“Hold on,” says John Montgomery as he answers the phone at his desk. “I’m going to go to a conference room where it’s a bit quieter. We have an open office concept here.”
The open office is a small part of Montgomery’s powerful sense of openness and equality. He’s the founding partner of Bridgeway, an investment management firm based in Houston. It’s not a typical financial firm. Among its 30 employees—Montgomery calls them all partners—there is a seven-to-one compensation cap: the highest-earning partner makes no more than seven times the salary of the lowest-earning partner.
Founded in 1993, Bridgeway pursues what Montgomery calls a “statistically driven and evidence-based investment strategy.” Bridgeway adheres to a rigorously quantitative model for selecting stocks, mitigating risk, and minimizing costs. This approach, he told Barron’s in 2007, “not only takes a lot of the cost out of the process, but also a lot of the emotionalism that so often trips up individual and institutional investors alike.” Today, Bridgeway has $2 billion under management.
While it seems there is something clinical, almost mechanical, about Montgomery’s investment strategy, his overall business model is ambitious, passionate, and more than a little idealistic. Bridgeway gives away half of its after-tax profits each year. (“The only idea I had in starting Bridgeway that turned out 10 times more powerful than I expected,” notes Montgomery, was “having a strong mission statement that attracts people who want to make a real difference in the world.”) And its principal charitable focus is as ambitious as Montgomery is unassuming: eliminating genocide.
Genocide has haunted Montgomery since 1968, when he first studied the Holocaust in an eighth grade history class. “It was news to me,” he explains. “It was a watershed moment. I had no concept of the cruelty and the idea of eradicating a whole people group because of their religion, race, ethnicity, or beliefs. And it had happened just a single generation before.” Then, beginning in 1975, the Khmer Rouge began eradicating as many as two million people—a quarter of Cambodia’s population. The college-aged Montgomery “thought we had learned the ‘never again’ lesson of the Holocaust. And I felt utterly helpless to do anything about it. ‘If I had a million dollars,’ I thought, ‘I’d be doing something.’”
“Today,” he continues, “the world has shrunk to nothing. When Cambodia happened, I had this sense of it happening on my watch. When the Rwandan genocide happened, I felt it was happening in my backyard. You can get on a plane and go to Rwanda; you can be there in a day.”
Learning from Rwanda
Bridgeway was less than a year old when the genocide broke out in Rwanda. For 100 days in 1994, Hutu nationalists, incited by the Hutu-led Rwandan government, slaughtered some 800,000 Tutsis. Montgomery was in no position to intervene, but Rwanda was a profound learning experience for him. The lessons of what happened (and what didn’t happen) in the lead-up to the bloodbath could be applied to future conflicts—and the process of reconciliation and restoration afterward.
By 1997, Bridgeway was profitable, and by the early 2000s, it had substantial resources at its disposal. One of the first places it went was Rwanda. To get the initiative underway, Montgomery brought Shannon Sedgwick Davis onto his team. Davis had previously worked at anti-slavery organization International Justice Mission and on Rwandan restoration for philanthropic advisory firm Geneva Global. She quickly determined that Bridgeway should work at the grassroots level. “We want to empower local organizations to take reconciliation into their own hands and work within their own culture and experience,” notes Davis. “It’s much more valuable than having me go there and preach as an outsider.”
For example, Bridgeway has supported groups of Rwandan widows of the genocide. (“Widow” here includes women whose husbands are serving life sentences for their roles in the genocide.) Brought together by the Anglican Church in Rwanda, half of the women are Hutu and the other half are Tutsi. They gather together to turn sorghum into soap. They pool their profits to achieve a greater measure of economic self-sufficiency—and to expand into new ventures—but they also promote reconciliation within the group. “One woman’s husband is in jail for killing the husband of another woman in the group,” Davis marvels. “This woman went to the other woman and sought forgiveness on behalf of her husband, and they began to move forward in a relationship. There’s a lot of power in that.” (Click here for more on how Rwandans are working together to heal the scars of hatred.)
Bridgeway has also supported an initiative called “child-headed villages.” Rwanda has upwards of one million orphans, and over 40,000 families without an adult head of the household. Due to expropriation during the genocide or loss of records (or both), many of these young orphans cannot return to their families’ ancestral land. Rather than being institutionalized in orphanages, they are placed in groups in new villages, with the responsibility for tending its land and managing their own affairs. Adult chaperones live in the villages as surrogate parents, and the land is titled in the name of the youngest child in each family—to ensure that property isn’t transferred or taken away when an older child marries or moves.
Stopping the LRA
Montgomery and Davis began to think about what they would do next. “Our mission statement is a world without genocide,” says Davis. “Do we mean that? Or do we want to be a foundation that picks up the pieces after a mass atrocity?”
They also felt that they were spreading themselves a little thin, having supported a number of NGOs working worldwide, as well as groups working in Darfur and the Middle East. “We decided to focus on sub-Saharan Africa,” says Montgomery. Specifically, they decided to focus on the Lord’s Resistance Army in the northeastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Central African Republic, and South Sudan, where, Davis says, 90 percent of Bridgeway’s resources (and her time) are now devoted. Why? “Of all the armed conflicts on the face of the planet,” Montgomery explains, “this should be the easiest one to stop.”
The Lord’s Resistance Army, or LRA, is a guerrilla rebel group in east-central Africa. Starting in Uganda and spreading throughout central Africa, the LRA has killed thousands, abducting nearly 70,000 boys to serve in its ranks and leading to the internal displacement of more than 2.1 million Africans. Led by Joseph Kony—“an incredibly evil man,” Davis says—the LRA usually invades the villages, kills most of the men, and rapes most of the women. It will kidnap strong boys and force them to join the LRA, and often take a few younger girls as concubines.
“Their cruelty is utterly egregious,” Montgomery adds. “Relative to Eastern Congo or Darfur, it’s not a large number of people killed, but the havoc and fear they create is far out of proportion to their numbers.” Kony’s LRA is infamous for its Christmas massacres, in which squads of LRA guerrillas have brutally killed hundreds of villagers in the DRC.
Bridgeway is working on a number of fronts to stop the violence and conflict. It has supported organizations like Invisible Children and Resolve. Invisible Children produced an eponymous film about the LRA that brought American attention to the war for the first time. “Never before have we seen advocacy groups work so well together and be so effective,” Davis raves. “They passed the LRA Disarmament Act with a unanimous vote. But a lot of the stories they were telling were Ugandan stories, and their programmatic work was in Uganda.”
For more than five years, Davis says, the LRA has been largely neutralized in Uganda. Instead, the conflict has migrated to the northeastern part of the DRC, where Kony’s troops would launch surprise raids on fearful villages. “I was spending a lot of time in Congo,” Davis explains. “We went deep into the LRA territory—what they call the Red Zone. It was critical to Bridgeway that we find a way for these people to start protecting themselves against attacks. The 2009 Christmas massacre happened over a several-day period, 30 kilometers from the operating base of MONUC [the United Nations mission in the DRC]. No one responded. These people were slaughtered.”
Davis shivered as she thought of the carnage. Then she got to work. The attacks were mostly on villages in a rough circle with a radius of about 30 kilometers. What if the villagers were able to warn each other about impending attacks? “I asked Invisible Children, ‘Can you get these communities radios so they can start warning themselves?’,” Davis explains. “They took the ball and just ran with it. We funded the radio system. They equip these villages with radio towers and give the radios to the tribal chiefs, who put up the tower when they need to communicate about attacks.” When attacks are reported, the villagers are able to flee into the forest and elude the LRA.
The radio network had other benefits. “We were getting an incredible amount of intel, so we could plot attacks and patterns.” The data points became LRA Crisis Tracker, a website on which attack locations are publicly available. The tracker is expanding into the Central African Republic, farther south in the DRC and north into South Sudan as attacks are reported.
“We as philanthropists have leeway to be a lot bolder on these sorts of investments,” Davis explains. “Traditionally, you pay advocates to swing the stick for governmental intervention. That’s fine, but it’s also good to go directly to the source and listen directly to the people. I don’t have to ask the U.S. government to get radio towers out there!”
Montgomery shares the sentiment. “Sure, there’s advocacy, and yes, there’s education,” he says, “but right now there are people dying.”
Bridgeway’s work—some of which Davis prefers to keep off the record—has helped to catalyze international attention and action. At least 10 mid-level LRA commanders have defected, been captured, or been killed recently, and President Barack Obama has authorized 100 combat troops into the region under the aegis of U.S. Africa Command. The aforementioned LRA Disarmament Act, enacted in 2010, established a formal U.S. goal of apprehending Joseph Kony and bringing him to justice, as well as supporting victims of LRA attacks in both the DRC and Uganda. “There’s been more action on the LRA front in the past few months than in the previous three years,” Davis says. But she and Montgomery have their eye on the prize: ending the violence for good. “The goal would be to get Joseph Kony to the Hague where he can stand trial,” Montgomery points out.
“That would be the end of the LRA,” Davis adds.
“Just Lines on a Map”
Montgomery is intrigued by research on happiness. Once you hit $50,000 in annual income, he points out, increases in income no longer correspond to increased happiness. That was one reason why he and his wife, Ann, agreed to practice a simpler lifestyle than their wealth would allow. They own a modest four-bedroom home, a few blocks away from Bridgeway’s office. With their surplus wealth, they decided to pursue philanthropy now. “We just thought it would be a lot more fun to give along the way,” he explains.
To date, Montgomery and Bridgeway have given tens of millions of dollars toward the efforts of their philanthropic mission. Why so much of their profits, and why so much of it to eliminate genocide? Montgomery thinks for a moment. “Sometimes you don’t know the deeper reasons of what you do, and I think that’s true for me and genocide specifically,” he replies. “I have some sense that there’s a bigger picture that I’m part of, but I don’t understand the full dynamics of that.”
“There is a spiritual aspect of this to me, a life calling,” he adds in a reflective tone. “National borders are just lines on a map. They’re completely artificial.” For John Montgomery and his team at Bridgeway, that is the guiding vision: a world in which the lines with the potential for hateful division—race, religion, ethnicity, nationality—do not become fault lines of conflict.
And until that time, they sense it’s their duty to stop the slaughter.
This article was originally published in Philanthropy magazine’s Winter 2012 issue.