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October 21, 2014

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Joe Downtown: Billionaire’s son up next at Downtown Speakers Series

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John Kluge Jr. is cofounder of Eirene, a company that aims to build “social impact ventures by deploying long-term capital through a group of family offices and private investors.”

John Kluge Jr. grew up with all the trappings of extreme wealth as the son of a man who topped the 1987 Forbes list of richest people with a worth of some $4 billion.

So it may surprise some Friday night when Kluge talks for the Downtown Speakers Series about how he thinks the Forbes list should be reconfigured; instead of counting dollars, he’d like the magazine to list those who positively affect the most people.

“If you can impact 1 billion people, then you deserve to be called a billionaire,” said Kluge, reached Thursday at the New York office of Eirene, a company he cofounded with the aim of building "social impact ventures by deploying long-term capital through a group of family offices and private investors."

Asked how the son of a billionaire comes to view the world in terms of making a positive social impact, Kluge credits his parents, both immigrants to the United States.

“Both came from very simple backgrounds, and my father more than my mother,” said Kluge, 29. “They both had to make sacrifices and worked really, really hard to change their stars. And I think for them, they never really lost track of where they came from and what the value was of time or a dollar or someone’s act of kindness.”

Kluge was adopted; his father died in 2010 at age 95.

The younger Kluge is focusing now on sanitation, targeting deplorable conditions in vast parts of the world where an estimated 2.6 billion people have no access to toilets.

Imagine, Kluge says, if 40 percent of the people in Las Vegas were similarly deprived.

“They’d (defecate) in the streets, in your water supply,” he said. “Then you’ve got 50 percent of the beds in our hospitals suddenly occupied by people suffering from bacterial infections, river blindness, cholera. This is how the rest of the world is.”

He said it had been more than 100 years since a concerted effort had been made to address the worldwide problem. Part of the reason is people simply don’t like to talk about human waste.

“It’s just a taboo,” he said.

“Everyone is focused on the sexy sister of sanitation, water,” he wrote in a Huffington Post column. “Yet, I am committed to the underserved, under-invested and under-innovated sister, the toilet and access to basic hygiene. The answer on how to tackle this is to create a perpetual hack-attack.”

Partnering with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and others, Eirene is seeking the help of thousands around the world seek a way to “bring a toilet to every home,” Kluge wrote. “We are fiercely committed toilet hackers.”

Kluge’s one-hour talk begins at 4 p.m. in the Downtown Project Construction Zone trailer, 158 S. Seventh St.

Joe Schoenmann doesn’t just cover downtown, he lives and works there. Schoenmann is Greenspun Media Group’s embedded downtown journalist, working from an office in the Emergency Arts building.

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