At just 19, Gustav Magnar Witzøe became one of the world’s youngest billionaires on the Forbes’ list. 2022 marked the start of his humanitarian foundation ‘W Initiative’, which is dedicated to improving living conditions and increased opportunities for children and young people. In the last few years, he has also emerged on the fashion scene as the one to watch, making a runway debut at Thom Browne show during NYFW.
At just 19, you became one of the world’s youngest billionaires, with your dad giving you a 47 % stake in the family empire. How has your dad’s business and becoming one of the youngest billionaires shape you as a person?
From my father building the business my most important lesson was the importance of dedication and hard work. That if you really want to achieve something, you need to set your mind to it. The ’empire’, as you call it, did not come easy and was certainly not built in a day. He hated being forced to leave our small, coastal community to move to Oslo for lack of jobs. When he saw his chances to try to take over a bankruptcy back home in Frøya, he jumped at it. Not a penny to his name, he set his mind to build a future for his family and he succeeded. Working day and night, he built the family business to what it is today. Of course, I am grateful for the opportunities my parents gave me in life. But I am even more grateful for the values they instilled in me and the fact that we still have close bonds.
Lessons learned from becoming a major owner at such an early age are somewhat different. By nature, I am rather shy and introvert. Suddenly finding myself in the spotlight had its challenges. Maybe that is part of why I like modelling, trying to get a grip on being in the spotlight.
The most important lesson of them all however, is that with wealth comes not only great opportunities, but also great responsibilities. Responsibilities for a substantial number of employees, their families and the communities we operate. Responsibilities to manage and develop in a good manner what has been created. And most important, the responsibility to contribute to other young people who have not been as fortunate in life as myself. Hence, the ‘W Initiative’.
You grew up in Norway. What are some of your favorite memories from growing up?
My fondest memories are of my family and of the beautiful nature and scenery. My closest neighbor when I grew up was my grandmother, so running over to her house when I wanted is one of my best memories. And then the magnificent nature of Frøya. The sea serving you a beautiful sunset when you go to bed, only to batter the shores in wildness the following morning. I travel a bit, but can’t go long without coming back to it.
In the recent years, you developed a passion for fashion. What excites you about fashion? What is the element that fascinates you the most about it?
Underneath fashion lies design, creativity and playfulness. Those are also important parts of my personality and the fashion scene is a great place to play them out, to play that part of me out. Besides, although fashion is often associated with something superficial, it often reflects traits and aspects of the time we live in. It intrigues me. And it lets me meet a lot of interesting people as well.
Working in fashion and with fashion brands makes you a model. How do you feel in front of the camera? What is the most powerful feeling you experience when you are modeling?
In a way, I feel liberated from my natural shyness. Modelling is an act. You not only get to go into different roles and characters. You have to. That’s the job. And a little bit like acting, you must try to find a little piece of that character within yourself. Bits and pieces you were not aware you had in you.
For your work, you get to travel the world regularly. What do you love the most about traveling? Why do you think traveling is priceless?
Coming home. Don’t get me wrong, I love to travel, seeing new places, having new experiences, meeting people with other customs and perspectives. They are all learning experiences and great fun as well. And there are no more meaningful travels than when I visit the projects ‘W initiative’ is engaged in. Seeing that you can really contribute to making a difference in the lives of young people who are less fortunate than myself. It really helps you get a perspective. But nothing beats coming home to Frøya.
Last year, you started the humanitarian foundation ‘W Initiative’, which is, like you mentioned, dedicated to improving living conditions and increased opportunities for children and young people. What inspired you founding this foundation and why is it so dear to you?
The ‘W initiative’ is very much at the center of my engagement. When you are blessed with good fortune and such a broad range of opportunities as I have been, you not only get a desire to contribute your bit in the world, you realize that you have an obligation to. You cannot help everyone, but I decided to focus on young people, guided by the UN’s sustainability goals. There are so many children full of promise, talent, hope and aspirations who are held back by lack of opportunities, lack of basic requirements. Things we may take for granted, such as clean drinking water, which is what our first project in Uganda takes on.
What are your main goals for the next few years that you want to achieve with ‘W Initiative’?
As well as working to ensure that the projects we have started create the help and relief they intend to, ensuring funds are well invested, the ‘W initiative’ constantly evaluates potential new projects. Where would the funds have the greatest effect, aligned with our goals. We have a managing director and an independent board, but I am also deeply committed to this work myself. In the long haul, raising further funds is also an ambition.
On the business front, you are investing in start-up companies through your company and are particularly interested in tech companies. What makes you so interested in tech? And why did you decide on investing in start-ups?
I have three criteria and at least two of them need to be met if I am to invest. Firstly, investments must be profitable. You must take care of the values you are entrusted with. Secondly, I must feel there is some value more than money in the business. I want to see it contributes to or creates something worthwile in the community. Thirdly, I have to have some kind of ‘feelgood’ on a personal level. That may be because it is involved in something that engages me or simply that I like and believe in the people behind.
I have invested in a few start-ups. That is because I like and would like to help good ideas survive and having a chance to succeed. Tech has been well represented, mainly because so many of the most exciting ideas with the greatest impact now have tech as a main or major component. But tech is not a guideline for me. One of my recent investments is a design studio.
Talent: Gustav Magnar Witzøe
Photographer: Marcus Cooper
Stylist / Fashion editor: Raz Martinez
Creative direction: Law Roach
Hair: Sergio Estrada
Make-up: Hina Suleman
Fashion assistants: David Atere & Grace Connaughton / Fashion market associate: Celine Azena
Photography assistant: Nelson Castillo
Set design: Michael Sturgeon / Set design assistants: Michael Waxer & Cedar Kirwin
Producer: Zak Riddle
Casting: Timi Letonja
This interview was done for Numéro Netherlands by Jana Letonja.