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Wake-Up Call From the Front Row of History

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After a quarter century analyzing trends and investing in Asia during the most dynamic economic transformation in history, Ray Jovanovich ’84 is returning home with a clear vision of the greatest challenge —and opportunity— China’s ascendancy offers America.

When Ray Jovanovich was offered the chance to live in Hong Kong and work in the financial industry in Asia two years after his graduation from Wabash, friends advised against it.

“So many people said, ‘You must be crazy! Why do you want to live and work in Asia when the opportunities are in America?’ But I thought the exact opposite.”

So did his father.

Born in Serbia, captured by the Nazis in World War II, imprisoned at Memmingen, and then liberated by General George Patton’s Third Army, Robert Jovanovich emigrated to the United States in 1949, the only one of six children in his family to do so.

“They thought he was crazy, too.” Ray Jovanovich laughs.

Robert became a passionate patriot of his adopted country, but the rapid change he witnessed in Europe also instilled a worldview that can be summed up in three words: “Enemies become allies.”

“That’s the dynamic of this world,” Jovanovich says. “My father never be-grudged the German people themselves. In fact, he went back to visit, and his friends became my friends.

“When I told him that I wanted to take this opportunity to work in Asia, he said, ‘Go. Do this. It is important for you.’ He also said, ‘I suspect you’re going to be there the rest of your life. Once you go, you’ll never really return to America.’”

Twenty-five years later, Ray Jovanovich’s decision seems prescient. He has built fortunes for others and a life for himself and his wife, Belinda, that his parents could only have imagined. He has been a player in the most dynamic economic transformation in world history, has been the top fund manager in Asia, was featured in publications from Barron’s to The Wall Street Journal, correctly predicted Hong Kong’s success after it was returned to China in 1997, and is a trusted advisor to investors and government leaders.

Robert Jovanovich lived long enough to see his son’s success and his own advice proved sound, but he was wrong about one thing—Ray Jovanovich will return to America. At age 49 he is retiring from his position as chief investment officer at Amundi Asia and returning home. He plans to spend six months in the U.S. and six months in Asia.

And once again, others are questioning his decision to move, particularly as China is prospering.

“People are saying, ‘Are you crazy? You’re in an enviable position with all this experience and all these connections. You can do whatever you want.’”

Right now what Jovanovich wants is to spend more time with his family and to find a new way to contribute to the country of his birth.

“I made a promise to my father and to my wife that I would spend more time with the people who matter to me,” Jovanovich says. His father’s death in 2007 and Belinda’s battle with cancer in 2008 brought those promises home.

“I will never reengage in this industry again,” Jovanovich says of the work that has been his life practically 24/7 since he arrived in Asia. “There’s just not much more for me to do here.”

That doesn’t mean there’s nothing left to do elsewhere. In fact, Belinda—who before her marriage to Jovanovich successfully raised her three sons as a single mother and entrepreneur through very difficult times in the Philippines—is his inspiration for finding new ways to support the empowerment of women worldwide.

And 25 years in Asia have given him a clear vision of the greatest challenge and opportunity afforded the U.S. by China’s rise to power.

“My abiding passion is education,” he says. “And I think America has some serious needs there.”

The Greatest Security Threat
The value Jovanovich places on teaching and learning as an economic engine stems from his own life as well as his early days in Asia as a research analyst. He believes that the statistical evidence has become even stronger over the years.

“The wisest decisions Deng Xiaoping made in China coincided with his emphasis on education,” says Jovanovich, who has watched that focus play a huge role in transforming the nation. Speaking to Wabash Magazine after celebrating the Chinese New Year with a professor friend and alumnus of Peking University, he recalls the man’s description of that school’s incoming class.

“The strength of these students’ scores and accomplishments was just incredible,” Jovanovich says. “I’m glad I’m in my 40s and the bulk of my professional life is in the rearview mirror, because I have seen the future. The competition from the likes of students we encounter from China and India is just overwhelming.

“I don’t believe that we recognize this in the West, particularly in the United States. We need to be preparing our children for this challenge.”

While others point to China’s economic rise as the top challenge to America’s standing in the world, Jovanovich says, “The greatest security threat to the U.S. remains the crumbling state of the public education system.

“We are condemning an entire generation of our youth. We are not preparing them properly, and they are not reflecting the new dynamic and the evolving competition.”

 While not a fan of most of President Barack Obama’s policies, he applauds his emphasis on education.

“If I were President, I would start every Monday morning at a local public school somewhere in the country. I’d be challenging the teachers, I’d be challenging the students, and most of all, I’d be challenging the parents. The absence of parents is damaging the ability of students to achieve.”

Jovanovich says the involvement of parents in their children’s education is one of the most striking aspects of most Asian cultures.

“There’s overwhelming interest in children’s education here, not only in Hong Kong, but practically everywhere I’ve been in Asia. I see it in my wife’s family, the way in which the kids are pushed. Even in large families with four or five kids, the emphasis is on grasping the educational opportunity, even on supplemental educational. It’s universal, from Korea to India.

“Another difference is the role the teacher plays in Asia as a paragon of virtue, to be admired. To be a teacher is an end result, a vocation, and gives you great standing in society. That’s often not the case in America today.”

Jovanovich says there’s plenty of blame to go around for this—he’s more interested in solving the problem at hand.

“We’ve become preoccupied with other issues that have suppressed the recognition that education is our greatest security threat,” he says. “We need to experiment —there’s no one-size-fits-all program—and we need to empower. We must come to a recognition that we’re failing too many of our kids.”

He believes that too many students of the next generation may not get the chance to make the sorts of “crazy” decisions he made in order to succeed.

“I can remember the names of all my primary and elementary teachers, and at Wabash I had such enduring relationships with professors whom I adored. I was fortunate, but I was also a product of the public schools of America, and those teachers’ work prepared me; it stays with me still.

“There will always be the elites who can go to a private elementary and high school, then attend Columbia or Dart-mouth. But what about the other 90 percent?”

Jovanovich points out that this current economic competition with Asia is actually an indicator of American success.

“Part of U.S. policy since the end of World War II has been to empower and improve the living standards of our partners across the globe—to create, in essence, American surrogates across the globe that would embrace all the values we hold dear. That effort should be given a great deal of credit for this global structural transformation. America played a significant role in Asia’s rise to prominence, and we shouldn’t be afraid of it. But that rise also serves as a great wake up call for us to step up our game.

“The future is ours, and we have to be prepared for it. We have to recognize that in places like India and China they understand that opportunity is fleeting—this is why families and students understand the necessity of education from an early age.”

While the U.S. can relearn from Asia this emphasis on education, Jovanovich says China may be learning from the U.S. the value of the liberal arts.

“Of course, I am an absolute disciple of the liberal arts approach, and I don’t miss the opportunity—whether I’m talking with investors, government officials, or students—to proclaim its merits. I think that a decade ago there was very little interest or appetite for that here; they felt the liberal arts wasn’t focused, and the China of the past was more about having a focus to your education. But I think a gradual recognition is setting in—a realization that a liberal arts approach prepares a student far better for the realities of the global dynamic.

“In China and Hong Kong the system is starting to shift—there’s a recognition that the curriculum has to adjust, that there has to be a more well-rounded program, and that’s a good thing.” 

Jovanovich “retires” to the U.S. with two seemingly divergent goals: to spend more time with family, and to use what he’s learned to give back to the society that nurtured him. As he ponders his next move his thoughts return to his father and a conversation they had on Parents’ Day his freshman year at Wabash.

“My dad said, ‘This is an opportunity you need to embrace.’ He knew there was something special about Wabash before I did. There’s no doubt in my mind that the confidence provided by my Wabash education made it easier to make my next decision when the opportunity arose to live and work and study in Asia. That gave me a front row seat to this remarkable transformation.

“But Dad also stressed to me that the greatest measure of a man is his legacy: What have you improved in life for others? What have you done for those other than yourself? That still resonates with me; I expect it always will. I just want to reorganize my priorities, to make a contribution in a different way.”