by Jane Parikh
Reg Wilson’s fishbowl expanded with every trip he took while a student at Kalamazoo College.
Wilson, a 1970 graduate, says he was “really a bumpkin” and “fresh off the farm” when he left his native Fruitport, Michigan, to attend K. A standout wrestler in high school, Wilson was persuaded by coach, athletic director, and physical education professor Rolla Anderson to come to K.
“K for me was my window to the world,” Wilson says. “My sophomore career service program was an internship at a bank on Wall Street. I had the good fortune of meeting a mentor there who introduced me to the art, culture, and architecture of New York City. It was my private graduate course in learning to see new places.
“I came back to K and realized that going from Fruitport to K had been a bigger fishbowl, and when I came back from New York I realized Kalamazoo was a little fishbowl.”
The bowl expanded with his foreign study in Sierra Leone, an experience that included travel across the Sahara Desert via Timbuktu en route to Morocco. Traveling to and throughout Africa had always been on Wilson’s wish list. As a young man he read and re-read books about that part of the world.
“I’d taken all the courses in African studies at K, and then I went to Africa and saw the poverty, and I was totally blown away and switched my major to economics with a focus on economic development.”
By the time he returned from Africa, Wilson said he felt like a global citizen.
“It was an amazing transformation in four years. Kalamazoo College was my ticket out of Fruitport to see the world.”
After his senior year Wilson, a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, decided to leave the country. He sold his few belongings and headed to London. He had a yen to go back to Sierra Leone, but the country at that time was on the verge of a coup, and a former professor of Wilson’s who was living there at the time discouraged him from coming.
“I went to a London travel agent and flipped a coin for the Far East or the Middle East,” Wilson said. “The travel agent said they had a special going on trips to Beirut. I arrived in Beirut broke and not knowing anybody.
“By chance, I bumped into a Lebanese guy at a falafel stand who I’d known at K who told me there was a village in southern Lebanon in need of a teacher. You meet K people in the strangest places around the world.”
Wilson spent two years teaching in that village before the urge to travel set in again and he found himself in the company of two young Frenchmen who were on their way to India in a van. He traveled overland with them as far as Iran where he decided to stay for awhile.
He learned the language, put some money together, and started a furniture factory in Isfahan, Iran.
“I was there for four and half years until the Iranian revolution started. I left overland by bus to Turkey with an Iranian girl I later married, and we came back to the states,” Wilson says. “That was quite a decade.”
The knowledge he gained through his travels has served him well in the business of making money. He has started several businesses in financial services as well as an outsourcing company in India. Between work, pleasure, and philanthropy he has traveled to more than 90 countries.
While on a scuba diving trip in Borneo five years ago Wilson said he began contemplating what he really wanted to do with the rest of his life. Thoughts of traveling and painting soon gave way to the creation of an organization called Cultivating Your Legacy. He is writing
"It's much more difficult to make the world a better place than to make a lot of money."a book based on conversations and interviews he has had with successful people about their transition from success to significance.
“When a person gets to the third stage of their life, they can retire and take cruises or get engaged in making the world a better place,” Wilson said. “People who are contributing feel engaged. It’s almost an act of personal redemption.
“It’s much more difficult to make the world a better place than to make a lot of money.”
The Cultivating Your Legacy system is based on thousands of discussions during Wilson’s 30 years of experience as an entrepreneur, investor, and advisor to many of the nation’s most successful executives, family businesses, inherited wealth holders, and international families. Those discussions focus on matters of succession planning, transferring wealth to future generations, tax, compensation, philanthropy, and family dynamics.
In addition, Wilson and his wife, Gina Ross, an international pioneer in cross-cultural therapy, co-founded the International Trauma Institute 10 years ago to develop community-wide solutions to the psychological trauma resulting from war, famine, displacement, and natural catastrophe.
A lifetime spent asking questions and questioning everything began for Wilson at K.
“I was not an ‘A’ student. My priorities were exploring, fun, and adventure,” he says. But he learned the questions to ask and says he repeats the importance of this ad nauseam to young people with whom he speaks.
“Don’t worry about the answers, get a good grip on the questions,” Wilson says. “You have the rest of your life to learn the answers.”
Photo - Regg Wilson speaks with K students during a recent Professional Development Institute on campus.