education, they can grow up with a healthy body, a strong mind and a good soul and become a positive member and role model for their communities.

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