| The Kellner Family Foundation Will Carry On, a Trustee Assures

The Foundation may be one of the greatest and most tangible of Petr Kellner’s legacies, the owner of PPF who tragically died in Alaska on 27 March. The billionaire founded The Kellner Family Foundation alongside his wife Renáta. It supports the education of Czech students and, between 2002 and 2020 year, provided CZK 1.6bn in funds towards that purpose.

“It is too early to comment on our future plans , but I can say that the Foundation has sufficient resources and that our systems are well set up to allow all of our long-term projects to continue,” assured Petra Dobešová, a member of the Foundation’s Board of Trustees and the Managing Director of Open Gate.

May I ask, how did you learn of Petr Kellner’s death?
I heard it on the news, while driving into work on Monday, 29 March. At first, I thought it was an untimely and stupid joke for April Fool’s Day – that it simply wasn’t true. Later, I discovered it was, unfortunately. It made me cry; even today, I still feel like it can’t be true. What makes it even harder for me to accept is that I knew Mr Kellner personally.

What impression did he make on you?
He was a very inspiring person. He was always able to look at things from a different angle, and pushed others to think, to reflect on things. You don’t encounter many people with that sort of approach.

Give me an example…
Our very first encounter, when I met him for a job interview in 2010. I was a candidate for a job at PPF Group. I had never experienced an interview like it. Instead of discussing my skills and my professional experience, Petr Kellner asked me about my family. Then he told me I was fortunate to have the family background that I do.

At PPF, I started at the Sotio biotech company; then in 2016, Ms Kellnerová offered me an opportunity to become more involved. At first, I focused solely on Open Gate, and it was only later that I was able to participate in the Family Foundation’s activities.

The Foundation is primarily Ms Renáta Kellnerová’s province, but how was her husband involved? Did he find time for it?
I meet with Ms Kellnerová regularly and Mr Kellner often attended those discussions. When major decisions or ideas were at stake, he was present. They really put a lot of their energy and time into it. Every year, he would meet with the young people who applied for grants to study abroad and he was involved in their final selection. He was able to get the students out of their comfort zone with his questions, disrupting their thought patterns, and it was very interesting to see them respond.

What does the future look like for the Foundation?
The Kellners always understood charity to be an important part of their life; they were complementary that way. Ms Kellnerová was primarily in charge of the Foundation, but the two would consult each other on its operation. They would often say it was important for them to see the end of the chain. They wanted to see how the funds donated actually helped. That is why they chose three principal projects for the Foundation to systematically support over a longer period of time.

Another important aspect of this, is that Czechia has always mattered to them. This is where the family lives – their home is here. That is why assistance from The Kellner Family Foundation is channelled almost exclusively to the Czech Republic. They want to bring about a positive change to society through the provision of quality education. That has always been the purpose of the Foundation and I believe that this will be the case going forward as well. The Foundation has sufficient resources for it to continue this work.

Petr Kellner was often criticised for focusing primarily on global business and not being that interested in Czechia …
I completely disagree. Petr Kellner lived in Czechia, he paid taxes here, and his children study here. He spent time considering the projects that make the most sense for the Czech Republic. It wasn’t just through the Family Foundation that he helped Czechia – he would also donate funds from other private sources, for example, to procure modern instruments for Czech hospitals, and he would also support the Liberec and Křivoklát regions.

After all, our grants for Czech students who study at international universities are subject to the requirement that, as graduates, they will ‘repay the debt’ by working in Czechia for at least three of the fifteen years after their graduation, or alternatively foster a good reputation for the country abroad.

How does the Foundation pursue its goals?
An initial process of determining what the Foundation should focus on and how it should get there, landed on the idea of helping to eliminate inequality in education. The Open Gate eight-year grammar school in Babice started its first academic year in 2005, with most students utilising needs-based grants. The grant project for university students followed. Open Gate graduates were the first beneficiaries of those grants, but over time, we have expanded our reach to all Czech students intending to study at a prestigious international university in order to obtain education and experience.

The Foundation decided to support bachelor’s programmes as other organisations often focus on backing postgraduate study. Over time, we also realised that we needed to provide greater support to children in primary schools so we established the Helping Schools Succeed project.

What does it do?
We wanted to help primary schools improve their pupils’ literacy and introduce teaching methods that have the greatest impact on learning: both reading and critical literacy, as well as mathematical literacy. To that end, we established an expert group that prepared a methodology which would further these goals.

One by one, we chose twenty-two schools in twelve regions. Alongside other assistance, the schools were able to utilise trained consultants to help their teaching staff educate in ways that push the children to use their individual learning capabilities to the fullest extent.

How is it going now?
Figuratively speaking, these initial schools were similar to a research lab, allowing us to check what works and how we can better fulfil our vision – e.g. a school where each pupil learns to the fullest and experience the joy of learning. Since last September, we’ve greatly expanded the project – it now covers 113 schools. It involves both first and second stage teachers, and we will evaluate the project in three years. Judging by the response of the teachers and principals of the participating schools, as well as the general public, we have taken a step in the right direction.

As far as I know, you have expanded the Open Gate project too. It is no longer a grammar school intended exclusively for socially disadvantaged children…
The grammar school was gaining more and more attention and parents who are able to pay the tuition fees for their children were becoming interested. Alongside the grammar school, a primary school was founded at which needs-based grants are not available.

Open Gate’s ambition is to be a top-notch Czech school, with an international reach. It should guide students to a lifelong pursuit of education and inspire a joy for learning beyond the school curriculum towards overall personal development and the ability to listen and be open towards others’ opinions.

What is the current ratio of the children whose tuition fees are paid by the family to those who are there thanks to grants?
Out of the three hundred children in the grammar school, around one hundred receive needs-based grants, and two hundred have their tuition fees paid for by their parents. The grammar school’s tuition fees are CZK 256,000 per school year. For the students who board on the school’s premises – a sort of ‘all-inclusive’ accommodation with dormitory, meals, clubs, trips and so on – it is CZK 470,000.

Are there any differences between the children?
Children from both rich and poor families meet at Open Gate, which helps to establish mutual respect. Students wear uniforms, but they can still see who is better or worse off financially; for that, all they need to do is look at each other’s mobile phones. The chief purpose of their uniforms is to have them make statements through means other than their clothing; uniforms discourage superficiality.

We place a great emphasis on perfect fluency in English, which enables students to obtain information from international sources, giving them a more comprehensive view of the world. With this knowledge, they can go on to study abroad; a range of opportunities opens up for them, but it also forces them to be responsible for making the right choices. Last but not least: if children come to Open Gate from problematic environments, they get to see that there are other ways to live life.

An example would be great here…
Personally, I love the story of a student who came to us and didn’t even know how to brush his teeth; regular hygiene was not his forte. Five years later, he is a perfect gentleman – with empathy, drive and good academic results. Witnessing stories like this is heart-warming. It fulfils the Kellners’ idea of making the world a better place through education.

Another nice example is Dominika’s story. She was having trouble and was bullied in primary school. Her enlightened grandpa took her to Open Gate to undertake the admission tests, and she blossomed. Having graduated from the grammar school, she went on to Brno to study veterinary medicine. She dropped out after one year and took some time to do some soul-searching, she has since come back with a clear goal and currently studies psychology at the University of New York in Prague. The way she was able to process her own mistake is valuable, and we are supporting her with a grant at the university now.

Grants are another cornerstone of the Foundation, aren’t they?
Applications for grants for the next academic year are currently open. Until 30 April, anyone who wants to study abroad – or who has received an offer to study at a foreign university but lacks the funds to attend – can submit an application for the Foundation’s financial support.

In their applications, the students describe their school of choice, and include a motivation letter describing why they chose the particular school and programme they want to study. The application also includes a financial balance sheet: how much university life will cost, to what extent their family will support them, and what they will be able to earn themselves e.g., in part-time jobs.

How many grant applications do you get, and how many are approved?
We received one hundred applications last year. In previous years we’ve received more, but uncertainty brought about by the first wave of the pandemic was likely impacted students’ decisions to study abroad. We invite around thirty young people for interviews. Petr Kellner took part in those last year. As has become a tradition, Renáta Kellnerová and Professor Radek Špíšek from Sotio, a PPF Group company focusing on research into cancer treatment, both sit on the panel. At times, the Kellners’ daughters also attend.

The thing that I find great about this is that we don’t have a strict number of grants on offer. If there are more excellent students one year, there are more grants, and vice versa.

What assistance can students obtain?
The amount of support for studying differs; depending on the costs at the various universities. In the past, the amounts have ranged between CZK 100,000 to CZK 300,000 per academic year and, unless a student’s results are very dissatisfactory, the funds are provided for the following year as well, partially covering the costs required for completing the full bachelor’s degree.

We support around sixty students every year. What I like about the Foundation is its lean structure. Thanks to that, the money is targeted primarily on supporting individual people and specific projects.

Author | Filip Saiver

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