school children in thailand. Stephane Bidouze/shutterstock
The son of a Jewish tailor who immigrated from Central Europe, Herbert Simon made his billions at the helm of Simon Property Group, one of the world’s largest real estate investment trusts, with nearly 180 shopping malls covering more than 150 million square feet across the U.S., Europe and Asia. Simon, now 84, is worth $3.4 billion and is also owner of the NBA’s Indiana Pacers. He and his family move philanthropy through the Herbert Simon Family Foundation, which promotes social justice in areas like education, Jewish causes, and the arts, with an eye towards Indianapolis and Central Indiana at large.
The West Coast also serves as a site of philanthropy for the family. Bui Simon, Herbert Simon’s wife, takes up residence in the Los Angeles area. The Thai native and former Miss Universe graduated from Pepperdine University in Malibu and leveraged her unique experiences moving through the pageant world to find her philanthropic passion—supporting Thai youth. “I became Miss Thailand, which was very unexpected. But I felt like I had to do more than just the photo shoots, and the store openings. I asked to go visit some orphanages. I think this was the inspiration for the work I’ve done for the past thirty years,” Bui Simon told me in a recent conversation.
Her Angels Wings Foundation is dedicated to providing vital assistance to underserved Thai children and empowering them through education. Last month, the foundation hosted its third annual Angels Wings Foundation International Thai Scholarship Celebration Ceremony in Los Angeles, where 41 high school seniors of Thai descent were named recipients of the 2019 scholarship. One-time Angels Wings Foundation’s Thai Scholarships support students attending community colleges and four-year colleges or universities. Recipients both demonstrated financial need and wrote an essay about the significance of their Thai heritage.
For Simon, this work couldn’t be more personal. “I know exactly where these kids are,” she said, telling me about her deeply-personal immigrant story. As Miss Thailand, Simon visited orphanages and saw firsthand a major issue plaguing her country. She told me that education is only compulsory through 6th grade, after which many Thai youth who can’t afford to continue their education go on to work in family business. In response, Simon started sponsoring children to go to on through middle school, high school, and now college. “I saw firsthand what these orphanages needed—running water, basic supplies. But okay, what now after basic needs? That’s education, which emerged as a focal point.”
This year, Angels Wings Foundation built two buildings in the Thai public school system, including a library. Simon tells me her favorite gift to give anyone is a book. The foundation’s Rural Teaching Scholarship aims to train educational mentors who are committed to serving in rural areas, and a pilot program is launching in Phuket, a region devastated by last decade’s Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami.
Simon tells me Angels Wings Foundation sprung to action when the 2004 tsunami hit and Simon tapped her connections to quickly raise money in the United States. Within 90 days she tells me they were able to build over 100 homes, and within the first 10 days, helped fishermen retrieve their boats so they could continue to work. “That was a crisis situation. All hands on deck,” she says.
An Evolving Focus
Bui and Herbert Simon married in 2002. And as Simon grew her family in the United States, she tells me it became increasingly difficult to go back to Thailand regularly. Now, she goes back with her children about every year. As a result, about four years ago, Simon started thinking about helping Thai-American youth in the Los Angeles area, which holds the largest Thai population outside of Asia. Leveraging her powerful network, she started talking to the Thai Consulate General and Thai temples to get a sense of what community needs were.
The first two years of the scholarship focused explicitly on Thai high school students in Los Angeles, giving away 13 scholarships in year one, and 28 scholarships in year two. Students have gone on to the likes of MIT, Berkeley, Harvard, UCLA, UC Irvine, Pepperdine, Stanford, and Yale. “I didn’t realize how meaningful this was going to be. See my teenage self growing up as immigrant here with parents who barely spoke English and so I had to work and help my mother… I know what it’s like to have that responsibility and see education as a dream. I was fortunate to make that dream a reality so now I can pay it forward,” she says.
Simon tells me about one Angels Wings scholar and her essay. The student writes about being abused by her father—and then later when she was sent to extended family—by her uncle. Ultimately, she arrived in the U.S. and lived with her grandparents whom she never met. “Reading her story, she goes on to be so transparent about her struggle in life,” Simon tells me. And now, the young Thai scholar is MIT-bound. “Meeting her and seeing her strength and I thanked her. It was sacred moment,” Simon adds.
Angels Wings Foundation is not a huge operation, and in a recent fiscal year posted assets of $7.3 million and listed expenses and disbursements of around $460,000. Simon tells me Angels Wings Foundation is primarily a family-funded operation. “We are a very small foundation. Our office has four of us, so we try to pick initiatives that have a big impact,” Simon explains.
In one instance, Simon found out about students in Thailand who were walking at least 10 miles daily to go to school. When her team considered providing transportation, she found out that the roads weren’t paved either. “Ok, so let’s pave the road and get a school bus. This is simple but makes such a profound impact. These are the kinds of things I look to do. I don’t have the administration to be the Red Cross but I can do little things,” Simon says.
Away from her work with Angels Wings, Simon explains that she and her family focus on their local communities, primarily in Indianapolis and Southern California. Earlier in the decade, the Herbert Simon Family Foundation expanded its board to include the second generation of the family. Two Simon children are artists, animating giving.
Still, Simon’s work with Angels Wings Foundation is a good example of just how personal and targeted philanthropy can be.