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Nicanor Restrepo Santamaria, one of Latin America’s most distinguished civic and business leaders and a major figure in the business-for-education movement, died recently in Medellin, Colombia. As president of Suramericana de Inversiones (now Grupo Empresarial SURA), Restrepo played a crucial role in establishing a nationwide network of business leaders committed to improving education, and education policy. The business-for-education network soon spread to nearly all of Colombia’s departamentos and became a strong voice for improving education policy in the country.
Restrepo played an important role in helping PREAL establish a similar network in Central America, serving as keynote speaker in a conference PREAL organized in Guatemala for business leaders from throughout Central America interested in education reform. He and PREAL also helped a group of multinational and Latin American business leaders organize a Latin America Basic Education Summit that called for greater emphasis on standards, accountability and improved teacher training in the region’s education systems. The chapter he wrote for the Summit’s briefing book (p. 30), on the role of business in education, remains relevant today.
A former member of the Inter-American Dialogue, Restrepo’s contributions went well beyond business and education. He served as governor of Antioquia, and worked tirelessly with successive presidents to nurture a negotiated peace with the FARC. He was a pioneer in promoting good corporate governance, and an advocate of corporate social responsibility. He was also an inspirational model for many, emphasizing the importance of simplicity and humility in leadership. As one business leader observed: “He taught us to see life without power, money and glory.”
Upon retiring from the world of business, Restrepo spent several years in Paris pursuing a doctorate in history. His reflections on being a “student pensioner” are thoughtful and illuminating. Sergio Fajardo, current governor of Antioquia and a member of the Inter-American Dialogue, observed that “he had the capacity to laugh at himself, to look at life happily and with fondness. He did not take even himself seriously and that facilitated his relations with others.” President Juan Manuel Santos, a Dialogue member on leave, characterized Restrepo as “…a great friend, prudent advisor, entrepreneur without parallel, and an Antioqueño who worked with love for his country.” Reflections by three of his former non-executive colleagues can be found here.