The Unlikely Story Of One Poor Haitian Who Got Rich Ask Haitians for an example of someone who was born poor and became rich, and they all come up with the same name: Mathias Pierre. Pierre grew up profoundly poor without electricity or running water, but he thought big — and became a Haitian miracle.
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The Unlikely Story Of One Poor Haitian Who Got Rich

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The Unlikely Story Of One Poor Haitian Who Got Rich

The Unlikely Story Of One Poor Haitian Who Got Rich

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

In Haiti, there are two classes of people: a tiny cluster of the wealthy, and everyone else. Most Haitians live on $2 a day or less. And as Haiti slowly recovers from the earthquake, people are talking a lot about how to create economic opportunity for all Haitians. It turns out it's very difficult to bridge that gap. Chana Joffe-Walt and Adam Davidson, with our Planet Money team, wanted to know why.

CHANA JOFFE-WALT: This was a question that we put to Haitian bankers, business association presidents, a former prime minister - does anyone in Haiti ever go from being poor to rich? And Adam, what did every last person say to us?

ADAM DAVIDSON: Every person said the exact, same thing: Of course it happens; just look at Mathias Pierre.

JOFFE-WALT: To which we responded: Anyone else?

DAVIDSON: And every time, they'd say the same thing: Well, no, I can't think of anyone else, just Mathias Pierre.

JOFFE-WALT: Mathias Pierre grew up as poor as anyone in Haiti. His parents were illiterate; they had no electricity, no running water. And today, Mathias is a millionaire. He owns and runs a big computer business. And the way Mathias tells it, he had a dream.

Mr. MATHIAS PIERRE: And that was the dream. The dream is having a very good computer business, very nice and beautiful, like U.S., in Haiti.

DAVIDSON: In the U.S., this is an age-old story. Poor farm kid has a dream, works hard, makes it rich in the city. In Haiti, though, it just doesn't happen. Desperately poor farm kids grow up to be even poorer farm adults. Haiti's average standard of living is half what it was 50 years ago.

JOFFE-WALT: Mathias says he was different because he had a dream, because he thought and grew rich. In fact, as a young man, Mathias read that Depression-era classic "Think and Grow Rich," by Napoleon Hill.

Mr. PIERRE: And I realized that being rich - it's more mental than everything.

DAVIDSON: So that book really changed your life?

Mr. PIERRE: That book really changed my life.

DAVIDSON: Mathias's business is the kind you'd see in any U.S. strip mall - a decent computer shop that also provides IT services to companies.

JOFFE-WALT: And in the U.S., Mathias would be middle class, more than a million in assets, but income way below that.

DAVIDSON: Yet, when he opened in 2007, for Haiti, it was a miracle and a target.

JOFFE-WALT: In 2008, riots erupted. Poor Haitians, angry about high food prices, made their way to the rich part of town and filled the streets.

Mr. PIERRE: It was like boom, and it started. And then it was (unintelligible), the girls were crying. I got a bunch of young girls working here, they were crying. They said they were about to burn the building. Everything that I had and at that specific moment, you have to cry.

DAVIDSON: The crowd shattered his windows and massed outside. Mathias realized something instantly. They don't know I'm one of them.

JOFFE-WALT: In Haiti, dark-skinned people like Mathias don't usually run big, beautiful businesses. The Haitian elite is largely light-skinned.

DAVIDSON: Mathias sees this as the main problem. People in Haiti, he says, don't believe that poor, dark-skinned people can become successful.

JOFFE-WALT: He says that Haiti's poor need to realize that if you just believe in yourself, you can do it. You can think and grow rich.

DAVIDSON: We ran that theory by Haiti's former prime minister, Michele Pierre-Louis. She says it's not just about dreams. Most poor Haitians don't get the breaks that Mathias got.

Mr. PIERRE: Schools are private. It's the first impediment.

JOFFE-WALT: For a poor Haitian, schools are almost unaffordable. Fewer than half of Haitian kids go to primary school and for high school, it's below 20 percent.

DAVIDSON: So lucky break number one: Mathias's parents somehow paid for all 12 years, from grade one to the end of high school.

JOFFE-WALT: Then the biggest lucky break of all: He got one of the very few college scholarships.

DAVIDSON: Pierre-Louis says every year, thousands of smart, capable kids, kids with dreams who do somehow graduate high school, don't get a college scholarship. Mathias did get one. And the ones who get into college, only a few of them actually finish their four-year degrees.

Ms. MICHELE PIERRE-LOUIS (Former Prime Minister, Haiti): And then after that, nothing, you know. They get no credit in the bank to even rent a house. They cannot buy a car, yet they get married, they have kids and they are stuck. You see, Mathias overcame all those difficulties. But that should not be the exception.

DAVIDSON: Right now, Mathias's story is heroic. It's a story of miracles and unbelievable obstacles overcome.

JOFFE-WALT: Pierre-Louis says rebuilding Haiti after the earthquake, sure, it has to be about roads and hospitals, but it also has to be about Mathias and making his story far more common. I'm Chana Joffe-Walt.

DAVIDSON: And I'm Adam Davidson, NPR News.

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