The heiress has been a staunch advocate of closing the world’s increasingly large wealth gap, and is seeking the help of 50 individuals who can think of meaningful ways to use her $27 million inheritance for society.
Many people like to daydream about what they’d do if they received a million dollars out of the blue, or if a genie made them into millionaires. In the case of 31-year-old Austrian-German heiress Marlene Engelhorn, this fantastical situation is actually a sobering reality. In fact, it seems that Marlene’s mission is not to become richer, but to redistribute the wealth that she received by virtue of her bloodline.
The young heiress’ late grandmother was Traudl Engelhorn-Vechiatto, a billionaire whose net worth was valued at around $4.2 billion upon her death in 2022 at the age of 95, according to Forbes estimates. Both Marlene and her grandmother descend from the famous German industrialist, Friedrich Engelhorn, who founded the chemical and pharmaceutical giant BASF, reports VOA News.
Traudl set aside a portion of her wealth for her granddaughter, making Marlene a very wealthy individual. Yet even earlier on, the heiress made it clear that she intended to give away around 90% of her wealth, as her interview with Anita Ghoreshi of TEDx Vienna Magazine revealed.
Battling Wealth Inequality
For years, Marlene had already been participating in various initiatives and organizations that aim to narrow the increasingly widening wealth gap in the world. In fact, she co-founded the group “Tax Me Now,” which is made up of other wealthy individuals from German-speaking countries who wish to address tax policies that have exacerbated socioeconomic inequality, reports Niha Masih of The Washington Post. She also joined a number of protests with other wealthy individuals, demanding higher taxes for the rich amid the upcoming World Economic Forum, adds VOA News.
“I have inherited a fortune, and therefore power, without having done anything for it,” Marlene shared in a statement, reports Bethany Bell of the BBC. “And the state doesn’t even want taxes on it.”
Indeed, Austria is one of the few countries in Europe that abolished the inheritance tax altogether in 2008, the BBC feature adds. As such, inheriting large sums of money has become the key to one’s fate in the country, as its rich citizens become richer. According to VOA News, economist Emanuel List of Vienna’s University of Economics and Business told the AFP that “the top 5% own about 54% of Austria’s net wealth, while the entire bottom half of households only owns 4%, so basically nothing.”
This of course, is a microcosm of a far wider, global reality. In a January 16 press release, Oxfam International revealed that the world’s richest one percent “grabbed nearly two-thirds of all new wealth worth $42 trillion created since 2020,” which is “ twice as much money” as that of the world’s remaining 99 percent at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder.
A New Approach to Wealth Distribution
So how exactly will Marlene distribute her impressive $27 million fortune? For certain, the heiress wants to ensure that it goes to projects that will really make a difference in the world. Yet such a plan involves more than giving out money to anyone with an idea.
“You wouldn’t wander around the streets, walk up to a person and be like, ‘Here you go, have this multi-million sum. Go play,’” Marlene explains in her interview for TEDx Vienna Magazine. “You don’t do that—but this is exactly what happens when you inherit money. I don’t have expertise just because I was born rich. I think there are democratic ways of dealing with this—first with a public debate but then with taxation: this democratic way of getting money back into public pockets in order to create the public infrastructure that we all need.”
To help her make this democratic vision a reality, the heiress has now set up a search for 50 individuals who can help her think of how to distribute her inherited wealth.
Titled the “Good Council for Redistribution,” this group will be composed of people “from all age groups, federal states, social classes and backgrounds,” shares Christoph Hofinger, the Managing Director of the Foresight Institute that’s aiding Marlene’s project, with Bethany Bell of the BBC. Hofinger adds that they’ll be accepting candidates from all age groups, social classes, backgrounds, and federal states for the initiative.
The Good Council
Interested participants may register online or through phone, as per Emily Burack of Town & Country. The BBC adds that Marlene and her collaborators will be selecting the 50 people from a pool of 10,000 Austrians after they’ve filled up forms (with 15 substitutes in case there are dropouts). Then, the millionaire will be holding meetings in Salzburg, Austria, from March to June this year with the participants, academics, and civil society organizations in attendance.
Holfinger tells the BBC that they’ll be covering the travel expenses of every participant, and providing interpreters and child care if needed. The goal of the council is to generate ideas that would lead to meaningful and tangible change in society. Marlene will also be paying participants €1,200 ($1,200) for each weekend they attend.
VOA adds that if participants are unable to suggest ideas that gain broad favor, the heiress’ inheritance of $27 million will return to her. The 31-year-old, who studied German at the University of Vienna, also plans to get a normal job once she’s managed to distribute around 90 percent of her inheritance.
Though various news sources are uncertain about exactly how much the heiress’ total inheritance is, and how much she plans to keep, Marlene seems determined to not only distance herself from her family’s generational wealth, but actually do something with an inheritance that could potentially benefit hundreds of people rather than a single individual.
Banner photo by Ulrich Palzer from the Kremayr & Scheriau website.