An Extraordinary Return on the Fulbright Investment
1971 Fulbright Foreign Student from Venezuela
Hilda Ochoa-Brillembourg presents Luis Almagro (right) of the Organization of American States (OAS) with the 2018 Global Leadership Award on behalf of the Youth Orchestra of the Americas (YOA).
Hilda Ochoa-Brillembourg knows about returns on investment, having served as the chief investment officer for the World Bank for 12 years and as the founder and chairwoman of Strategic Investment Group. When she says, “I cannot think of a better return on investment” for the opportunity Fulbright provided, she speaks from experience.
After earning her bachelor’s degree in economics and working as the treasurer of a public utility company in Caracas, Venezuela, Ochoa-Brillembourg dreamed of coming to the United States to deepen her knowledge of finance. Although she was accepted at Harvard University, she saw that dream slipping away due to the cost of tuition and travel. As she recounted years later in her acceptance speech for the Fulbright Lifetime Achievement Award, she had given up hope when there was an “angel moment”- a woman who worked in the U.S. Embassy in Caracas, Karla Fisher, helped her apply for a Fulbright. “I was running out of options and hope,” Ochoa-Brillembourg says. “It brings tears to my eyes, because when I couldn’t find scholarships in my own country to go to Harvard, America paid for me to study.”
As a Fulbright Foreign Student from Venezuela, she completed a master’s in public administration from Harvard University in 1972 and pursued doctoral studies in finance from 1972 to 1976 at the Harvard Business School.
Ochoa-Brillembourg emphasizes, “I cannot think of any money better spent than allowing worthy individuals to go abroad, either U.S. citizens […] to go overseas, or overseas students to come [to the United States]... and have that cultural exchange at the highest level of intelligence and knowledge and ambition – intellectual and personal ambition –and the impact that has on the well-being of the world.”
Ochoa-Brillembourg explained this return on investment in financial terms, describing how the company she founded after returning to the United States later in her career had contributed over $3 billion in its first 30 years, benefiting employees and shareholders through several billion dollars in salaries, capital gains, and dividends, as well as more than a billion dollars in state and federal taxes, while also employing 400 people. “That is a huge return on investment for [what] Fulbright spent on me,” she concluded.
Inspired by her Fulbright experience, she advised the Venezuelan Government to create an extensive scholarship program for Venezuelans to study abroad, which became the Fundación Gran Mariscal de Ayacucho in 1974, financing more than 100,000 Venezuelan students abroad.
After returning to Venezuela and giving back to her home country, Ochoa-Brillembourg moved to the United States to work with the World Bank. In 2016, she reflected further on the impact of her Fulbright experience when she took part in the Family of Voices project located at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, featuring contemporary Americans whose global origins and connections influence how they make their life, career, and community in the United States. She says, “It was the most generous, enlightened, miraculous act of generosity a country would have.”
“I am immensely grateful that this country gave me the opportunity to become a successful entrepreneur. As a businesswoman, I am both American and Venezuelan. I have Venezuelan human values of openness and inclusiveness, Venezuelan hopes, and a Venezuelan sense of possibility. But, I'm very American in my sense of ethical values, the power of education, meritocracy, my sense of responsibility, and self-reliance.”
Furthering the return on Fulbright’s investment, Ochoa-Brillembourg gave back to the Program as the director of the Fulbright Association from 2007 to 2011 and has also shared her talents as a director of many arts organizations and corporations. She was founding chair of the Youth Orchestra of the Americas and chair of the Executive Committee of the Washington Opera. She has also served on the boards of the National Symphony Orchestra, the Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard University, the McGraw Hill Companies, General Mills, Inc., the World Bank and International Monetary Fund Credit Union, the Harvard Management Company, US Air, Cementos Pacasmayo, the Council on Foreign Relations, the American Enterprise Institute, and the World Bank/International Finance Corporation Asset Management Company.
“The United States to me has always been an extraordinary place.” Hilda Ochoa-Brillembourg says she is “deeply invested in this miraculous place where everything is possible, where there is a meritocracy, where there is every opportunity for a woman or a man of any extraction to make a difference.”