“How many of you want to make a fortune?” health care entrepreneur Jeff Margolis asked a roomful of bright, eager MBA students at the Jewish Leadership Initiative (JLI) Conference in Santa Monica on Jan 30.
A flurry of hands went up.
“How many want to save the world? Do something really meaningful?” Margolis, the founder of TriZetto Group Inc., a health care technology firm and a frequent lecturer at Wharton and Harvard prodded. “And in what order? Should you make your money first and then do something meaningful?”
One student had an answer: “How about coming up with a business model that makes saving the world profitable?”
“You mean like Mark Zuckerberg?” Margolis asked, only half-jokingly.
That was perhaps the most telling — and topical — of questions lobbed about at the JLI’s second annual conference, which brings together Jewish business and law school students, young professionals and the business titans they hope to someday become for an afternoon of learning and networking.
This year’s conference attracted more than 200 aspiring business leaders as well as top executives and entrepreneurs from around the country, including Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, the Tennis Channel chairman and CEO Ken Solomon, and Jeff Smulyan, chairman of Emmis Communications Corp., an Indianapolis-based broadcasting company that publishes Los Angeles magazine, among others.
During six 45-minute sessions, seasoned business vets offered their best advice on how to become rich, powerful and philanthropic, and they also handed down a mix of practical tips (“Have a long-term plan”) and spiritual philosophy (“The measure of your success will be how you get through adversity”). The usual emphasis on tikkun olam figured in, along with broad strokes about the value of Jewish values and living a balanced life — this, despite the glaring fact that not a single female presenter appeared.
“You are an ambassador of your culture, whether you ask for it or not,” Solomon said during the opening keynote. Being a Jewish leader demands right action, he said, citing how, when Israeli tennis champion Shahar Pe’er was barred from a tournament in Dubai, his company refused to broadcast the games. “We heard about this,” he said, “and we felt it abrogated all human rules of sportsmanship and dignity.”
Despite considerable professional success — Solomon has held top posts with the Walt Disney Co., DreamWorks and News Corp. — he maintains that his nonprofit work is his most rewarding. Last February, the Obama administration appointed him to the President’s Committee on Arts and Humanities. “It’s the non-business stuff I’m most proud of and most committed to,” he said.
Smulyan, who named Emmis Broadcasting after the Hebrew word for “truth” (emet), also lauded the virtues of non-business pursuits. “You all want to take great vacations, have nice homes, nice cars,” he said, but he encouraged the group to “believe in something that is greater than yourself.”
“My life isn’t complete until I make a difference,” he said.
Founded as the Jewish Graduate Student Initiative (JGSI) in 2007 by Rabbi Dave Sorani and a group of students from UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, the conference aims to link up-and-coming business leaders to their Jewish counterparts across Southern California. The organizers’ goal is to promote a Jewish communal connection so students might one day become community leaders and parlay their success into charitable giving.
But for now, the organization tries to provide some Jewish continuity at a time when many young Jews are disaffected from Jewish life.
“There’s nothing that catches young professionals as this stage of life,” said Estela Wolf, 32, a business strategy consultant for the financial consulting firm Deloitte, who also sits on the board of JGSI. “You go from Hebrew school to confirmation, and then people are pretty much disengaged until they have kids.”
Although the conference is one of many initiatives in Los Angeles aiming to engage young Jews, Wolf was careful to distinguish it from other youth-seeking enterprises, like Aish or JDate, because of its emphasis on career development. “This is kind of on another level,” she said.
Until recently the only female on the JGSI board, Wolf said, when asked afterward, that the absence of female presenters at the conference was unintentional. “That doesn’t mean there isn’t a lack of female representation in the Jewish executive population in Los Angeles in general,” she said. “Go out there and look — it’s disproportionately male.”
She said that last year former Los Angeles Dodgers CEO Jamie McCourt was the conference’s keynote speaker, and Judy Olian, dean of UCLA Anderson School of Management, appeared as a panelist. Wolf said she was encouraged by the number of women attending the conference. “The scales are tipping,” she said, vowing a concerted effort to include more women presenters next year. “For me, it sends an important message that when we [women] get to that level, it’s that much more important for us to represent women in executive audiences.”
Moseying about the lobby, Newmark, the conference’s most famous speaker, offered his reason for flying in from San Francisco to attend: “This sounded like a really good event to talk about how one might operate by some of the stuff I learned in Hebrew school.” The somewhat eccentric Newmark, who tends to speak in aphorisms uttered in musical cadence, said the most important Jewish value he learned was to “treat people like you want to be treated.”
“It’s the only way I know how to be,” he said. “As well as being Jewish, I’m also a nerd American, and we take this literally.” Newmark was raised going to a Conservative New Jersey synagogue but said he now gets his spiritual fill from an unlikely source. “I do follow many of the dictates of my rabbi, Leonard Cohen,” he said. “That may sound like a joke, but I’m serious.”
Most attendees are secular Jews, and Sorani, who is Orthodox, said the focus is not to encourage religious observance. “My end goal is to get these students involved in Jewish community leadership,” he said. Just 28, Sorani did a brief stint in law school before dropping out to become a rabbi (“My mom’s gonna kill me if she finds out I talked about that”), which is where he discovered that campus Jewish associations were “pretty weak.”
“The last things these kids need is another class on Jewish ethics,” Sorani said. “They want to connect to each other; they don’t want to feel pressured. If they’re interested in growing Jewishly after that, it’s up to them.”
Several attendees said they were attracted to the conference by its impressive array of speakers; others said they were looking for both business connections and Jewish involvement.
Ellie Altshuler, 27, an intellectual property lawyer at CMG Worldwide, said that while she enjoys her job, she wants to take more professional risks. After attending a session with Eric Kurtzman, CEO and founder of Kurtzman Carson Consultants, a corporate restructuring firm, she was feeling inspired.
“[We] share the same sentiment about attorneys — they’re almost cripples, they’re so risk averse!” Altshuler said. “His speech really resonated with me, because I’m not married and I don’t have a family yet; I could take a chance and do something different. It was really motivating.”
For another woman, that same session was deflating.
“I’m learning Chinese right now. Is that a waste of my time?” she asked Kurtzman during the Q-and-A.
Kurtzman, who said he studied Japanese when Japan was thought to become the next global superpower, replied bluntly: “Um … yes. What are you gonna do when Apple comes out with technology that allows you to speak into a box and it comes out in Chinese?”
Not everyone was entranced by hours and hours of success stories. Max Leeds, a law student at UCLA, opted to network in the lobby during a panel discussion on real estate. “I got bored,” he said. “I like questioning why, why, why. Their knowledge of real estate is amazing, but I want to talk about why the economy is bad, where do we go from here?”
Conference presenters were no less candid.
In one session, real estate developer Eugene Rosenfeld opened up about his major regrets, saying, “When I was young, I was never home. My wife brought our children up. That was a mistake; I missed a really important part of my life. And in life, there are no second acts.”
Errol Ginsberg, founder and chairman of Ixia, a network analysis system for wireless communications, emphasized the importance of finding balance in life. “In the early days, I didn’t have that,” he admitted. Before his session ended, he rattled off a list of people he considers great entrepreneurs — Bill Gates, Michael Dell, Larry Page and Sergey Brin among them — noting, with evident pride, which ones were Jewish.
“You’ve got to be proud to be a Jew,” Ginsberg said. “Jews have accomplished things completely disproportionate to our numbers; it’s ridiculous.”
With that, he offered one last bit of advice: “I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but I will: Marry Jewish; if you can. Aside from perpetuating our people, it’s one less thing to have conflict about. Marriage is tough enough.”