The Three Lives of Dan Olofsson

A Conversation with Dan Olofsson

For most, life is a clearly defined curve, punctuated by personal milestones and delineated by the passage of time.

Mavericks, however, live by different rules (or rather, by their own rules) and often pack several lifetimes into one.

Olofsson is a well-known Swedish entrepreneur and a giant of the global IT industry, whose companies, Sigma, Epsilkon and Teleca , are household names.

Olofsson describes his three lives in a book he published in 2012, starting with his birth and childhood in a working area of Malmo.

His “first life” concludes with his marriage to Christin, his wife to this day, and establishes him as a brilliant mathematician.

The “second life” chapter chronicles his career and life as a businessman, (following the fortunes of his first company, Sapia, which he started from zero and its reinvention as Sigma) and documents the global IT boom that made him a billionaire.

At age 50, he took stock and made a decision to step away from actively managing his companies in order to start his “third life”.

Olofsson refers to his “third life” as a series of “private quality projects” and it is this last “life” that has come to matter to him the most.

He had been on hunting trips to Africa before and fallen under the spell of this most magical of continents, but in 2001, together with his wife, Olofsson decided to buy some land there and build a private family villa.

As is so often the case with Africa lovers, hunting passions subside very quickly and turn to game watching and preservation instead. Quite when and how this conversion occurs differs from person to person, but the magnificence of wild life and the natural desire to protect what little there is left of it takes over, and we all become conservationists at heart.

The Olofssons started looking for a family retreat where they could spend the harsh Scandinavian winters and ended up becoming one of the most significant philanthropy couples in Africa. Having bought hectares and hectares of land that had once been a cattle farm, they set out to restoring them as a natural habitat for big game.

They brought in thousands of animals and a skilled game manager; they built wells and dams; they cleared the land and reforested it, and they built the main house.

In 2004 Thanda Lodge was inaugurated by King Zwelithini Goodwill kaBhekuzulu.

Repeatedly awarded as one of the world’s leading and most exclusive African lodges, Thanda is a testament to many things, not least the Olofsson’s commitment to Africa.

This commitment is multi-faceted but best illustrated by the work of the Thanda Foundation and its Star for Life program.

Through their foundation, the Olofssons have spearheaded the efforts to prevent the spreading of AIDS on the African continent and fund educational initiatives that have paid incredible dividends (little wonder that Dan refers to this as “our best investment”).

Unlike many philanthropists who take an analytical but somewhat distanced approach to their giving, the Olofssons reacted to what they encountered on their adoptive continent: massive poverty and a real explosion of AIDS, making the area the epi-center of the global HIV catastrophe. Having witnessed these things first-hand, they simply could not remain as spectators.

In 2005 they gathered teachers, doctors and other experts and brainstormed for a week. The result was a basic idea to fund an educational program for a team of ten for 3 months. This was extended as a 6 month pilot at schools, aimed at changing behavioural patterns and eradicating promiscuity.

Ten years down the line, 300,000 pupils have gone through the program with a clearly measurable rate of success: new infections are down by 50%, students have better grades, families are stronger and job prospects much improved. The foundation has gone beyond its original borders too – it now runs hundreds of schools in Sri Lanka, Somalia and other countries.

Stars for Life has also been launched in Sweden, as a motivational program aimed at strengthening disenfranchised young people’s self-esteem.

Among Thanda Foundation’s many community projects is one that has a deep personal meaning to the Olofssons: a development trust for the village where Nelson Mandela was born. Like many others, the couple were singularly touched and inspired by meeting and getting to know Mandela. Their lasting tribute to him is building school and technical infrastructure at his birth place, in partnership with his family.

Most of us reach a watershed/epiphany moment at some point in our lives. Few of us act on it and fewer still are able to transcend or go beyond its personal significance.

For Dan Olofsson this personal epiphany presented, among other things, a fundamental question about how one uses the money they have accumulated in an unusually successful lifespan.

“Either you are a collector of money and at worst, you lose perspective”, he says, “or you do something meaningful – you use it to change people’s lives”.