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“President Mugabe Is My Hero”

Zimbabwe is due to go to the polls on July 31. One of the key issues for voters will be the economy—especially the rebuilding of the country’s shattered farms, after years of chaos and decline. Around 60% of these farmers grow tobacco.

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The narrow tar road, pockmarked by potholes and covered in dust here and there, meanders through the Beatrice farming area, just outside Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe. This competition between tar and dust is a microcosm of what is happening in the country. Vast acres of idle land lie cheek by jowl with well-managed farms churning out tobacco—a picture of progress and regression.

The lack of government and financial support is curtailing some new farmers’ hopes, but others are making hay—or rather growing tobacco—while the sun shines. This wealth was once the preserve of around 4,000 white farmers. Ragtag bands of militants and war veterans seized these rich commercial farms in 2000, when President Robert Mugabe abandoned the slow land redistribution process, as he felt the pinch from unrest and political pressure. It was a swift smash-and-grab that cost many lives. A mere handful of white farmers clung onto their farms.

Agriculture has taken a battering since those desperate days, but it still accounts for around a fifth of Zimbabwe’s GDP. Tobacco is the king of the crops.

Analysts say it is possible for agriculture, with the help of tobacco, to surpass mining in foreign currency earnings. This is likely to take time and more investment.

For now, new tobacco growers are slowly turning the corner. There are around 150,000 new black farmers dotted around the country, of which around 60% are tobacco growers.

Tobacco production this year alone is set to increase by around 20%, against last year, reaching the 170 million per kilogram mark. Zimbabwe is set to rake in $600 million in tobacco earnings this year, according to the Tobacco Industry and Marketing Board. It is still a long way from where production was in 2000, when production peaked at 237 million kilograms.

In those desperate days, the economy crashed and so did tobacco. The worst output since independence in 1980, was in 2008, when a mere 48 million kilograms were produced. This was a far cry from the years when hundreds of millions of dollars changed hands at the bustling tobacco sales floor in Harare.

In 2013, the growers are fighting back, according to ZB Bank chief economist, Best Doroh.

“That appears to be true, if we go by the current sales figures at the auction floors. Even the quality of tobacco being delivered appears to have improved as well. But the new black farmers still face significant challenges in terms of technical know-how, lack of financial support and equipment viability,” says Doroh.

In the bush-lined fields around Beatrice, at the end of the dusty road, farmers are toiling away towards the next crop.

Forty-eight-year-old Edson Makina is plowing with the help of knowledge accumulated in years living on a commercial farm—the very farm he now tills. He says his father worked this land for a white farmer. He is one of the thousands who took over land in President Mugabe’s land grab.

“I feel empowered; I’m now richer than a British professor. I’m getting richer each day I wake up. To me, President Mugabe is my hero, a political messiah,” he says.

With a scarcity of tobacco on the international market, most black farmers are cashing in. The Chinese have increased their consumption, snapping up 45% of Zimbabwe’s crop, the largest share after the West.

Many in the industry believe the government could do more to help agriculture out of the doldrums. Doroh says the agricultural producer price-setting mechanism needs to be refined so that it acts as a guide for farmers before they invest.

“There is need for government to make prompt payments for inputs supplied by the sector’s main input suppliers such as fertilizer companies, seed houses and agriculture chemical suppliers,” he says.

This tobacco-selling season, Makina sold around 170,000kg of tobacco.

“With each bag going for $467 a kilogram, you can imagine how rich I am now. It has changed my lifestyle. My children are attending the best universities around the world, and those that are here are at private schools. I pay all the fees without any hassle,” he says.

It is in contrast with the poverty Makina grew up in.

“The land reform was a revolution to me. I grew up on the farm. My father… was treated like a slave. I’m told at surrounding farms, if you couldn’t maintain the correct temperatures at the tobacco barns, the white farmer would flog you,” he says.

But the circumstances under which Makina obtained his farm were marred by violence. Beatrice was one of the country’s most dangerous farming districts in the land grab of 2000. Makina downplays the violence calling it a mere exaggeration by the media.

“There wasn’t the scale of violence you people reported. It was distorted. In most cases, white farmers were provoking the new settlers that were merely demonstrating against land imbalances,” he says.

Makina may be working his way to the wealth of a British professor, but across Beatrice, there are vast tracts of land lying idle. It is often difficult to ascertain who owns it. Many in these farming districts complain land reform has given rise to part-time farmers and a new breed of “cellphone farmers” or absentee landlords, often civil servants, who struggle to invest from their meager salaries.

“There are many successful stories in this area; of course others are still struggling, here and there. Most banks are reluctant to finance new black farmers. It’s because the media has been despising the new farmer. Farming is not an easy business,” says Makina.

Back in the banks of Harare, the view is less emotion, more balance sheet.

“I don’t think banks are intentionally denying black farmers access to loans. Rather, what most banks are looking at is the viability of the particular farmers or clients. Where viability is not evident, then banks have no option but to look at other sectors and clients where risk is better mitigated. Most small-scale farmers do not have sufficient security to back up borrowings, and this makes it difficult for banks to be able to extend credit on an unsecured basis at a time when there are tight liquidity conditions in the market,” says Doroh.

The Commercial Farmers Union is training new farmers.

“We began to train many of them.Some of them are now producing more than me. Those farmers still limping, it’s due to banks failing to support them,” says Makina.

Makina is a living example of how well-trained, new farmers can be a symbol of success. He attended the best agricultural schools in the country. Makina says he has built 21 houses for his workers; they admit that there is little difference in pay from the days when they worked for a white farmer.

“The salaries are okay, just that the difference is that we can easily relate well to Mr Makina, because he is black, he is quick to understand our concerns, unlike the white man,” says Keeper Martin, a worker on Makina’s farm.

So life tilling the land in Zimbabwe remains harsh. Whoever wins the elections this year would do well to help the hard working tobacco farms of the country invest in restoring the shimmer of the golden leaf.

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Cover Story

The Tall Lawyer, Investor And Philanthropist In A Power Suit

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Aluko & Oyebode, Nigeria’s formidable commercial law firm, at No.1 Murtala Mohammed Road in Ikoyi, Lagos, Nigeria, is unusually empty for a Saturday.

It gives one enough time to admire its plush interiors. Describing it would be taking a page out of a John Grisham novel.

The imposing building houses three floors of prime real estate in the heart of the city and on one of the most expensive strips in Lagos.

As you walk in, the blood-red walls are juxtaposed with grey metallic fixtures and fittings. The décor of the building is reminiscent of past cultures of various African countries.

Each floor is delightfully curated with Afro-centric artefacts and in the middle floor of the building is the firm’s seat of power, the office of its leader, Gbenga Oyebode.

For a sweltering Nigerian afternoon, Oyebode is dressed like no other in a 100-mile radius of the elite Victoria Island hub of Lagos: in a two-piece power suit, his signature outfit. Today, it is in black, accented by a deep blue tie.

Oyebode is cordial and pleasant with the team as he takes his position on the ground floor for the first set of pictures for the FORBES AFRICA cover.

He is the Chairman of Aluko & Oyebode, one of the largest integrated law firms in Nigeria with over 70 lawyers and three offices in Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt.
The firm provides a comprehensive range of specialist legal services to a highly diversified clientele including top-tier Nigerian, international and multinational clients. In his capacity as chairman, Oyebode coordinates the various practice areas of the firm.

Described as a consummate dealmaker who has received plaudits from clients and peers alike for his corporate acumen, Oyebode’s areas of expertise cover energy and natural resources, power projects, foreign investment and privatization, telecommunications and project finance.
It is not just his formal dressing that is unusual.

Law firms in the country, family-owned by tradition, almost never run their firms like well-oiled machines providing solutions for several sectors at the same time. Oyebode was one of the pioneers of this concept. And it has not been an easy journey.

“It exposed me to these great minds I read about in the The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times and I said very quickly to myself that I wanted to be like them,”

The 59-year-old spent the early years of his life musing over the promises of life in the civil service, a path taken by his father. It was a stable and comfortable job and one had guaranteed employment as well as a good salary. But he was compelled to ponder the possibilities of a riskier career.

“In those days, being a civil servant was the dream of every young person due to the stability of the job. However, as I started reading law, it became clear to me that I wanted to be an entrepreneur and for a lawyer that means opening a law firm,” says Oyebode as he takes a break from the photoshoot to begin our interview.

And that is exactly what he did. But not just any law firm, he wanted to leave behind a dynasty of great lawyers whose work would carry on long after he was gone.

If he had worked for any Nigerian law firm, his future would not have been guaranteed.

Gbenga Oyebode is Nigeria’s formidable legal mastermind. Photos by Kelechi Amadi-Obi.

“The history of Nigerian law firms in the early 80s and some of them today was that they were set up by great minds essentially to be kept in the family. Their children went to law school and even if you were a great lawyer who worked with them, they make it very clear that you shouldn’t be thinking about your future at the law firm, because they were going to hand over the business to their children. So I understood that it was not going to work for me,” says Oyebode.

At well over six feet, Oyebode has a towering presence in any room, yet his calm and cordial disposition immediately sets you at ease and makes you feel as though you are having a conversation with an old friend.

Sitting in the conference room of his eponymous firm, Oyebode recalls a series of events that shaped the course of his career.

Like the time he was going to university and struggled to get guidance from mentors who would have advised him on the best path to take to become a successful legal entrepreneur.

The prominent Nigerian lawyers at the time were not strictly lawyers who worked at the firm but were mostly also involved in other professions.

According to Oyebode, the earliest nationalists of Nigerian politics were all lawyers, who used the law that they had learned abroad to change the system in Nigeria to gain independence and push the envelope against colonialism.

That would later become the real motivation for Oyebode to become a lawyer. For him, the ability to use law to change the political system with democracy or creating value was a calling he wanted to be a part of.

After graduating from the University of Ife in 1979, he immediately went to the Nigerian Law School and thereafter, completed his postgraduate degree at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) in the United States (US).

“What UPenn did for me was show me that there was a different way to do things and that the world was bigger than the opportunities I had in Nigeria. One of the most significant things about going to an Ivy League institution is how they draw from great minds around. So we went to conferences where great minds in the capital markets were and it was a game-changer. It exposed me to these great minds I read about in the The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times and I said very quickly to myself that I wanted to be like them,” recalls Oyebode.

His journey is a textbook case study on how to systematically build a business step by step. He eschews convention. From the minute he finished primary school, his father signed up to a subscription of Reader’s Digest that was to become his monthly diet.

READ MORE: Success Is In The Bag For This Entrepreneur

“He thought that it was important for us to read. He said it was important for us to understand what happened around the world. So one of the things that I do continually even today is I read the Reader’s Digest every month. It shaped my view of the world and created for me a situation where I learned more about the things that were happening around me and I was not limited to Nigeria,” says Oyebode.

His tenure as an associate at White & Case, one of the world’s leading law firms, helped him visualize the type of law firm he wanted to build of his own.

“American law firms were the type of law firms I thought we could replicate in Nigeria. Their vision for building big partnerships and for those partnerships to survive named partners was impressive. So it was very clear where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do. I worked with White & Case for a year and I said to myself it was time to come back home,” says Oyebode.

Home had changed a whole lot while he was away. Nigeria had returned to democracy after years of military rule. The business environment was growing and there was a need for competent people to push the envelope and help with the development of law and business.

Furthermore, there were less than 10,000 lawyers admitted to practice law and Oyebode decided he would rather be one of 10,000 in Nigeria than one of a million in the US.

Soon after making that decision, disaster struck. No sooner had he returned to Nigeria did the crude oil market collapse and the Nigerian economy took a dip for the worse. The democratic government that had motivated Oyebode to come back was very quickly removed in a coup d’état in 1983.

“Before we knew it, the [Muhammadu] Buhari government was in power. To make matters worse, the naira had collapsed and the country was looking at a structural adjustment program with the World Bank. So contrary to my plans, things changed very quickly. I couldn’t go back to the US and I had to make do with things in Nigeria,” says Oyebode.

But where there are clouds, there is also a silver lining. Oyebode chose to keep faith and stick it out. He applied to work for the Gulf Oil Company, which later merged with Chevron, and spent two years learning about the oil and gas industry.

READ MORE: Bank On This Man

“That was very instructive because it gave me an opportunity to work in an industry, which was Nigeria’s biggest foreign exchange earner. I essentially cut my teeth working in Nigeria’s oil industry. I saw through the merger of Gulf and Chevron and then decided it was time to go out and do my own thing.”

In 1985, Oyebode went into partnership with friends and started his first law firm
Ajumogobia, Okeke, Oyebode & Aluko. After eight years of success, the firm was dissolved due to internal challenges. The string of such incidents, be it the country’s economic downturn or disagreements with partners, have all contributed to the success story Oyebode is today.

“What is impressive about Oyebode is his calmness and composure in times of crisis. He has the ability to look beyond that problem and says ‘how do we move on from this and get to the solution’,” says Tunde Folawiyo, Managing Director of Yinka Folawiyo Group in Nigeria.

That steadfastness has been an invaluable trait for Oyebode over the years.

He went on to establish Aluko & Oyebode with his other partner. Perpetual wins translated into mammoth personal gains for the legal mastermind.

Oyebode’s is also the story of a smart entrepreneur who, spurred by the increase in the proliferation of Western companies in Nigeria, spotted an opportunity in corporate law and has methodically worked to cash in on it.

He is currently advising on the Brass LNG Project, a joint venture between NNPC, TOTAL, Conoco Philips and Agip for the construction of a $3.5 billion Liquefied Natural Gas plant. He has also advised on key transactions like the $1.275 billion financing of the Exxon Mobil Natural Gas Liquid II Project, the $1.06 billion financing of trains four and five of the Nigerian Liquefied Natural Gas Plant Expansion Project and the $3.5 billion financing of the NNPC and Mobil Producing Unlimited Satellite Oil Field Project. He sits on the boards of MTN Nigeria, Nestle Nigeria and CFAO, among many others.

“Corporate law was something I was good at. It’s something that is dependent on your network and it is something that comes naturally to me. At White & Case and at Gulf Oil, that was my forte. I had invested a significant amount of my time around that so I was able to very quickly develop as a good oil and gas lawyer,” says Oyebode.

His wife, Aisha, attests to this. “What I admire most about Gbenga is he is very kind and warm and he is a people’s person. I do not know anybody that doesn’t like Gbenga.”

It was what Oyebode did next that distinguished him from his peers.

“One of the people that I studied a lot was Chief Chris Ogunbanjo. He ran the biggest law firms in town and was a lawyer who represented all the multinationals and was a lawyer who got involved in the businesses he represented. So when I came back [to Nigeria], I saw his model as one that I could emulate. I saw that he was able to achieve his objective, which was essentially run a significant law firm and become the advisor of the biggest corporates in the market as well as the repository of knowledge of what it means to work in Nigeria,” says Oyebode.

And that was to become Oyebode’s operating style over the next two decades. His modus operandi was simple.

Find opportunities, which he could maximize, and provide professional services and legal advice to top-tier corporate clients and where there was an opportunity, take a chunk of the business.

“One of the things as an entrepreneur that you tend to look at is opportunities around you, so long as those opportunities don’t divert your from your chosen path. If you ask me what I want to be known as, I would say a lawyer first, then an investor,” he says.

Oyebode sits on boards of companies that he has invested in as well as boards that he has been invited to join due to his significant expertise in corporate Nigeria.

Photo by Kelechi Amadi-Obi

The last two decades have seen a veritable boom in the business. For Oyebode, the key is passion for what you do.

“I am driven to build a big firm. We have 85 associates in three offices. There are 16 partners in the firm across the different practice areas that you expect a full service law firm to have, from legislation to corporate law to intellectual property, to risk and governance. So these are all key sectors that are sectors for growth of the Nigerian economy. The rationale is building a legacy that is driven by return,” says Oyebode.

Ever the opportunist, Oyebode is also looking to capitalize on the growth in demand of global companies looking for local partners in the real estate sector. He has a two-hotel deal with the Fairmont Group to establish hotels in Lagos and Abuja. Given the size in the number of tourists and business people in the country, Oyebode believes there is tremendous growth opportunities in this sector.

“The view is that there is still a gap around the hospitality business in Lagos. I go to Accra and I see the Kempinski and Movenpick hotels and I know that if Accra can do it then Lagos certainly has significant scope to develop hotels. Abuja only has the Hilton.”

But it has not all been smooth sailing. No sooner had he started his second stint at a law firm that tragedy struck.

“Life is about tripping and falling and learning from mistakes, pulling your strengths and moving on. My partner, Bankole Aluko, had a mild illness and called in sick for a couple of days. I decided to pay him a visit after work and on my way there, I was told he had passed away suddenly. It was a big shock because we had built everything together and most of the lawyers that joined us did so because of our strength as a firm. I had the corporate law expertise and he was a litigation expert. I thought it was all over at the point,” says Oyebode.

It was dark times for Oyebode.

“In those days it was very difficult to get clients. They came to you because they knew you and your reputation so it was very personality-driven. Today, clients look at your brand and your track record. So losing Bankole both as a dear friend and a professional was devastating.”

He vowed to continue the legacy they had started together and leave his name on the business as a named partner, which still stands today. These days, Oyebode is more interested in giving back. He mentors the next generation and is finding ways to give back. He has also turned his attention from corporate boards to philanthropy boards and actively seeks out opportunities to contribute to the community.

On the issue of Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission’s (EFCC) fight to retrieve Nigeria’s stolen loot, which is estimated to be billions of dollars from state coffers, Oyebode offers some practical advice.

“My concern about Nigeria is not the lack of law or policy but always about execution. I think we have a robust legal system, we have laws and policies in place and we have a strong civil service. Do people obey the law around the world? Yes, and that is because they are afraid of sanctions. So if you do not obey the law or sanctions, then you pay the price. So our problem is a lack of execution of good policy, inconsistent application of the laws and sometimes, we have allowed federal character and the process of rotating positions to trump skill and expertise so therefore mediocrity is able to rise to the very top.”

But that is an ongoing fight, which Oyebode believes will not be solved overnight. Presently, his focus is on leveraging his expertise as one of the most formidable and accomplished legal minds to add value and give back to Nigeria.

His legal firm is a victim of its own success. And this is a happy problem to have.

 

Herbert Wigwe, the CEO Access Bank, one of Nigeria’s top banking institutions, calls Oyebode one of the strongest legal minds, not just in Nigeria but also across the world.

“And I say this because I have a strong personal relationship with him, apart from the fact that in Nigeria, he runs the strongest corporate law office. The existence of what is a modern Access Bank would never have happened but for people like Gbenga….All of these attributes have led him to sit on most of the large corporate boards in the country…Saying Gbenga is the new face of business in Africa is not something that is far-fetched; it is something that he has proven over and over again in his career.”

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Billionaires

Here’s Why Jeff Bezos Is Not Truly The Richest Person In History

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Amazon, the global e-commerce behemoth, has brought incomparable scale to online retailing. In turn, it has brought incomparable wealth to its founder, Jeff Bezos.

As of Monday’s market close, Bezos was worth more than $104 billion, making him the world’s richest person—at least when not factoring in inflation—since Forbes began tracking global wealth 30 years ago. In two years, his net worth has risen over $50 billion, more than the gross domestic product of Iceland, Belize or Monaco over the same period.

Yet Bezos is not truly the wealthiest person ever, despite numerous reports to the contrary. On an inflation-adjusted basis, Bill Gates has previously been worth far more. In April 1999, for instance, Gates’ net worth eclipsed $100 billion for the first time when Microsoft shares topped out at the apex of the dot-com bubble. That fortune would be worth roughly $150 billion in today’s dollars.

READ MORE: Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos Is The Richest Person In The World – Again

Gates, who is now worth an estimated $92 billion, would also be far richer if he had not given about $36 billion of Microsoft stock to charity over time, mostly to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the planet’s largest private philanthropic foundation.

Bezos’ fortune is nonetheless staggering, and he may well top the list of The World’s Billionaires for the first time when Forbes unveils the 2018 ranking in March. Unless Amazon’s share price unexpectedly collapses, he will have the highest-ever net worth of anyone to appear on the ranks, and by a wide margin.

For context, here are the top members of Forbes‘ list of The World’s Billionaires in each of the last 20 years. Also included are their net worths adjusted for inflation through November 2017, based on the most recent data available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

2017

Name: Bill Gates

Net worth: $86 billion

Net worth adjusted for inflation: $87 billion

2016

Name: Bill Gates

Net worth: $75 billion

Adjusted for inflation: $77.7 billion

2015

Name: Bill Gates

Net worth: $79.2 billion

Adjusted for inflation: $82.7 billion

2014

Name: Bill Gates

Net worth: $76 billion

Adjusted for inflation: $79.3 billion

2013

Name: Carlos Slim Helú

Net worth: $73 billion

Adjusted for inflation: $77.4 billion

2012

Name: Carlos Slim Helú

Net worth: $69 billion

Adjusted for inflation: $74.2 billion

2011

Name: Carlos Slim Helú

Net worth: $74 billion

Adjusted for inflation: $81.7 billion

2010

Name: Carlos Slim Helú

Net worth: $53.5 billion

Adjusted for inflation: $60.6 billion

2009

Name: Bill Gates

Net worth: $40 billion

Adjusted for inflation: $46.4 billion

2008

Name: Warren Buffett

Net worth: $62 billion

Adjusted for inflation: $71.6 billion

2007

Name: Bill Gates

Net worth: $56 billion

Adjusted for inflation: $67.3 billion

2006

Name: Bill Gates

Net worth: $50 billion

Adjusted for inflation: $61.7 billion

2005

Name: Bill Gates

Net worth: $50 billion

Adjusted for inflation: $63.8 billion

2004

Name: Bill Gates

Net worth: $46 billion

Adjusted for inflation: $60.6 billion

2003

Name: Bill Gates

Net worth: $40.7 billion

Adjusted for inflation: $54.5 billion

2002

Name: Bill Gates

Net worth: $52.8 billion

Adjusted for inflation: $72.8 billion

2001

Name: Bill Gates

Net worth: $58.7 billion

Adjusted for inflation: $82.2 billion

2000

Name: Bill Gates

Net worth: $60 billion

Adjusted for inflation: $86.5 billion

1999

Name: Bill Gates

Net worth: $90 billion

Adjusted for inflation: $134.6 billion

1998

Name: Bill Gates

Net worth: $51 billion

Adjusted for inflation: $77.6 billion

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Extreme Execs

Karlie Kloss – Coding’s Supermodel

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Karlie Kloss is sitting in a glass-walled SoHo office holding court with five teenage girls. Over video chat with several more, they are brainstorming how to support scholars of Kode With Klossy once class is out. The teenagers are all graduates of Kode With Klossy summer camps, an initiative by Kloss’ education nonprofit that aims to teach girls the basics of computer programming.

In her off-duty uniform of a Planned Parenthood T-shirt, black jeans and Gucci loafers, the 6’2″ supermodel listens intently. One young woman wearing a white Kode With Klossy top suggests a custom app for students to communicate through. Kloss nods and encourages more ideas. Perhaps Kode With Klossy could upload lesson videos for scholars to look back on, or start a newsletter with events and internships. Another girl in glasses says she posts tricky coding problems on Snapchat and scholars from her camp offer solutions.

As the meeting concludes, Kloss hugs the girls before rallying them to put their hands in for a cheer. “Klossy Posse!” they shout in unison.

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A 36-time Vogue cover girl is an unlikely candidate to launch a charity that has taught more than 500 young women how to code. But the 25-year-old has leveraged her giant social audience – some 12.6 million followers across platforms – to grow a burgeoning nonprofit that aims to balance the scales of software engineering’s gender disparity.

“I didn’t go into this with the plan to build an education nonprofit,” says Kloss, a member of the 30 Under 30 Class of 2018, over vegan cupcakes and cookies in her Manhattan office. “I really went into all this out of my own curiosity of wanting to learn what the heck coding was, because it was building massive enterprise value for people in a short period of time.”

Her first taste came in 2014, when she signed up for a two-week boot camp at adult-education company the Flatiron School in Manhattan to learn the basics of computer programming. “I didn’t actually know who she was,” says Avi Flombaum, cofounder of the Flatiron School, who taught Kloss’ class. “She was the best student in that group and I was surprised by how enthusiastic she was.”

Kloss covered the basics of Ruby on Rails, a popular web development framework. But she quickly noticed that her classes weren’t gender equal, an imbalance that mirrored the tech workforce. “I was curious, why are there not more women in this space?” recalls Kloss. An idea for how to help took form: “I realized, here I am with this platform and reach to young women across the country and around the world,” Kloss explains. “If I could just help a handful of girls that would be really meaningful.”

Karlie Kloss

Karlie Kloss (Photo by Jamel Toppin)

In 2015, Kloss spent more than $20,000 to personally underwrite 21 scholarships for teenage girls to the Flatiron School’s two week pre-college coding class – the very class she had taken the year prior (Flatiron School matched the donation).

But she was itching to do more. Last summer, Kloss took the initiative in-house, launching her own two-week summer camp for teenage girls aged 13 to 18 in New York, Los Angeles and her hometown of St. Louis. Kloss helped pick candidates, design the curriculum and select teachers; its graduates have gone on to win hackathons and land places at Ivy League universities. In June, the program expanded to 12 cities across the U.S., with plans to grow further.

Adults are also included: Last July Kloss launched a year-long online scholarship with the Flatiron School that selected one woman every month to enroll in its full stack web development course. And while other nonprofits with similar missions, such as Girls Who Code and Black Girls Code, are far more established, Kloss’ reach brings her objective to millions.

To date, funding for Kode With Klossy programs has come from Kloss herself and the brands she poses for. According to a familiar source, Kloss has personally contributed into seven figures to Kode With Klossy since 2015. She has also redirected a slice of her modeling contracts with companies such as Adidas, Swarovski and Express to fund and support Kode With Klossy. Ford’s STEAM Experience — an initiative focused on science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines as well as the arts, part of the car maker’s philanthropic arm — lent additional support to this summer’s camps.

Such initiatives are sorely needed. Half a million more jobs related to computers are expected to be added by 2024. Though 74% of high school girls are interested in STEM, women only earned 18% of all undergraduate computer science degrees in 2015. That impacts employment, especially among minorities: Women made up just over a quarter of the tech workforce last year, though African-American women comprised a mere 3% and Latina women counted for only 2%.

“There are so many young women who really could change the world with this kind of opportunity, girls who self-select out because they don’t see others in the industry that look like them,” says Kloss.

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The daughter of an emergency room physician, Kloss’ favorite subjects as a child were math and science. Had she not been discovered at a charity fashion show in a mall, aged 13, she might have become a doctor or a teacher, she says. Instead, she booked her first advertisement in 2007; that same year she landed her first major runway show, walking for Calvin Klein.

Her career quickly took off, but it went into overdrive with the advent of Instagram. Thanks to social media, says Kloss, “I could be seen as well as heard.” As her followers swelled, her fees increased. She premiered on Forbes’ highest-paid models list in 2014 banking $4 million pretax; this year, her contract earnings soared to $9 million in the 12 months prior to June 2017.

“When social media arrived, models came back into the spotlight because now everyone could see what was behind the velvet rope,” says Maja Chiesi, SVP at IMG Models, the agency that represents Kloss. “The next evolution is brands wanting the full, 360-degree sense of who these women are… They want women with a voice.”

Enter Kloss, who has long presented herself as more than just a pretty face. In 2012, she started a charitable cookie line called Klossies with Manhattan dessert spot Momofuku Milk Bar; the treats donated to meals for children with each purchase. After taking the odd night class at New York University, in 2015 she enrolled (mentor and supermodel-turned-philanthropist Christy Turlington wrote her recommendation letter). With her busy schedule, she has opted for approximately one class a semester, so far notching credits in creative writing and feminism.

She is eager to expand her platform through a YouTube channel, launched in 2015, that documents her travels and baking forays. Next up: A talk show, Movie Night with Karlie Kloss, airing on the Disney-owned Freeform in December.

All of it serves to raise awareness for Kode With Klossy. As she focuses on the nonprofit, she has pared down her modeling contracts to the most lucrative partnerships. Today, says Kloss, she works with “partners that really are excited to work with me because of not just what I look like, but because of what I stand for.” It makes sense that her bookings have shifted from conventional beauty and fashion to tech; she can be seen in recent advertisements for electronics giant Samsung and website builder Wix.

For now, the aim is to grow quickly and cost-effectively. “I’ve been thinking about Kode With Klossy like a startup,” says Kloss. The nonprofit’s team is lean, with Kloss, her manager, business partner and SVP of SB Projects Penni Thow, five full-time employees and consultants plus help from three members of her management.

And, Kloss says, she is just getting started.

“I plan on building a big business at some point, too.”

Startups, you’re on notice.

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