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Bill Amelio 79, CEO of Lenovo: To whom much is given, much is expected

Bill Amelio '79

The son of a Pittsburgh shoe repairman, Bill Amelio '79 learned early in life the importance of being able to put himself in somebody else's shoes.

"My dad always preached the importance of appreciating what you have and of trying to help those less fortunate," Amelio recalls.

Amelio hasn't forgotten his father's simple, but sage, advice. Blessed with the means to truly make a difference in the world as the CEO of computer giant Lenovo, Amelio, along with his wife, Jamie, are giving thousands of children in Cambodia a real shot at a better life by building schools, providing teacher training and support, and giving the children a safe and clean learning environment.

"This [building schools in Cambodia] wasn't something we set out to do. The situation in Cambodia found us and we simply had to help," Amelio says.

While vacationing in Cambodia six years ago, Jamie Amelio assumed that she'd be wowed by the temples of Angkor. Instead, Jamie's life -- and that of her husband -- were changed not by the massive ninth-century temples, but rather by a 9-year-old girl panhandling for money to help pay her tuition, so that she could stay in school.

Shortly after his wife's return, Bill, then serving as president for Asia-Pacific and Japan for Dell Computers, was on an airplane with Jamie and their four children, heading back to Cambodia. The Amelios didn't travel empty-handed, bringing a dozen duffel bags of clothes to distribute to some of the poor children.

"I had to hold back tears when I saw these children and how grateful they were to be given clothes," Bill says. "I immediately wanted to do more."

The Amelios vowed to return to the village with 50 bicycles later that same day. They asked some of the village's adults to identify the 50 neediest children and to quickly spread the word -- no small task, considering that cell phones were a rumor in this corner of the world.

"We returned a few hours later with 50 bicycles and lo and behold, there were 1,500 people waiting for us," Bill recalls. "The adults showed us who the 50 neediest kids were and we gave them the bikes. There was no fighting, no animosity from those who didn't get a bike. Instead, they were truly happy for those who received the bikes."

That day, Bill and Jamie Amelio resolved to make a tangible difference in Cambodia. By March 2003, they formed Caring for Cambodia, a nonprofit charitable organization focused on education in the country ravaged by war. Their first project was raising money to buy uniforms and backpacks for the Kravaan School. But that was just the beginning.

"When I asked her what she wanted the next Mother's Day, Jamie said that she wanted me to help build a school in Cambodia," Bill says, laughing. "I nearly fell off my rocker. But Jamie was serious. When I said, 'But I don't even know what it takes to build a school in Cambodia,' Jamie responded, 'You're a smart man. You run a big company. I'm sure if we put our heads together that we can get this done.'"

She was right.

The Amelio School, the first Caring for Cambodia school, opened its doors to 350 students ages 5Ð12 in Spienchreav in October 2003. English and computer lessons were part of the curriculum, and many students were given bicycles to make their daily commute possible.

A second Caring for CambodiaÐsponsored school, this one more than twice the size with 960 students, opened in Bakong in October 2004. In addition, a Caring for Cambodia teacher training school was established to help local teachers get proper training to teach computer courses.

"With the opening of the second school, this project really began to take off," Bill says. "So many people want to make a real difference. They just need an avenue to lend their time, money, and talents to, and fortunately, many people have chosen to help us."

The kindness of others allowed a Food for Thought program to be launched at the two schools by October 2005. It offered the students two well-balanced meals each day, prepared by paid cooks and using fresh local produce. One month later, eight dentists from the Cambodia World Family Organization gave all 350 students at the Amelio School dental checkups for the first time in their lives. By October 2006, two more schools -- Caring for Cambodia's first kindergarten and the 840-student Kong Much School -- had opened.

Today, 34,560 hot meals are served each month to the nearly 3,000 students attending the four Caring for Cambodia schools -- the Kravaan School, the Amelio School, the Bakong School, and the Kong Much School. In addition, 1,000 bicycles have been purchased locally and donated to students for transportation to school.

Caring for Cambodia has provided professional training for 75 Cambodian teachers, and has also funded 50 water wells for clean drinking water. The students are learning in a safe environment with access to PCs and the Internet, but both Jamie and Bill Amelio still want to do more.

"Within three to five years, we want to build a 'super school,' which would be kindergarten through 12th grade with a number of computer labs, a super library, and two or three kindergarten classes," says Jamie, who spends 40Ð50 hours per week running Caring for Cambodia and also flies to Cambodia from the family's home in Singapore at least once a month, often with some of her own children (Austin, 19, who is studying at California Lutheran University; Riley, 11; Bronson, 6; and 2-year-old daughter Avery). They also have two Cambodian children living with them, both of whom will be seventh graders at a Singapore-American school this fall.

"We want to see this through," Jamie says. "Donations of any size can make a big difference in Cambodia, where $11 can buy two school uniforms for one child and $28 can purchase a bike for a child to ride to school. In my mind, the best weapon against poverty is education, and we're trying to give these kids a chance to succeed."

Bill Amelio knows a thing or two about what a person can do when given an opportunity. He attended Lehigh, majoring in chemical engineering, and wrestled for Thad Turner and Gerald Leeman, both members of the Lehigh Athletics Hall of Fame.

"Those two men [Turner and Leeman] helped change my life by instilling in me the courage and tenacity to take on any challenge. They pushed me to work harder than I thought I was capable of," Amelio says. "Wrestling at Lehigh was quite a challenge in and of itself. Throw engineering classes on top of it, and you really had to be at the top of your game in order to succeed.

"I left Lehigh with a confidence that I could succeed because I was pushed so hard while I was there."

He's certainly done that, earning a master's degree in management from Stanford University and completing an impressive ascent up the corporate ladder. From 1979 to 1997, Amelio was with IBM, where he held a wide range of senior management positions, including general manager of operations for IBM's Personal Computing Division. He left IBM first for AlliedSignal and later for personal computer giant Dell, where he was president for Asia-Pacific and Japan.

In December 2005, Amelio joined Lenovo -- China's biggest PC maker. Not long after, the Chinese company bought IBM's global PC operations, including the company's popular ThinkPad line of laptops. It was the first major acquisition by China of a U.S. operation. It instantly created the world's third-biggest PC vendor, behind Dell and Hewlett-Packard.

Amelio's charge is to translate Lenovo's success in China into other key markets, such as the United States, India, and Europe. Shortly after he took over, Lenovo held a 35 percent share of the Chinese market in the third quarter, compared with a 4 percent share in the United States.

"You'll see us have a much more noticeable presence in the United States within four to six months," Amelio predicts. "Our products are ready to compete and our people are ready to compete. We have studied what has made us successful in China and are now applying these principles in America."

Because Bill Amelio's philanthropic nature carries over into his business life, Lenovo donates 1 percent of its total sales to the Hope Through Entrepreneurship program. The more Lenovo grows, the more the company's Hope Through Entrepreneurship program will continue to encourage entrepreneurs in troubled communities to build new businesses, grow existing businesses, and create new groundbreaking nonprofit organizations, such as the one that he and his wife have created in Cambodia.

In addition to Caring for Cambodia, the entrepreneur program has helped support a group of women in Nairobi, Kenya, all of whom are either living with HIV/AIDS or who have been widowed by it, and who have started a business to support themselves and their children. In South Africa and in Kenya, the program has sponsored a business plan competition that will ultimately result in 20 new businesses being created and funded.

"Jamie and I have been really blessed, and we believe that to whom much is given, much is expected," Bill says. "That's why we try to help others as much as we possibly can."

-- Bill Doherty

Posted on Wednesday, September 05, 2007

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