Last month, he broke ground on Haiti’s first Marriott hotel and Digicel’s charity foundation is spending millions to build 150 schools across the country.
His approach has won acclaim from the likes of former US president Bill Clinton, who heads the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) and is the UN’s special envoy to Haiti.
O’Brien coordinates CGI’s Haiti Action Network, whose members have committed more than US$350 million to education, infrastructure and business development projects.
“The CGI program in Haiti is considered one of the best. It’s really because of Denis’ strong leadership,” said Anne Hastings, the director of Fonkoze, a micro-credit finance institution in Haiti. “He sets goals and people have to achieve them. That’s unusual in Haiti.”
His first non-profit investment in Haiti was the capital’s historic Iron Market, the heart of downtown commercial activity, which O’Brien spent millions to rebuild after the earthquake.
“All the problems in Haiti are fixable, you just need the right project skills,” he said.
To prove his point, Digicel has moved its call center for the French-speaking Caribbean from affluent Martinique to Haiti.
On his first visit to Haiti, O’Brien was struck by the streets crowded with vendors.
“You have all these entrepreneurs all over this city. They are natural-born sellers,” he said.
By celebrating enterprise on the television show, a highly-produced affair with crane-mounted cameras, lighting, dry ice and confetti, O’Brien hopes to inspire a new business culture of import substitution. This year’s finalists included a coffee milling business, a solar energy company, a fish exporter and fashion designers.
“Hopefully, somebody is sitting at home or under a tree and says: ‘I got an idea,’” he said. “Instead of importing rice, grow rice. Instead of importing chickens, breed chickens. Instead of importing eggs, lay eggs.”
O’Brien’s next goal: launching a smartphone revolution in Haiti and offering mobile banking to the poor. Digicel is investing in extra bandwidth this year to handle a fourth-generation (4G) network upgrade, raising its total investment in Haiti to more than US$600 million.
“What we’re trying to have is a First World telecommunications network in a developing economy, and most of the time that doesn’t happen,” he said.
Digicel relies on Asian firms such as Samsung Electronics Co to continue lowering prices thanks to cheap Taiwanese semi-conductors.
“We can buy a smartphone for US$70 today. In 2013 it will be US$30,” he said.
Since gobbling up its main competitor, Comcel, last year, Digicel admits it has had service issues, but says they are being addressed. Some suggest it may have too cozy a relationship with the Haitian government, creating a virtual state within a state that rivals the influence of the UN or the World Bank.
Digicel is Haiti’s largest taxpayer and its main building houses the offices of the mayor of Port-au-Prince as well as the Red Cross.
O’Brien, whose mother was a human rights activist in Ireland and who is a father of four, has spent US$25 million on development projects through the foundation.
“Most multi-billion dollar companies rob the country blind. We like to make a good profit, but sleep well at night,” O’Brien said.
The morning after the business gala, O’Brien drove out to the rural community of Saut d’Eau for the inauguration of one of the new schools built by his foundation.