By Jackie Sheckler Finch | Photography courtesy of Heifer International
Leading Heifer International was meant to be for Congo-born Pierre Ferrari, who believes people need a ‘hand up, not a handout.’
Before he became president and CEO of Heifer International in 2010, Pierre Ferrari’s sons asked friends to honor their father’s 60th birthday with gifts of yaks for Tibet through the Heifer International program.
As a result of that gracious request from Ferrari’s sons Peter and Oliver, Tibet received three yaks to help fight the country’s pervasive poverty and hunger.
In Ferrari’s mind, leading the Little Rock-based organization was meant to be.
“Talk about the universe talking,” he says. “It seems like kind of a coincidence, but I think I am where I am supposed to be.”
For Ferrari, Heifer International is a link to his childhood and what he saw growing up. It is also a way to help people “who need a hand up, not a handout.”
“If people are not emotionally committed to solving their own problems, it doesn’t happen,” Ferrari says. “Heifer International helps them actually take charge of their own lives.”
Born in the Belgian Congo in Africa (today called the Democratic Republic of Congo), Ferrari says “most Americans don’t understand how deep the poverty is in those areas.”
What he witnessed growing up, Ferrari says, “is soul destroying. It is generational and sometimes I wonder how people stay alive. It is a testament to the human spirit that they survive.”
Living in the Congo during the country’s revolution in the 1950s and 1960s, Ferrari says he is lucky that he and his family escaped to England. Although he was educated in British high schools and graduated from the University of Cambridge with a master’s degree in economics, Ferrari says, “I didn’t feel English. I thought what am I going to do, where am I going to live?”
Ferrari knew America was the land of opportunity, so he applied to become an American citizen at 24 years old. He went to Harvard University to study business and quickly got a job with the Coca Cola Company in Atlanta.
But Ferrari yearned to help solve social issues. “I spent more than 20 years in the corporate business world. At some point, I was not happy with the way we were peddling so much sugar. My children and my wife, Kim, got me out of that.”
Instead, Ferrari joined CARE in the mid-1990s and worked to help distressed communities. Then a friend told him about a possible position with Heifer International. He applied and got the job which seems a perfect fit for him.
“I had a wonderful grandmother who influenced me deeply towards this work,” he says. “My grandmother had a wholesale and retail vegetable business in Elizabethville (now Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of Congo). She developed a plan to help others grow fruits and vegetables to supply her business.
“I remember going to the villages to buy the produce they had grown for her to sell. I saw how important this was and how much it helped the farmers. I think that experience always stayed with me.”
An important part of Heifer International’s program is a simple, yet powerful, act called “Passing on the Gift.” Families share the training they receive and pass on the first female offspring of their livestock to another family. This extends the impact of the original gift, allowing a once impoverished family to become donors and full participants in improving their communities.
“We have a ceremony when they are passing on the gift,” Ferrari says. “It is a major milestone in their lives that not only are they helping their families and community but they are also helping others. The joy in people’s faces… it makes me cry every time.”