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Having a Ball

Entrepreneur Randall Kaplan was giving back to the community long before he became the world's hottest new name in business.

by Michael Aushenker

July 20, 2000 | 8:00 pm

At 31, Randall Kaplan has forged an unusual ethic of philanthropy for someone his age.Photo by Yosi A.R.-Pozeilov

At 31, Randall Kaplan has forged an unusual ethic of philanthropy for someone his age.Photo by Yosi A.R.-Pozeilov

Call it the war room. On the 40th floor of a Century City office building, in an empty conference room of the law firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, 25 young professionals from the legal world and online community assemble. It's after work, and the cause for which they are gathered is a good one. They are the planning committee for The Justice Ball, a young-skewing fundraiser benefiting Bet Tzedek, a beneficiary agency of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles that provides free legal services for the elderly and the impoverished.

With 3,000 people expected at the Museum of Flying in Santa Monica, this year's Justice Ball promises to be the largest yet. The three previous Justice Balls were held at the 1,200-person-capacity House of Blues. Seventies cover band Boogie Knights will supply the party music, and 1980s multiplatinum pop punker Billy Idol will headline.

Standing at the blackboard is Douglas "Disco" Hylton, a 36-year-old professional at IAM.com. For the fourth year in a row, Hylton is helping plan the ball. At the moment, Hylton, something of a carrot-topped Jim Carrey, is handily entertaining the board room as he quips his way through the logistics of when and how Idol will open.

"At 7:30, the doors open," deadpans Disco. He waits a beat. "Not the rock band, but actual doors." Presiding over the meeting is Randall Kaplan, founder of The Justice Ball.

With this year's fundraiser, Kaplan intends to surpass last year's $300,000 take by raising more than $700,000 with his committee of hard-working, dedicated young professionals. When Kaplan gets their commitment, they really commit; most of the players on Team Kaplan have volunteered before, and more than once.

Rafael Fogel, senior vice president and portfolio manager at SunAmerica, has been on every Justice Ball committee with Kaplan. "What Randy does well is that he might be a key person, but he brings people together who can carry out that vision," Fogel says.

Kaplan does not organize The Justice Ball to give himself something to do. He was one of the co-founders of Akamai Technologies, a company with a current net worth of $11.5 billion. Kaplan left Akamai last year as the company made one of the largest IPOs in history and took with him 3 million shares valued at $800 million. Since then, he has become founder and CEO of JUMP Investors Llc., a successful capital ventures firm with clients that include Icebox.comIwin.comTheBrain.com

He's involved with the annual benefit because he believes in the work that Bet Tzedek does, and he has a sense of philanthropy that some would say is very evolved for someone his age.Kaplan is only 31 years old.

Kaplan did not come from a wealthy home, but he definitely inherited his relentless drive to work and to contribute from his lawyer father and real estate agent mother.

"I'm very competitive, and so is his father," explains Kaplan's mother, Linda Eder Ross.Although they divorced when Randall was 2, both parents have always maintained a very close and nurturing relationship with Kaplan. And Ross says that as a boy growing up in the Detroit suburb of Birmingham, Mich., young Randall always knew what he wanted. She remembers a time when Randall went on a school trip to visit an auto supply company. The future entrepreneur was so impressed, says his mother, that "he sat in the CEO's chair, and said, 'Some day, I'm going to own a company like that.'"After attending law school at Northwestern, Kaplan worked as an investment banker and a corporate lawyer.

"I hated practicing law. I wanted to find a challenging business opportunity," says Kaplan, who realized that returning to business school was not financially viable. So with absolutely no experience, he landed a position working as an assist-ant to Eli Broad, CEO of SunAmerica.

There is probably no better illustration of Kaplan's unyielding determination and perseverance than how he landed this position. On New Year's Eve of 1994, Kaplan made a resolution that he would send out a letter a week to a CEO in town requesting an interview. He drew up a long list of L.A.'s captains of industry - including Sumner Redstone, Michael Eisner, Bruce Karitz and Michael Medavoy. Kaplan typically spent hours meticulously researching the subjects of his queries and went out of his way to customize his letters to them. Eventually, he landed meetings (never mind the fact that he was underqualified for just about all of the positions he applied for), including a session with Broad. Kaplan's moxie appealed to Broad, who promised Kaplan a position if he agreed to take one of two business classes at UCLA Extension. Kaplan took both.

For four months during this period, Kaplan was so busy juggling his attorney day job and taking evening classes that he says it ultimately became "the death knell" for a three-year relationship with a girlfriend. Nevertheless, his hard work paid off, and Broad hired him as assistant to the chairman on Nov. 22, 1995 - Kaplan's 27th birthday.

It was while making the résumé rounds that Kaplan met Hylton, who was an executive assistant to Bob Cooper, then president of HBO, and who was floored by the intensity of Kaplan's query letter. As fate would have it, both were working in the same building, only four floors apart.

"I called, and I did not identify myself as Disco. I said, 'Hi, Dan, it's Bob Cooper,' " Hylton says.Kaplan, who had heard Cooper's real voice on the elevators, knew it wasn't really Cooper. But that playful exchange spawned a close friendship.

"I just liked his strength under pressure when I was grilling him," Hylton says. "This guy is as insane as I am, but in a different direction."

Kaplan learned a lot working under Broad, but he soon felt straitjacketed by his position.

"I was getting very impatient," says Kaplan, who wanted a more hands-on leadership role. That opportunity arrived when Kaplan left SunAmerica to form Akamai Technologies in 1998 with three other founders. He convinced corporations such as Disney, MGM, Paramount, GeoCities and Playboy to become clients, which helped turn Akamai (which means "clever" and "cool" in Hawaiian), a company that improved the speed of Web content delivery, into the best performing stock on the New York Stock Exchange.

But Kaplan, growing tired of commuting to Akamai's Boston headquarters and seeking yet another challenge, cashed in his chips, becoming Akamai's largest outside shareholder. But don't ask him how much he's worth.

"People are focused on my net worth. I grew up in an environment where it wasn't classy to talk about that," says Kaplan, who will allow, "I've done fairly well for a young guy."

Kaplan formed a new Brentwood-based capital ventures company, JUMP Investors. JUMP (an acronym for Just Upwardly Mobile Professionals) provides capital for up-and-coming high-tech companies, including Internet startups.

Says Kaplan, "It's our goal at JUMP to help other motivated hungry entre-preneurs execute their visions and build their businesses." Not even a year in business, JUMP Investors already has 30 companies within its fold.

"When he told me he was going to do it, I was absolutely thrilled," says Ross about Kaplan's initiative to create The Justice Ball. "My mother was involved in a lot of charity work."Kaplan's involvement with Bet Tzedek - years before he attained his personal fortune - does not surprise her.

"His generosity has far exceeded what you would expect from a 31-year-old," says Kaplan's mother, who notes that her son "always had this compassion for the needy people," collecting money to help fight multiple sclerosis at the age of 10, without any prodding.

Kaplan describes Bet Tzedek as "a real organization that helps real people." He is quick to credit Bet Tzedek's executive director, David Lash, and his Justice Ball committee, particularly Fogel, his co-chair ("beyond a doubt the MVP of this year's event," Kaplan says), for making the ball a successful fundraiser every year.

But if it weren't for Kaplan, there would be no Justice Ball. Kaplan's relationship with the House of Justice began when he attended a Bet Tzedek fundraiser and realized how few people there were in his age group."He couldn't understand why they couldn't involve the future of L.A.," says Kaplan's wife, Lara.Kaplan approached Lash and Bet Tzedek with the proposition of creating a function aimed at attracting young professionals, affordably priced and featuring entertainment relevant to their generation. Lash was all for it, and, with no experience assembling such an event, Kaplan dove right in, enlisting everyone he knew. Kaplan even charmed the manager of the House of Blues into donating the venue."He has a talent of speaking to a group of people with such confidence and such poise that people will adhere to it," says Lara, 33. "He is incredibly organized. He offers suggestions and is open to suggestions."Kaplan had no problem convincing Hylton, whose father was a lawyer and whose mother was an active philanthro-pist, to join his original planning committee. Hylton, who earned his nickname "Disco" as a DJ for parties in his native Canada, proposed to take care of the entertainment, and they very comfortably slipped into their respective roles.

"I told Randy, I'll handle entertainment, you handle all the business, and we'll have a throw-down," says Hylton.

The Justice Ball was an instant hit. According to Lash, the event has single-handedly raised Bet Tzedek's profile, particularly among young people.

"I actually tried to do something like this, and I couldn't get it done," Lash says. "He had a very definite idea, down to the details, about how it should run. And he has this amazing ability to persevere until he makes his vision into a reality."

Kaplan's wife knows why he succeeded: "He does not take no for an answer. Whether it's charity or it's business or it's personal, if Randy makes a promise to do something, it gets done."It was four years ago that the former Lara Greenberg was looking for a job and found a husband instead. For that, she has Disco to thank - Disco Hylton, that is.

"She called and said, 'I really need a gig,' " recalls Hylton, a mutual friend who introduced them to each other. "And I said, I have a boy for you, and you're just not ever going to stop thanking me."Aside from lending balance to Kaplan's life, Lara opened up another important facet - a sense of Judaism."I come from a family where Israel is very important," says Lara. "It became a part of my entire family's life."

In fact, in 1993, Lara and her brother moved there, and she lived in Israel for a year and a half. Lara still observes Shabbat every week, and she says that while Randy was resistant at first, he now joins her as she lights candles and says the bracha over wine.

"We have an understanding that Friday night is Shabbat," says Lara - a time to leave the world of business behind and entertain only close friends and family. And their tradition will not flag once they start a family.

"It's really important to me to have that sense of spirituality, of coming together, calmness," she says.Kaplan will visit Israel for the first time in October, when the Jerusalem Fund will honor him with its Einstein Technological Medal. Among the occasions he and his wife are looking forward to: having dinner with Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

There is a unanimous sentiment circulating among those who knew Kaplan before his windfall of success: that fame and fortune have not really changed Kaplan, who since forming JUMP actually works longer and harder than before. Hylton says that these days, it's not uncommon for him to receive e-mails from Kaplan posted at 4 or 5 a.m. And while Hylton comments that sometimes Kaplan can be demanding on others, it is only because he demands as much from himself.

Bet Tzedek's Lash says, "He's a hero. I'm not sure I've ever seen anyone with his vision and drive accomplish so much to help so many people."

Many people around Kaplan thought he was insane when he decided to walk away from a multimillion-dollar stock option package and leave SunAmerica to co-found Akamai. Fogel, who worked alongside Kaplan at the time, remembers when Kaplan first showed him a business plan for Akamai."I certainly didn't think he was nuts for going after his dream. Randy is a risk taker," says Fogel, although he admits that he never would have guessed that Akamai would become as successful as it did.Nor did Kaplan's decision rattle his wife.

"He has a determination in his eye that is so focused," Lara says. "I knew he would be successful at whatever he did."

Lara was equally supportive when Kaplan left Akamai last October to start JUMP Investors."He took a huge risk. Even if it did fail, so what? He's young, motivated, smart, and he's going to do something wonder-ful after that," says Lara. "One of the great things about Randy is that he's not afraid to fail. And he always helps people. He remembers what it's like to be broke, to look for a job."

Kaplan claims that he would never have achieved his success without some active mentors in his life, such as ambassador to Norway and Michigan-based philanthropist David Hermelin; David Page, who coached Kaplan at age 6 when he was in Little League back in Detroit; top SunAmerica executive Jay Wintrob; and Broad. Of his former boss, he says, "I'm probably not alone in thinking that Eli Broad is one of the most philanthropic leaders in Los Angeles. I didn't want to work for Eli. I wanted to be like Eli."

"I've always had this desire to work hard, to achieve, to create something out of nothing," says Kaplan, in essence, just a man content doing what he loves. "I love to work and the people I work with. I think I have the greatest job in the world."

Bet Tzedek's The Justice Ball will take place Sat., July 29, 8:30 p.m. at the Museum of Flying, 2772 Donald Douglas Loop North, Santa Monica. For more information, call (323) 549-5831 or (323) 549-5817.

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