From Blue-Collar Birth to Billionaire

David M. Rubenstein, co-founder of the Carlyle Group, discussed his path to financial success at George Talks Business.

David M. Rubenstein
David M. Rubenstein urged students during his George Talks Business discussion to learn "to write very well, not just a tweet or a text message." (Sydney Elle Gray/GW Today)
September 30, 2019

By B.L. Wilson

Billionaire financier and philanthropist David M. Rubenstein, co-founder and co-executive chair of The Carlyle Group, one of the world’s largest private investment firms, described himself as a man who more often had been lucky than one who had aspired to great wealth or had a clear idea of career goals.

“I didn’t have any money and didn’t aspire to have any money,” he told George Washington University students and faculty at a George Talk Business event Monday evening at the Jack Morton Auditorium.

“My goal was just to follow what President John Kennedy said, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,’ and go into public service.”

GW School of Business Dean Anuj Mehrotra began the conversation with Mr. Rubenstein by asking about his beginnings as an only child in a blue-collar family in Baltimore.

Mr. Rubenstein said he grew up in a Jewish area in one of the most rigidly segregated cities by religion in the country. In hindsight, he said, growing up poor was an advantage.

“If you grow up with no real money but the unconditional love of your parents that’s probably all you really need,” he said. “If you are willing to work hard, you can accomplish something in this country. If you grow up in a very wealthy family, the ability to have drive and ambition might not be there.”

“[My parents] focused on reading to get me out of the blue-collar environment,” he said. By the age of 6, he was borrowing 12 books a week from the local library, which helped to develop his skills at writing and speaking, he said, both of which  are essential for success.

“Learn how to persuade people of your thoughts by learning how to write very well, not just a tweet or a text message, but something that has more thought to it and practice writing over and over again,” he urged the students. 

After graduating from Duke University, Mr. Rubenstein worked at a law firm and then on two presidential campaigns. Following President Jimmy Carter’s 1976 electoral victory, Mr. Rubenstein worked in the White House as deputy assistant to Mr. Carter for domestic policy.

When Mr. Carter lost his re-election bid, Mr. Rubenstein said his political connections vanished. He couldn’t find work, even as a lawyer.

So, along with co-partners, he started The Carlyle Group, then a Washington-based private equity firm that specialized in aerospace, defense and telecommunications companies, and is now one of the largest private investment firms in the world.

“It was risky in the beginning,” he said. To audience laughter, he mentioned turning down offers to invest in startups like Jeff Bezos’ Amazon and Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook.

“You never can tell who is going to make it and who is not going to make it,” he said. “There’s no one thing I can say you can do to be successful.”

The number one quality he looked for in the people he has hired, however, was “reasonable intelligence. I don’t want a genius,” he said. “Geniuses are impossible to manage.” He said he also looks for people who are willing to work reasonably hard, have humility, high ethical standards and are self-starters.

The Carlyle Group became a renowned brand and overwhelming success managing $223 billion, he said, by diversifying its investments and globalizing the investment teams and vehicles.

Instructor Rodney Lake, the deputy chair of the GWSB Department of Finance and the director of the GW Investment Institute, joined the conversation to discuss Mr. Rubenstein’s philanthropic initiatives.

“Patriotic philanthropy”, Mr. Rubenstein’s brand of giving, happened “serendipitously.” Upon viewing the only copy of the Magna Carta in the United States and learning that it was about to be sold to a foreign investor, he bought it and loaned it permanently to the National Archives.

He said he then became interested in supporting other historical ventures, such as repairing the earthquake-damaged Washington Monument and the homes of Presidents George Washington at Mount Vernon, James Madison’s Montpelier and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.

“I’ve been trying to remind people a little bit more of the history and heritage of our country,” Mr. Rubenstein said, “on the theory that if you know a little bit more of the history of your country, you are less likely to repeat the mistakes our ancestors have made before us.“


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