David Rubenstein, this year’s commencement speaker at George Mason University, has some simple but sage advice for college graduates.
Don’t be afraid of change. Take some chances in life and use your talents. Remember those who made it possible for you to succeed. Leave the world a better place than when you were born.
Those aren’t just words to Rubenstein, they are the key to success. The son of a postal worker and a homemaker, Rubenstein left a career as a lawyer and public policy advisor in his 30s to become a co-founder of The Carlyle Group. Over the past 27 years, Rubenstein and his partners have built the company into one of the most influential private equity firms in the world. What began with $5 million in capital is now a global firm that manages $198 billion from 34 offices on six continents.
If the story ended there, Rubenstein would be a lot higher up on Forbes’ list of the world’s billionaires (for the record, he’s number 600) and probably lesser known. But Rubenstein’s legacy is also about how much of his wealth he has given away.
As have Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and a select group of other billionaires, Rubenstein has pledged to donate half his wealth. Most of his philanthropy is directed at colleges and medical research. But Rubenstein also spends millions to preserve historic documents and landmarks, what he’s dubbed his “Patriotic Philanthropy.” He says it’s his way of saying thank you to a country that has allowed him to prosper. In recent years, he’s given $7.5 million to restore the Washington Monument after the 2011 earthquake and donated $10 million to restore former slave quarters at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello plantation. He’s also purchased the 1297 edition of the Magna Carta for $21 million and put it on display at the National Archives.
“I came from very modest circumstances,” Rubenstein says. “I take great pride in being an American and think Americans who have been successful have an obligation to give back.”
Rubenstein sat down with Mason Spirit magazine to discuss the university, his advice to college graduates, and his commitment to philanthropy.
MS: You started The Carlyle Group after concluding you were, in your own words, a “mediocre lawyer.” While some might disagree, in the end you were far more successful for recognizing what drives you and making a change. Many of our graduates may face a similar turning point. What kind of advice would you give them?
RUBENSTEIN: It was clear that I didn’t have the skills that my clients or my partners thought were likely to get me any legal awards. I concluded that if you are not really good at something, try something that you might be better at and might like better. So I decided to take a gamble and start what was the first buyout firm in Washington, D.C.—and it took off. You have to take chances in life. I recommend to all people that they take some chances in their careers and try to take some risks. Generally, people who do take risks, if they are lucky and they work hard, will be rewarded appropriately.
MS: What does success mean to you?
RUBENSTEIN: Success is a complicated word. Happiness is very elusive, very complicated, very difficult to achieve. But I think if you can live a life that involves happiness for yourself and your family, you will have achieved success. For me, the greatest personal happiness arises, and therefore the greatest success is achieved, by helping other people. I think success can best be defined as finding a way to make oneself useful on the face of the Earth and do something that makes the world a slightly better place and makes life better for others.
MS: What should be the top goals for a great university?
RUBENSTEIN: Universities today have a dual mission: Educate people and make them better able to be productive citizens of our society and also do research that might lead to ideas or products or services or concepts that will make human activity better than it was before. I think a good university should combine both.
MS: Have those goals changed since you were a student?
RUBENSTEIN: When I was younger, there weren’t as many universities that were able to fulfill those aspirations. Today, we have many new universities. A perfect example of this change is George Mason. When I went to college, George Mason didn’t exist. In a relatively short period of time, George Mason has emerged as not only one of the most interesting and exciting universities in the United States, but one that has made a real impact through the research done there, through the accomplishments of its students and its student-athletes.
MS: At the heart of Mason’s vision is charting its own path. You’ve had quite a bit of success with this strategy. Is that a good model for a young university? And what sort of challenges come with charting your own path?
RUBENSTEIN: Whenever you are doing something that hasn’t been done before in the world of business or social entrepreneurship, inevitably you will have people who say that what you are trying to do isn’t a good idea. If that were always accepted as wisdom, it would be a very boring world and an unexciting society in which to live. The people who made great changes in society are people who had ideas that all seemed silly at the time or all seemed too novel to be realistic.
So when a university can come along and say we are going to do something that the other universities aren’t doing or something that hasn’t been quite done this way, I think that’s a sign of imagination and something we should encourage.
MS: You are a dedicated supporter of your alma maters. How does a young university like Mason build a bond with its alumni?
RUBENSTEIN: A young university will not have that many alumni who have yet achieved great financial success. What it needs to do is get people who are connected to it in other ways to contribute. People who are citizens of Virginia, or people who have companies in Virginia, or people who otherwise benefit from what Virginia does would be good targets of opportunity. I also think that as the younger graduates think more about what they can do to help the university that gave them their degree, they can introduce the university to people who may not otherwise have been connected to it but might be interested in helping a young university become a great university.
MS: You spend a lot of your own money to preserve history. Why is that something you value?
RUBENSTEIN: My business career became more successful than I deserved, and I made more money than I needed or my family needed. So I decided to give back to society. Most of the money I give back is to universities and medical research. I do have one aspect of my philanthropy called Patriotic Philanthropy. I try to buy historic documents when they become available and put them on display in places where Americans can see them. Maybe they will think more and learn more about the great history we’ve had in this country and some of the traditions we’ve had, particularly those related to the struggle for freedom and equal rights.
MS: If you were entering school now, what would you study?
RUBENSTEIN: I would study whatever I was interested in and not worry about what it would mean for a job. Today, I hire many people at our firm and I really do not care about their college major. I care about whether they really learned something, whether they enjoyed it, whether they did well in what they studied. But the subject matter is less important than the skill set that you get. When you are 16 or 17 years old, worrying about your career is a mistake. Try to live your life so that you enjoy what you are doing and good things will ultimately flow from that experience.
MS: What is your advice for students entering this economy, one of the most challenging in generations?
RUBENSTEIN: People should experiment in their 20s and find something that they think will be their life’s work. To achieve something worth talking about and worth doing, you have to really put a good deal of time into it and have to be in love with what you are doing. You won’t know exactly what that will be when you graduate from college. And it won’t be easy in the first couple of years. But nothing worth having in life is easy. So perseverance, perseverance, perseverance will generally yield a pretty good result.
About David M. Rubenstein
David M. Rubenstein co-founded the Carlyle Group, one of the world’s largest private equity firms, in 1987. Since then, Carlyle has grown into a firm that manages $185 billion from 34 offices around the world.
A native of Baltimore, Rubenstein graduated magna cum laude in 1970 from Duke University, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. Following Duke, Rubenstein attended the University of Chicago Law School, where he was an editor of the Law Review.
From 1973 to 1975, Rubenstein practiced law in New York with Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. From 1975 to 1976, he served as chief counsel to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Constitutional Amendments. From 1977 to 1981, during the Carter administration, he was deputy assistant to the president for domestic policy. After his White House service and before co-founding Carlyle, Rubenstein practiced law in Washington, D.C., with Shaw, Pittman, Potts & Trowbridge (now Pillsbury, Winthrop, Shaw Pittman).
Rubenstein is chair of the boards of trustees of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and Duke University, a regent of the Smithsonian Institution, co-chair of the Brookings Institution, vice chair of the Council on Foreign Relations, and president of the Economic Club of Washington.
In addition, Rubenstein is on the board of directors or trustees of Johns Hopkins University, University of Chicago, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Johns Hopkins Medicine, the Institute for Advanced Study, the National Museum of American History of the Smithsonian Institution, and the National Museum of Natural History of the Smithsonian Institution.
Rubenstein is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Business Council, Visiting Committee of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, the Harvard Business School Board of Dean’s Advisors, the Woodrow Wilson School Advisory Council at Princeton, the board of trustees of the Young Global Leaders Foundation, advisory board of the School of Economics and Management Tsinghua University (chair), the Madison Council of the Library of Congress, and the International Business Council of the World Economic Forum.
Rubenstein is married to Alice Rogoff Rubenstein. They have three grown children.