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Buffett's Lasting Legacy: Immaterial Wealth

May 6, 2010 (Morning Edition)

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When Peter Buffett was 19 years old, he inherited $90,000 in stock — no more, no less. That isn't exactly a small sum, but when you consider that Buffett's father — billionaire investor Warren Buffett — is one of the richest people in the world, that inheritance starts to look a little skimpy.

But Peter Buffett doesn't seem to mind. In his new memoir, Life Is What You Make It, he explains that he's glad his father didn't let him take the easy way out. With plenty of emotional support — but little financial support from his parents — Peter Buffett has become an Emmy Award-winning musician. He talks to NPR's Renee Montagne about how he learned to "make the best of a good situation."

'Support Didn't Come In The Form Of A Check'

Peter Buffett's upbringing in Omaha, Neb., would look fairly familiar to many middle-class Americans.

"I lived two blocks from where my mother grew up," Buffett says. "I would walk to my grandparents' house, the door was always open. ... Our house didn't have a fence around it or anything. It was just in a typical neighborhood in Omaha."

Warren Buffett still lives in the house where Peter and his siblings grew up. Peter says that his father has essentially maintained the same routine since 1964 — every day he drives himself to work, parks in the same parking space, goes to work in the same building. It's a "well-worn groove" that works for the legendary investor, because he "loves what he does so much," his son explains.

Peter Buffett says there are many assumptions that come with being his father's son — mainly an easy life of money and privilege.

"But the support, the privilege, really comes from having two parents that said and believed that I could do anything," Buffett explains. "That support didn't come in the form of a check. That support came in the form of love and nurturing and respect for us finding our way, falling down, figuring out how to get up ourselves."

'A Head Start'

The $90,000 in stock Buffett inherited at 19 actually started out in the form of a farm left by his grandfather, but as Peter explains, "my dad can't stand the misallocation of capital, so he sold the farm and put it into Berkshire Hathaway stock."

Peter Buffett says the money was "a head start." He was in college at the time, and he used the funds to buy some recording equipment. Had Buffett left the $90,000 in stock alone, it would be worth more than $70 million today — but he insists he has no regrets.

"I'm much happier having a life," he says.

Buffett has had some rocky economic and personal times — he's had double mortgages on his house and has had to raise money for shows; he admits there have been times he's wished for the easy way out. Once, in his 20s, he approached his father to ask for a loan — his father refused. Peter was angry at the time, but in retrospect, he appreciates his father's resolve.

"I learned more in those [difficult] times about myself and my resiliency than I ever would have if I'd had a pile of money and I could have glided through life," he says. "I honestly feel that it is an act of love to say, 'I believe in you as my child, and you don't need my help.' "

Buffett likes knowing that he owns his own success — rather than feeling as though he has lived off of his father's success.

$1 Billion For Giving Back

Though $90,000 was the only inheritance Peter Buffett received from his father for personal use, he and his siblings have received an enormous sum of money — $1 billion each — to do charitable work. That money came as something of a surprise, and Peter was taken aback by the "awesome responsibility and opportunity."

He says he and his wife spent several years researching how to be most effective as philanthropists. Ultimately, they settled on a charitable way to "invest in undervalued assets," which Peter Buffett admits is "a page out of my dad's book."

"We found that young girls, adolescent girls — in the developing world in particular — are the greatest undervalued asset we've ever seen," Buffett says.

He and his wife have founded NoVo Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering women and girls around the world.

"If you support the girl, you support the family, you support the community," Peter Buffett explains. "And it just ripples out all over the world."

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