When God Disrupts Your Plans with Ward Brehm
On today’s show, author and humanitarian Ward Brehm shares his story of empowering the poor peoples of Africa through free enterprise, the hard lessons he learned about dependence from his earliest efforts, and the powerful distinction between bringing Jesus to the region instead of “Christianity.”
Ward Brehm is a former Twin Cities business owner, author, and international leader in African humanitarian efforts. He has served three US Presidents as Chairman of the US African Development Foundation in Washington DC. Ward was also awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal, the 2nd highest civilian award, for his work in Africa by President George W. Bush.
Ward is a member of the USAID Advisory Board and The Council on Foreign Relations. He is also the founder of Asili, a disruptive innovation in Eastern Congo, delivering clean water and quality health care using a for profit business model.
Ward has written 4 books including Bigger Than Me.
“Thankfulness trumps every other emotion there is.”
“The key to success in business is being relational vs. transactional.”
“Everybody has to win or it’s no deal.”
1. Giving people things doesn’t work.
2. If you want to eat for a lifetime, you need to “own the pond.”
3. Invite people to take part. Don’t sell.
4. Live one day at a time. Be thankful in all circumstances.
Bigger Than Me by Ward Brehm
Ray: Well hello everyone, this is Ray Hilbert and I am your host here at Bottom Line Faith. We are so glad that you would join us for another episode. I have the amazing, amazing and humbling honor to travel the country and get to know some of the most incredible Christ followers who are business leaders, marketplace leaders who have had incredible journeys of following Jesus for years in the marketplace where we learn their stories, their successes, their failures, how their faiths got them through the difficult times and also we get some of their best words of encouragement and advice. Well, today I’m in the twin cities, Minneapolis, St Paul in the beautiful state of Minnesota and I have the incredible privilege of interviewing today, Mr. Ward Brehm. Ward, welcome to Bottom Line Faith.
Ward: Thanks Ray, I’m just delighted to be here.
Ray: So check this out folks, I’m going to just read just a few words here about Ward and his background. Served under three US presidents as chairman of the US African development foundation. He was awarded the presidential citizens medal, which is the second highest civilian award for his work in Africa by president George W. Bush. He is the first member from the business community to be asked by Congress to give the keynote address back in 2008 at the national prayer breakfast in Washington, DC. He’s also a member of the US aid advisory board and the council on foreign relations. We’re going to learn more about his organization called Asili, which means foundation, I learned today.
He is the author of four books including Bigger Than Me: Just When I thought I had all the Answers, God Changed the Questions. And we’re going to learn more about Ward, his journey and his story here today on Bottom Line Faith. What I’d love to hear is just give us a little bit of your business background and then we’ll tie in the personal stories so that our folks understand some of your business background.
Ward: Well, I founded two insurance consulting companies actually right out of college. One was a life insurance firm that served primarily as a boutique to family investment offices. The other provided employee benefit counseling to larger companies.
Ray: Okay, and you have sold those companies in the last few years, right?
Ward: Yeah, I sold the first company to Wells Fargo in 2006 which was very fortunate and I just actually negotiated the settlement of my other company with my partner and lifelong brother in Christ Jeff Bird about eight years ago.
Ray: Okay, well life really began for you on a spiritual journey in 1993 as you described, that’s when you met Jesus, is that correct?
Ward: That’s correct. I woke up one day, I was 39 years old. I had achieved every goal that I’d ever set out for myself. I had a wonderful family, a beautiful wife. Life could not have been better. In fact, I’m afraid that had the devil approached me when I was 20 years old and made that promise that this is what life would be, I probably would have made the deal. But I woke up realizing that this wasn’t what I was cracked up to be. I had a very difficult time putting my finger on it, but all of this success which is relative, but for me a tremendous amount of financial success and career success, athletic success, there was what I’ve heard described as a smoldering discontent. And I couldn’t put my finger on it, but there was something missing. There was something missing in my life.
I read a book called the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People not to learn anything just to make sure Covey got them all right. And I was intrigued with this notion of paradigms that people can see the exact same things from different worldviews and interpret them totally different. Intellectually I was thinking about people starving in Africa. They were at the time in Somalia and that thought left me as quickly as it came. And then two weeks later, my pastor asked me to go to Africa with him, which was similar to asking me to go to the moon. I said, “Absolutely not.” I couldn’t believe he was asking me this question and he said, “Well, would you pray about it?” And I said, “No, I’m not going to pray about it. You’re the pastor. You pray about it, I’ll think about it. I’ll either say yes or no.” I had no idea what he was talking about, but I ended up going on that trip and it changed the entire projection of my life.
Ray: Yeah, and you described it that’s really where you met Jesus, and I want to take just a moment to give our audience Ward a chance to understand a little bit about what’s happened since 1993 for your life. You and some others founded an organization called Asili. Is that correct?
Ward: Now that, it’s been a gradual more of working with world vision, a number of organizations, the US government and the most recent is Asili yeah.
Ray: So Ward, you met Jesus in 1993 specifically, you just shared with us, your pastor invited you to go. He said, pray about it. You said, I don’t know what that means I’ll think about it. You ended up going, but something very specific happened to you on that first trip that rocked your world and has since over the last 30 years.
Ward: Well, we were in some very, very difficult places. We were in Northern West Pokot, Kenya on the Uganda border where there was a widespread starvation. We went to Masaka, Uganda arguably the birthplace of AIDS. I was an eye witness to something that had previously just been a statistic. We all read these statistics, 10,000 people die or starve but what do you do with a statistic like that? It can’t really mean anything out of context. When you see it and it was deeply humbling. It was deeply humbling and it made me realize what else don’t I know a lot about? And that moment came in a very, very remote village in Ethiopia, traveling along a bumpy road, saw a small girl. Turns out she is five years old, the same age as my daughter. Didn’t find out until a year or so later.
I went back to visit her and I realized looking into this little girl’s eyes with her chest literally cut open by the rope that was hauling this ridiculous bundle of sticks. I mean, she was like a donkey her little heart beating like a sparrow. And I realized the unbelievable difference between the life that she was living and facing and the life of my own five-year-old back home where we live. And something just cracked, was at that moment. It wasn’t like Jesus spoke to me. It wasn’t like even an epiphany. It took me quite a while to figure out that I believe in retrospect that Jesus was in that little girl and in her eyes and that was a direct connect.
Ray: You have since been back to the continent of Africa how many times?
Ward: 50. Just finished the 50th trip.
Ray: 50 times in the last 30 years?
Ray: Give us a little bit of a framework of the work that your organization does there. Some of the things you’ve seen, some of the things you’ve addressed and what’s occupying your efforts there.
Ward: Well almost everything we did didn’t work. And in looking back over the last 30 years, that’s really true universally. Aid and development just generally hasn’t done what it’s promised to do. So that first trip I got a group of business people together and we all pitched in a considerable amount of money and we built wind pumps in Northern Kenya to provide a mechanical way of bringing water up to people who were dying as a lack of water. I mean it seemed like a great thing to do. We didn’t consult the people, we didn’t consult the community. It turns out they were nomadic, we screwed up their whole way of living. And all four of these wind pumps that we invested at the time was a fortune, are rested and underground. And that was one of many, many lessons on how giving people things doesn’t work.
And we’ve all heard the adage give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime and I say that’s not true. If you want to eat for a lifetime, you need to own the pond. And that is really the pivot that we have made. And in recent years, the question I’m asked more than any other is, what’s the best way to help the poor? The answer is to help them not be poor anymore. And how do you do that? You need a job. And so I’m a huge proponent of investing in Africa. We need major investments. Everything that is exported over there should be built, manufactured, there provided, made by and employed by Africans.
Ray: That’s a universal principle at play there, right? We even face that here in the States, just how much aid should we give, how much assistance should we give to lift people out of poverty and those sorts of things. And you’ve seen firsthand over the last 30 years some very legitimate models that work and things that don’t. Just give us an example of a project or something you’ve got going right now that’s got you very excited, full of hope because you really see that it is going to lift a number of people out of poverty.
Ward: Well, to your first point, this idea of donor fatigue, I mean and it actually stuns me when people talk about too much of our federal budget is dedicated to foreign aid, when in fact it’s less than 1%. When people realize that they’re going well that doesn’t sound like very much. And in fact it’s not. The key is to how do you funnel that aid in a way that actually works? We’re working on a social experiment and innovation. We hope to be the Uber of the humanitarian space. We want to disrupt the whole thing. We want to turn it upside down if we can. The way that we’re doing that is by providing clean water. And by clean I mean water that we drink ourselves, basic medical care. And by that I mean clinics that we would bring our children and grandchildren to.
Using a for profit business model as the platform. We originally felt that in order to do that, all the people would need to be subsidized. So we just give them the money, give these extremely ridiculously poor people the money, they can then buy this water and buy these medical services from a Walgreens franchise and there’d be plenty of paying customers. But what we found out is these people are already paying.
And so my byline to this whole issue of donor fatigue is in response to the question, how much money do you need to any organization, including the government, the answer is more. And how long do you need it? The answer is forever. And we’re surprised that there’s fatigue. I mean that’s really depressing.
Ray: Yeah. Yeah.
Ward: And so we’re breaking that mold and in this model, a zone that treats probably 25 to 30,000 people cost $100,000 a year for four years, matched by the US government which covers all the infrastructure and the first four year operating expenses. The good will continue on forever with no further donations. And that’s never been done.
Ray: So we’re talking about free enterprise as the foundation for a model that’s going to be sustainable for as long as we could see.
Ward: And I don’t like that word sustainable because it’s one of those words, if I ask somebody, tell me how’s your business doing? And they say it’s sustainable.
Ray: You want it to thrive.
Ward: I like profitable.
Ray: Yeah. You want it to thrive, got you.
Ward: And when I ask people how do you always get the medicine that you need? It’s not through donations, it’s through Walgreens that operates as a business. So I’m more and more convinced that the business model is the only model that ultimately will work.
Ray: So Ward, before we go any further, if someone who’s listening to our conversation wants to learn more about the organization, what you’re doing, what’s the best way for them to check you out?
Ward: Well, we’re working with a contractor for this work in Africa, the American Refugee Committee, which has just recently rebranded into Alight www.americanrefugeecommittee.org or better to brand new is Alight, alight.org.
Ray: Okay, fantastic. Fantastic. So I’d like to talk just for a couple of minutes, like for some of your business knowledge came from some of the mistakes you made, things you’ve learned over the course of your career in business. As you look back, what’s the biggest mistake you ever made in business? What would you want to do over again?
Ward: I guess in reality I wouldn’t want to do anything over again not because we didn’t make mistakes, but because those mistakes allowed us to eventually be successful. I guess one was just realizing my strengths and my weaknesses. I knew I had a lot of strengths. I told everybody that I had a lot of strengths but I wasn’t aware that I had a lot of weaknesses. So in business I compensated those weaknesses with somebody who was really smart.
So I’m relational. I know how to talk. I know how to get along with people. I know how to make friends. And my partner was just the opposite, he couldn’t make a friend for the life of him accounting, lawyer absolutely brilliant brain. And we formed just a wonderful partnership that lasted our entire business careers. So I’d say your greatest weakness is your greatest strength and vice versa. I would say the key to success in business is being relational versus transactional. If you put the emphasis on a transaction, you’re going to succeed short term. You may succeed longterm, but it’s going to be hard and it’s not going to be very much fun. But if you build trusted relationships, it makes it both those things happen. And so we always did what we considered to be the very best thing for the client. So as Steven Covey would say, you have a triple win, everybody has to win or it’s no deal.
Ray: So taking that background, that experience, how do you transfer that now to your work in Africa?
Ward: I am allergic to a sales pitch. You probably are too. You can see it coming, right? Somebody sits down, then they go, “Oh by the way as long as I got you here, and here it comes.” And I’ve never liked that and we never do that. So I’d say what transfers relationally is that we never force, we never pressure. We just invite people, we say this is something that we are finding a tremendous amount of joy. We see God’s fingerprints all over this thing and we would invite you to get involved, come and see it. And for a lot of people that’s a stretch. Eastern Congo is a dangerous place, but that approach, it’s not an approach it’s very real is we want people who are called to this and we realize that there are very few people called to Africa. But at the same time we’ve seen many, many, I’d say every life, every person that has ever been on a trip to Africa that I’ve been a part of, there’s been a significant change in their life.
People say to me, “So do you have to go to Africa to find God?” And I’m saying, “Yep, I did. Yeah, I did. I had to go halfway around the world,” because he was yelling at me in Minnesota and I was too busy. I couldn’t listen to him. He had to keep me out of my comfort zone completely before he had my attention.
Ray: Well, I’m going to speculate something based on what you shared. You were talking about the difference in the key between being relational and transactional, and you told the story of your first attempt in Africa was building those units that eventually just rusted out. Right? And so maybe your intent and your heart was honorable, but that was a transaction, right? Because you hadn’t had or taken the time to really get to know those people, really get to know their needs and what was going to be a real win for them. Is that a fair assessment?
Ward: Yeah. You’re a good listener. Yeah. No, that’s actually an excellent example because when we went back, I took these investors, we put up the money, built the wind pumps and they went to see it. And we’re in a river bed with a bunch of, it’s like we fell out of a National Geographic, I mean bows and arrows and spears and these people were furious.
Not what we expected. We expected balloons and thank you’s and confetti and I mean these people were furious and they said, “What took you so long?” And we’re saying, “Well, what are you talking about?” And they said, “Well, this wind pump broke three months ago and it’s taken you three months to come and fix it”. And it went off in my mind, I learned firsthand the devastating effect of dependence. There was a community that was just 30 miles past that they came to us and said, “We’d like one of those wind pumps.” And we’re listening to the elder and they said, “We’re willing to put a down payment on the wind pump. We’re willing to give you cows in advance.” We did the deal, that was the last wind pump to go down. But that way it was interesting because when we looked at a map that was outside, they’d never had development. They’d never had relief. In the famine people just died there. I mean, tragically.
But the problem isn’t in relief if somebody’s starving to death, you beat him. The way you do that should be nuanced. But then this development thing is way trickier. Right? How do you prevent, how do you make people independent? There’s a lot of similarities to Minnesota. I mean when I look back you think of Africa, you think of 2000 BC or something. I’m saying it’s actually Minnesota in the 1700s. Everybody’s poor, everybody’s making less than a dollar a day. You just grew crops and ate them and then pretty soon you grew bigger crops and highway came through and business started up.
Ray: That’s moving beyond sustainability into the thriving we were talking about.
Ray: So, I’m sure that if we had a five hour program, we would hear story after story after story. But I’d like you to share one story that comes to mind for our audience where you really understood God’s calling for your life and your work in what you’re doing in Africa.
Ward: You’re right, there are a lot of stories I think what I’d rather share is an overall experience of where I am right now. And that is the difficulty of actually living a life of following Jesus. And we all say we do, particularly when we’re with other believers it’s really easy. But I found that it’s very easy when you’re outside the company of believers to become a chameleon and your take on all these different behavior patterns and everything else, which then questions in my own mind, am I really? And I no longer consider myself a Christian and the reason for that is in Africa, it’s a political term.
I consider myself a follower of Jesus. And what I’ve found is that as a follower of Jesus, doors just open incredibly wide. So here’s your story. I’m in Rwanda 1997 this is right after the genocide and I’m with Senator Dave Durenberger. And we’re meeting with president Kagame on the night before his inauguration. We got to talking and at one point in the conversation I said, “Mr. President, is there any role for the church in the rebuilding of Rwanda?” And I saw the general, I mean he leaned over, I mean I had to lean back. He was furious and he just shouted out, “None.” And Durenberger kicked me in the shin under the table and starts talking about socioeconomic impact or something around there.
And it was about maybe 10 minutes later there was a lull in the conversation and I said, “Mr. President, do you think that there’s a role for Jesus in the reconciliation of your country?” And I got kicked so hard under the table that I literally winced and everything changed. Big smile on his face. He sat back in his chair and he goes, “Of course there’s a role for Jesus in the rebuilding of our country. If people had been following Jesus, this genocide would never have happened.” And it was such a tangible example for me of the difference between religion and the power of Jesus, the reality of Jesus. The idea of following a religion versus following a person incarnate. And that changed forever both my relationship and my outlook as it relates to Christ.
Ray: Thank you that’s a perfect example, perfect story of what we’re talking about because really why we do this program here at Bottom Line Faith is to be an encouragement, that’s it. Just to be an encouragement of those who are trying to follow Jesus, who their hearts desires to follow Jesus in leadership and in business. And it can be lonely, it can be difficult, it often is. So that’s really the perfect word of encouragement there about it’s not about your Christian faith, it is about following Jesus. And that’s the encouragement that our audience needs to hear. I’d love to transition to your book. It’s called Bigger Than Me: Just When I thought I Had all the Answers, God changed the Questions. Tell us a little bit about the book. Why’d you write it and what do you hope people would get by reading the book?
Ward: Well, the reason that I wrote it is I have a number of medical conditions that result in having a compromised life expectancy. Don’t know what that is, but I started thinking to myself at the time, I’ve gotten my first grandchild’s on the way, but I didn’t have any prospects. So I’m thinking, “Gosh, if I died tomorrow and my grandkids will never even know who I was.” The original intent behind the book was to put everything that I considered to be wisdom that I gained through other people, put it to paper. There would actually be a written kind of legacy of things that were important to me and my own life experiences and some friends encouraged me to actually pursue it as a book. I tackled topics and I talk about topics that people don’t talk about.
We just don’t talk about particularly guys don’t talk about things like death, things like greed, money, faith, all the things that are really important are secondary to sports and just kind of this often kind of mindless conversation. So I tackled each one of those as best I could and that was really exciting. That was really an exciting adventure as well. It’s in the first person, I share a lot of things about myself that I wanted my kids to know about the things that I’ve struggled with, things that I really don’t have any idea about. And it really is true. The questions have changed. It’s no longer about what do I need to do to be successful? The question is what do I need to do to actually follow Jesus?
Ray: So this is a perfect segue because the last section of every interview and conversation that we have here is, I kind of call it the advice and insights section. And so as you reflect back over the writing of the book, what’s maybe one or two lessons that God brought to mind or remind us that you would love to pass along to our listening audience?
Ward: As followers of Jesus we’re told to love God, love our families and our career in that order. And I lived it in the opposite order. I never acknowledged it. But the truth is that if someone were to have followed me around and said, list these priorities, number one would have been my business, number two would have been my family and number three would have been God. So it’s in reverse order. I think had I realized that at a younger age, it would have made me realize that this devotion to business, which in my own mind was well-intended, right? I’m going to be a good provider, I’m going to provide my family will never want. In retrospect, a pretty good percentage of that in reality was ego.
I wanted to be successful and I wanted the world to know that I’m successful and I wanted to be the best. But it was disguised under these lesser motives. So the idea of really questioning those priorities, particularly in terms of being present. You know, I’ve been retired for eight years, I don’t even know what that means. I’m trying to figure out, my wife Kris says, “Would you please figure out how to retire a little bit?”
Ray: Sounds to me like what you do in between Africa trips that’s what you’re trying to figure out.
Ward: Well, and again, I think as you mentioned, retirement is not in the Bible and I’ve always had a fear of being irrelevant.
Ward: Well, there’s some ego in that too. So I guess my biggest thing is wherever I look is this ego thing that’s kind of lurking back there and being able to spotlight it at least being able to identify it has been really helpful to me. And humbling, which I need all of that I can get too.
Ray: Where can our listeners get a copy of the book Bigger Than Me?
Ward: Amazon, Barnes and Nobles, online places are there.
Ray: Fantastic. We’re getting near the end of our conversation. So I’ve just a couple more questions for you. One, you’ve touched on it, but I wanted to go just a little deeper. I want you to go back and give advice to the 20 year old you, if you were sitting across the table from the 20 year old you, what would you say?
Ward: I’d say don’t take yourself so seriously. You’re not all that. The world does not revolve around Ward Brehm. That’s very difficult for somebody 20 years old, but just the idea of the first sentence in Rick Warren’s book, first sentence, first chapter, it’s not about you.
But again, in looking back, cause I’ve done this, I’ve really gone back and I’ve really studied in all the things that I did. They all ended up working for good. So God uses those mistakes. I think if I hadn’t made the mistakes, I’d even been more arrogant. So just when you think you’re going on your back, you’re deep, deep, deep you’re back over yourself. So we just need Jesus as the guide. Keep our eye on him and to the best of our ability let him drive the bus.
Ray: That’s fantastic. One more time Ward, what is the best website for folks to learn about some of the work that you’re doing on the continent of Africa?
Ward: It would be a www.americanrefugeecommittee.org recently rebranded. I’m on the board they’re going to get really mad if I don’t do the rebranding. And that’s Alight alight.org. It’s the same website, it’ll get you the same place.
Ray: Okay. Thank you very much. So Ward, as of the recording of this interview, we’ve been on the air with Bottom Line Faith for a little over two years and this is always the last question that I ask a guest here on the program. And I call it my 423 question. It’s based out of Proverbs 4:23 where Solomon says above all else, guard your heart. He gives us all these great pieces of advice and wisdom and counsel and proverbs, but this particular one he says above all else, I want you to remember this one thing, guard your heart for from it flows all of life. So Ward as you enter this next chapter of your life and if you have a chance to pass along one piece of advice, not only to your children, family, friends and loved ones, but of course to our listeners here at Bottom Line Faith. What’s the one piece of advice you want to leave us with?
Ward: I would say probably live one day at a time, and there are a lot of variances on that theme. But the idea, I spent most of my younger life living in the future or living in the past and I’m slowly coming to realize that the best place is for me to enjoy one moment at a time, one day at a time and to be thankful in all circumstances. And gratefulness to me is that’s the magic bullet.
So if you’re living in the present and you’re thankful in all circumstances, which is a challenge, but thankfulness trumps every other emotion there is. You can’t be anxious, you can’t be grumpy, you can’t be angry, you can’t be envious, you can’t be any of those things and thankful at the same time.
Ray: It’s so good.
Ward: I’ve got a lot to be thankful for and I am and I try to remember that, forget all the time, but I try.
Ray: In a recent interview, the person I was talking with, they said that it is about living in the present is the only place we find true joy because when we’re living in the past we have regrets, we have sorrows. When we’re living in the future, we have fears and worries and then he said this and I hadn’t thought of this before he said that when Moses was being told by the Lord to go back and speak to Pharaoh, right? He was really nervous and he said, “Well, who should I say sent me?” And God didn’t say tell them I was, God didn’t say tell them I will be, tell them I am sent you. And I think that that was a great lesson for me.
Ray: I am so excited. Thank you for your investment of time today here at Bottom Line Faith and what an amazing story and this is what I love about this program is hearing these stories. You met Jesus in 1993 and you are a rare breed my friend because you have found your very specific and unique purpose and calling for all the days of your life. And that’s serving and loving people on the continent of Africa.
Ward: It’s been a great gift and a point that I really think is important to make is people say, gosh, you’ve just done so much for so many people. I’m saying, wait a second, I’ve been the recipient, but I always thought doing good for other people is boring. I said, are you kidding? I mean this has been the ride of my life. So you’d find that purpose, hook onto it and you are in for the ride of your life.
Ray: That’s fantastic. Thank you for being our guest.
Ward: Thanks for having me. Really enjoyed it.
Ray: Well folks, and I say this quite often on the program, I wish I had hours at times to sit down with our guests and we just got a glimpse today of Ward and his journey and his experience and story after story after story. What a man of faith, what a man of accomplishment. Listen, it is an honor to host you here at Bottom Line Faith. We get emails and texts and so forth here. Quite often folks ask, “What’s the number one thing we can do to help the program?” Number one, pray. Pray that God would continue to expand the footprint. Here we’re seeing great growth. Number two, if you have enjoyed the conversation today with Ward, just go online, give it a positive review that helps us on all the search engines. Tell your friends about it, tell your family and ask them to check out the Bottom Line Faith program.
If you are a Christ follower, you are a business owner or leader somewhere across the country and you are saying, “Wow, I would be interested in learning about community. How can I gather with other like minded Christ followers in business?” Check out our website truthatwork.org and go to the round tables tab there and learn how you might participate in one of our round table chapters that meets across the country. I am so honored to be your host here at Bottom Line Faith and until next time I am Ray Hilbert. I’m encouraging you to live out your faith every day in the marketplace. God bless and we’ll see you then.