Early in his career, Sir Nicholas Winton was a stockbroker; in later years, he worked for international relief organizations and other charities. But for 50 years, nobody knew his greatest achievement and contribution to humanity.
We often celebrate entrepreneurs for being dynamic business leaders. That's a good thing, but entrepreneurship itself doesn't necessarily have anything to do with making money. A professor at Harvard Business School put it best: it's about the "pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled."
That's why I've insisted that the best book about entrepreneurship has absolutely nothing to do with making money, and it's why we can look at people who start nonprofits, or who assemble teams to accomplish amazing goals that have nothing to do with business-and call them great entrepreneurs.
Nicholas Winton was a truly great entrepreneur.
A rescue organization
To understand his story, we have to go back in time, to around Christmas 1938. Winton was set to go to Switzerland on a ski vacation. World War II hadn't started yet, but the Nazis had already taken over Czechoslovakia, and Winton had a friend in Prague, Martin Blake, who asked him to skip his ski trip and come to see him.
There, he saw the horrible reality of life under the Nazis. According to the The New York Times, Winton:
found vast camps of refugees living in appalling conditions. The pogroms of Kristallnacht, the "Night of Broken Glass," had recently struck Jewish shops, homes, and synagogues in Germany and Austria. War looked inevitable, and escape, especially for children, seemed hopeless, given the restrictions against Jewish immigration in the West.
Great Britain had a program called Kindertransport that permitted Austrian and German Jewish children without parents to settle temporarily in the country, but there was no such program for Czechoslovakian children. Winton basically created one himself, despite the fact that he started with almost no resources besides his own drive and persuasiveness.
Working from a hotel room, at a kitchen table, and ultimately out of a storefront, he recruited volunteers, raised money, forged documents, bribed Gestapo agents-and compiled data on 5,000 Czech Jewish children he hoped to get out of the country. The children's parents gave them up-assuming, accurately in almost all cases, that they'd never see them again.
It was an incredibly difficult logistical task. Winton and his mother formed an organization they called the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, Children's Section. They raised money and recruited British families to serve as foster parents for the children. Ultimately, Winton returned to England to coordinate the effort-and amazingly-to continue working at his day job on the stock exchange, since he and his mother were contributing their own money to the Czech children's relief effort.
Ultimately, Winton and his colleagues got eight trainloads of Czech children out of the country-669 children in all. The largest train, carrying 250 children, was scheduled to leave Prague and travel through Germany itself to the North Sea on September 1, 1939, the day Germany invaded Poland and World War II began. That train never made it. All the children are believed to have died eventually in concentration camps.
50 years of silence
Back in Britain, with his hopes of rescuing more Czech children dashed, Winton joined the Royal Air Force and served for the rest of the war. Afterward, he lived a fairly normal life. He married a Danish woman, Grete Gjelstrup, and they had three children. For five decades, Winton said nothing of what he'd accomplished. The world entirely forgot.
In 1988, however, his wife came across a " long-hidden scrapbook-crammed with names, pictures, letters from families, travel documents, and notes crediting his colleagues," according to the Times. "His wife asked for an explanation. He gave her a general idea, but said he thought the papers had no value and suggested discarding them."
Others disagreed. Winton's wife gave the scrapbook to an historian. A BBC television program followed, as did other reports and films. Winton was honored by the Czech, British, American, and Israeli governments. Still, he viewed comparisons between himself and people like Oskar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg with "bewilderment and disbelief," according to a biographer who herself had been one of the rescued children, and who was quoted in the Times.
Winton died this week, at 106 years old. He was a reluctant hero, a courageous leader-and a true entrepreneur.