Aliang is the first girl Simon Lichtenberg met in Butuo County of Liangshan Yi Minority Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan Province, one of the 300 poorest counties in China. When the Danish entrepreneur visited Aliang's home, he was impressed by the six-year-old's independence. "The family lives on subsistence farming and she has already done some housework to relieve the burden on her parents and siblings," recalled Mr. Lichtenberg, Founder and CEO of Trayton Group, and Founder of the Rural Early Education Development Fund.
A couple of months ago before the trip, Mr. Lichtenberg met James J. Heckman, professor of economics at the University of Chicago and the Nobel laureate in economics, at a seminar on preschool education. "The most cost-effective human capital investment period: 0-6 years," said Prof. Heckman. "Early interventions that build the capability base of children have much higher economic returns than later remediation and prevention programs, such as public job training, convict rehabilitation programs, adult literacy programs, tuition subsidies or expenditure on police to reduce crime."
Inspired by the professor’s speech, Mr. Lichtenberg set about to collect more information and in the process he came to know that preschool education was underdeveloped in rural areas of western China. Therefore, the successful businessman mobilized 10 of his CEO friends to donate 60,000 yuan each and set up a special fund under the Shanghai Charity Foundation in the hope of improving access to preschool education in rural areas as his way of contributing to where he lives and works.
Along with Humana People to People China (HPP), a non-profit organization working for the common good, Mr. Lichtenberg started the first project, Preschools of the Future (‘POF’), in Butuo County where there were only two kindergartens for a total of 14,500 preschoolers.
The HPP POF program provides rural children with access to full-time three-year preschool education at natural and administrative village levels. Each class is made up of 25-30 students aged between 3 and 5. Kids are trained in the daily curriculum that cultivates their body and motor skills, math capabilities, and language proficiency, which is complemented by a weekly program that involves storytelling, arts and outdoor activities.
"We want to teach the children to make up her/his own mind and choices, and learn by planning, execution, failure and victory," explained Mr. Lichtenberg. Speaking of the changes Aliang has experienced, he was quite relieved. "Before attending POF, Aliang was worried that she couldn’t keep up with the primary school if she didn’t speak Mandarin. But now she has learnt to speak some Mandarin and enjoys a great time at school with her friends. The children learn about the world and learn to believe in themselves. Aliang and her friends have taken an essential step to their later life in school. They are the children of the future."
Mr. Lichtenberg defines himself as a frenetic fan of the Chinese language and culture, which was made even more convincing by his unplanned trip to Shanghai in 1988. "My friend and I wanted to learn the most difficult language in the world. So here I am." Mr. Lichtenberg is still surprised at the decision he made then. Over the next few years, he was learning Chinese at Fudan University, and continued his studies back in Denmark before he entered the timber trade in Malaysia. After all that he moved back to China to start his own business. In 1995, he opened Trayton Group, a furniture company which now has grown into an enterprise of more than 2,000 employees.
Mr. Lichtenberg speaks seven languages and has lived in eight countries. Since he has settled down in Shanghai, he describes himself as an expert on China. He was awarded the “Magnolia Silver Award” from the Shanghai Municipal Government in 2006 for his outstanding contribution to the local development, and is selected as the founding president of the Fudan University International Students Alumni Association. In 2011, he was awarded “Entrepreneur of the Year 2011” by the Danish Chamber of Commerce in China for his exceptional business achievements in China, and has been elected as Chairman of Danish Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai in 2013. Since 2014, he has been serving as the Vice Chairman of Retail and Distribution Forum of the European Chamber of Commerce in China.
Mr. Lichtenberg attributes his achievement to his perseverance, courage and creativity, qualities he has cultivated since childhood. "In addition, I work hard. A hard-working attitude and an adaptive capacity to different cultures and environments enable me to stay current with new developments and enjoy a desirable life in Shanghai."