While in Bangkok, Tom Ortwein ’77 (center) volunteered at the Duang Prateep Foundation kindergarten for the children of indigent families.
An alum reflects
Bethlehem to Bangkok and Bavaria
By Tom Ortwein ’77
Born and raised in Bethlehem, I studied economics at Moravian. The practical degree certainly provided building blocks to work from, but in hindsight even more influential were the field and independent studies I completed during my junior and senior years, including learning the discipline of investing through the Amrhein Investment Club.
The repeated rush of charting my own way (with support from my professors G. Alden Sears, Shapour Samii, and John Grencer) helped me see a pattern in the path: Get an idea, make a plan, do the research, maintain flexibility, react to change, and enjoy the journey.
I had always wanted to experience life in a foreign country, and before my wife, Linda, and I were married, we often daydreamed about moving abroad. But careers and family took over for the next 30ish years.
My career began with a short stint in the food service industry, followed by many years in the New York investment world with roles in wealth management, sales and trading, corporate finance, and capital markets. But I never stopped musing about life abroad. In February 2003, with wanderlust in my heart, I left the corporate world with the goal of building a business I could manage from anywhere. Together with my business partner, I launched Highbrace Capital. For the past 17 years, we have managed a “fund of funds,” provided strategic financial consulting services, and helped launch and finance several startups. We have no employees; I just need a computer and an internet connection to my partner in New York City.
Once our two kids, Jessie and Max, graduated from college and become immersed in lives of their own, Linda and I were free to become global nomads. But by then, Linda was having too much fun in her second career as a college counselor and wasn’t ready to disconnect entirely. So we compromised: She’d look for opportunities abroad, and we’d live wherever her job led us. In 2014, she accepted a position at an international school in Thailand and we moved to Bangkok, sight unseen. That year, we discovered what it felt like to be a minority in a very foreign land.
Somewhere in rural Chiang Mai Province Thailand
Tom and Linda Ortwein in Cesky Krumlov Czech Republic
Ortwein in Passau, Germany
Linda loved her job, and I loved learning to live like a local. The 12-hour time difference between Bangkok and New York gave me plenty of daylight hours to roam without neglecting my business. I clumsily explored the Thai language and had endless fun digging into the Thai street-food scene. My favorite local dish is phet krapau moo kai dau—minced pork stir-fried with holy basil, garlic, and chilies over rice with a fried egg on top—available everywhere for $1.25. If you like it spicy, just say, “pet pet,” and cool your palate with a cold Singha. It is holy indeed.
Through an expat networking group called Internations, I met the founder of the Duang Prateep Foundation, which supports a variety of initiatives focused on children’s aid. I became a volunteer at the foundation’s kindergarten and was thoroughly impressed with how polite, generous, and kind all of the kids and staff were. Although their families couldn’t afford to buy clothes or books, they happily shared the little they had. My favorite task was serving ice cream at lunch; the kids would be thrilled but would wait patiently to get their helpings.
During our three years in Bangkok, Linda and I biked and hiked all over Southeast Asia. We visited exotic countries from Borneo to Bhutan, met beautiful people, and ate strange foods, from tom yum to tarantulas. Eventually, the distance from friends and family nudged us to look closer to home. Happily, having a fully portable business left much of the world to consider.
“I am so incredibly grateful for this adventure and would urge everyone to explore life abroad if at all possible. And if you do make that exhilarating leap, my best advice is to chart your path—get an idea, make a plan, do the research.
React with flexibility and enjoy every bit of the journey.”
With international schools in several European cities for Linda to choose from, we moved to Bavaria, where we live now in a beautiful town near Munich. We ride our bikes everywhere and often make the short walk to watch the sunset at the Starnberger See, framed by snowy Alps in the distance. We frequent biergartens instead of street food vendors and see locals dressed in dirndls and lederhosen instead of sarongs and chut thai. We indulge in soft pretzels the size of steering wheels, giant roast pork knuckles, and grilled wurst with sauerkraut, all happily washed down with a frosty Helles- or Weißbier. And unlike in Bangkok, beer isn’t served on the rocks.
I take German language classes at the Volkshochschule (community college) and enjoy volunteering at the Starnberger Tafel—a food bank that supports about 125 local families. I’ve come to know several of the regular customers, all of whom are tolerant of my poor accent and grammar.
Each of these experiences has made me ever more aware of how different the prospects are for people across the globe. How remarkable the strength and resiliency of the human spirit must be to rise above life’s many challenges. How many opportunities are available to me as an American. We take so much for granted in the US, but despite today’s economic uncertainty and challenging political climate, my travels have especially impressed upon me the privilege of our freedom.
I am so incredibly grateful for this adventure and would urge everyone to explore life abroad if at all possible. And if you do make that exhilarating leap, my best advice is to chart your path—get an idea, make a plan, do the research. React with flexibility and enjoy every bit of the journey.