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As mentioned in my last Blog, I should have been in Haiti this week but had to postpone at the 11th hour due to political turmoil there which disrupted transport and led to widespread strikes.
I hadn’t been able to tell you why I was due in Haiti. Now I can. It was to witness my friend Olivier Bottrie (above), The Estée Lauder Companies Travel Retail Worldwide President, being appointed to the French National Order of Merit.
The National Order of Merit is France’s second-highest award after the Légion d’honneur. It is not bestowed lightly. Previous recipients include Charles de Gaulle, François Mitterrand, Jacques Cousteau, Gérard Depardieu and other luminaries recognised for outstanding civil or military achievements.
Olivier was honoured for his philanthropic achievements following the earthquake that devastated Haiti in January 2010. He was the driving force behind the creation of Hand in Hand for Haiti, a travel retail industry-led charity that plotted, opened (pictured below) and runs a non-profit free school, the Lycée Jean-Baptiste Point du Sable in the town of Saint Marc.
The philosophy was simple. The reconstruction of a country, the reclaiming of hope, had to start with the young. And it had to start with education.
The national statistics prior to the earthquake were dismal (they’re not much better now) – 203rd out of 228 ranking in the world for GDP per capita; 80% of the population living under the poverty line and 54% in abject poverty; formal education rates and literacy among the lowest in the Western Hemisphere. Only 20% of eligible age children reach secondary school. All this a collective and disgraceful tarnish on our world from a country just 700 miles or 90 minutes from Miami.
All of those appalling shortcomings were rendered more acute by the tragedy of 12 January 2010, which wrecked infrastructure, killed or injured hundreds of teachers, and displaced 50% to 90% of students, depending on location. Just look again, if you can, at the horror of the pictures below, and you will see what a journey this has been.
I still remember my first contact with Olivier after the earthquake. I e-mailed him to check on his Haitian wife Alexandra and her family and friends. He called me and asked if I thought the travel retail industry would help the people of Haiti in any way. I said I would discuss it with then-DFS Group Chairman & CEO Ed Brennan (who along with Olivier would become the other great leader of this remarkable initiative). Ed’s (and DFS’s) commitment was immediate and total. The rest, as they say, is history.
This week’s news brings back powerful and poignant memories. Together with Olivier, Ed and some great local supporters, I visited Haiti in March 2010, a trip I will never forget, documented each day on this Blog in writing I still look back fondly on. That early information gathering and scouting mission led to a location for the school being found, a huge wave of industry support being generated and a lasting monument to the travel retail community’s innate humanity being created.
[March 2010 and Olivier Bottrie, Ed Brennan and Martin Moodie get a little help from on high during their scouting mission for a school site]
[Handing out aid and meeting the kids of Port-au-Prince’s infamous shanty town Cité Soleil]
“The Lycée Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable is an extraordinary and successful project,” stated French Ambassador to Haiti Patrick Nicoloso this week. “Olivier Bottrie’s energy and commitment to it are exemplary. He fully deserves the recognition of France and this is why we are proud to reward him with the National order of merit medal.”
Vanessa Matignon, Haiti Ambassador to France, added: “Today, we are more than happy to welcome and thank Olivier for his commitment to our homeland.”
As I said, I know Olivier well. He is a proud, uncompromising man. He is also an emotional one. He will have shed a tear yesterday, not just for the achievement but for the memory of the hundreds of thousands of Haitians who lost their lives on that terrible January day.
Olivier simply makes things happen. You will have no idea how difficult this project has been. He can rub people up the wrong way with his determination to do things in the way he thinks they should be done. He will not let anything get in his way. But if he has been obsessed by this project then it is a glorious obsession indeed.
You will forgive me if I repeat my words from my original comment following yesterday’s story. They bear repetition and I doubt anyway that I can better them with rephrasing.
From the very beginning Olivier’s commitment to the Lycée Jean Baptiste Point du Sable and to the people of Haiti has been nothing short of epic, his passion for the project inspiring and humbling. He broke down industry scepticism and sometimes downright negativity through an irresistible, almost obsessive desire to make it happen, to win the right hearts and to show that regeneration of a ravaged people begins with the young and with education.
Olivier would not take no for an answer, he would not be deterred by the naysayers nor the many obstacles that were placed in the project’s way. He did not accept that because the overwhelming majority of Haitians are conditioned to hardship they did not deserve better. He did not stand back (as I wrote in my Blog at the time) and allow this deprivation, accentuated by natural disaster, to be perpetuated. Unlike so many he did not allow his sense of humanity to be compromised by preconceptions and prejudices that aid to Haiti would be wasted aid. Through grit and an unrelenting will, he made this wondrous project happen.
We should all be proud to have a man such as this in our industry.
I am still cursing how circumstances conspired against me being with Olivier this week. Thanks to my illness that struck three months after my visit to Haiti, I never did get to see the school as it was being built nor when it opened. And though I didn’t see it this week either, I will finally visit with Olivier in April, to when I have transferred my ticket.
I cannot wait to see the world-class, free kindergarten-through-secondary educational complex. I cannot wait to see the smiles on the faces of the kids. And, most of all, I cannot wait to personally thank the man who, more than anyone else, made it all happen.