I was born in 1937 into a white, upper-middle-class family in Longview, Washington, a small timber-industry town of some 25,000 people immersed in what I understood to be conservative values of love of family, community, peace, justice, and nature.
I grew up in splendid isolation from the diversity of the world I would one day come to experience in its exquisite variety. In my childhood and early youth, I rarely saw a person of a different race and don’t recall ever meeting a Buddhist, Muslim, or Hindi. The most exotic person in my life was an aunt who had red hair and was Catholic and there were rumors that my paternal grandmother sometimes voted for Democrats. That was about the extent of my contact with exotic peoples. As the eldest son, everyone assumed that one day I would take over the family retail music and appliance business as my father had done from his father and that I would live out my days in the town of my birth.
I went to Stanford University as an undergraduate to prepare myself. I began as an economics major, but found it boring and of little practical relevance, so switched to psychology. In my senior year (1959) I made a fateful choice to take a two-unit course outside my major on modern revolutions. An active Young Republican and fearful of the spread of Communism and its threat to the American way of life, I had a vague hope I might learn something useful in countering the treat. I learned that Communist Revolutions were a response to poverty and were motivated by hope for a better life.
I called my parents one evening and told them that I had decided to devote my life to ending poverty by bringing the knowledge of modern business management and entrepreneurship to those who had not yet benefited from it. They never really understood the life I choose and probably thought I was a bit crazy, but they gave me their total support--for which they have my eternal gratitude. It was the one truly dramatic turning point in my life.
I had by this time already been accepted into the Stanford Graduate School of Business MBA program, which seemed proper preparation. While there I met Frances Fisher. Just finishing her Freshman year, she had been inspired by the book The Ugly American to seek a life abroad working in poor countries to help poor people in ways sensitive to their language and culture. She agreed to become Frances Fisher Korten, and we formed a life long partnership that included three years living in Ethiopia, three years in Nicaragua, five years in Indonesia, and nine years in the Philippines pursuing our shared dream of ending poverty.
Fran worked as a Ford Foundation program officer for 20 years in the Philippines, Indonesia, and New York and is now publisher of YES! magazine. Our lives together have been a potent testimony to the power of partnership, but that is another story. Marrying her was the best decision I ever made.
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