“I was a stingy bastard!” So says Nicolas Gontard who made an early fortune in the telecommunications industry before setting out in 2006 to create a luxury brand of residential and hospitality properties, including Kimamaya by Odin. And while his many business ventures have brought the satisfaction that comes with setting professional goals and reaching them, he discovered the seeds of something far more satisfying when he took his three children to Myanmar as part of a charity mission. “I said to them, ‘Let’s go see what’s behind the scenes and not stay at a fancy resort’,” he explains. “So we went to local villages, orphanages, schools, very poor areas. I wanted to show my children what life was like for most of the kids on this planet. They said it was the best trip we ever took.” The experience left Gontard himself feeling unsatisfied with business pursuits alone, so in 2016, along with his wife Bellce, he founded Espoir, a non-profit school on the Philippines island of Siargao, which allows underprivileged children the opportunity to get an education. Espoir, which means “hope” in French, has created just that for these children.
Once we started I found that my business life was boring, to the point where I said, “What’s the meaning of this?” With Espoir, I know what I am doing and why I am doing it. It makes sense. I don’t question myself when I wake up in the morning. I know it’s for a good cause and I am going in the right direction.
I always want to go my own way. I started my first business when I was 21. I’ve never had a boss in my life! So I guess it’s just my personality. But also when you give money to charity, you never really know where it’s going. A lot goes to salaries. Many people don’t give for that reason. It’s harder to do things yourself but way more satisfying as you get what you want.
After a lot of consideration my wife and I finally chose the Philippines because it is close to Hong Kong, where we live, and also because a large portion of that population speaks English. So I went to the Ministry of Education there and asked where they needed a school, and they said, “Everywhere!” You see, there’s a great NGO in the Philippines that’s trying to end poverty by providing housing to people who have no assets or jobs. They’ve built some 2,000 villages, but in many of these villages there are no schools. And the few free schools they do have still require the kids to pay for books, clothing, and food. A lot of families can’t afford this, so the kids don’t go.
No, the school and all materials are free. However, the parents have to contribute their time—cooking, gardening, assisting the teachers, etc.—in exchange for their children’s attendance. Many parents are farmers or fishermen and with their help we have been able to grow fruit and vegetables that are part of the lunches we provide for the kids.
The parents of the children have never been to school, so you have to educate them as well. The secret danger is that when the kids become eight or nine they will be old enough to help their parents with farming, fishing, or selling, and they’ll be pulled out of school. So when we first began, we started workshops for the families covering health, education, bullying, violence. We brought in nurses, dentists. Very few mothers attended. Then half came. Now all! And the fathers come, too. There is a great sense of pride. I think we’re getting to the point where the parents understand what we’re trying to achieve and they will not take their children out of school. As for the kids themselves, we want to make education useful and fun. We teach the usual subjects because we have to comply to certain guidelines, but we also teach them values, teamwork, friendship, gender equality, respect—basically all the things I should have learned in school when I was a kid instead being told who the king of France was in 1432!
Well, so far I’ve been funding the whole thing myself. But the goal is to get sponsors. About 40 euros per child per month will do it. People can learn more about the school and donate at our website: www.espoir.ngo. For me, the money I’ve spent is meaningless. You can’t put a value on children. The contrast—between when we arrived here and today—is tremendous. The kids had seen very few foreigners and they were scared of us. Now they see us from 300 meters away and come running. They jump into our arms. It’s very touching.