Editor’s note: What guides your giving? David M. Rubenstein, co-founder and co-executive chairman of The Carlyle Group, shared how he chooses to make an impact at Wells Fargo Private Bank’s 2019 Insights and Innovation Symposium. The following article is based on highlights from a discussion about his philanthropic motivations and focus.
David M. Rubenstein, co-executive chairman of The Caryle Group and host of “The David Rubenstein Show: Peer to Peer Conversations” on Bloomberg TV, is a successful entrepreneur and an innovative philanthropist. His career successes began relatively early as he moved from the law to politics and then to a career in private equity investing. His interest in philanthropy developed later, as he came to the realization that he wanted to give away a significant percentage of his money rather than spend it or leave it to his heirs. At this point he also began to understand that gifting your wealth can be surprisingly difficult unless you have a clear philanthropic focus.
Starting from modest means
Rubenstein’s upbringing and career experiences have had a notable impact on his philanthropy. He grew up in a working-class household of modest means. With little money to spare, he visited the public library weekly and checked out 12 books, the maximum amount his library card would allow. He developed a preference for non-fiction and biographies, which opened his eyes to a different world and the possibilities it offered. His reading habit also fueled the development of his deep love of history.
He earned a scholarship to Duke University, where he studied political science, a choice influenced by President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech, where he posed the challenge “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” To fulfill this ambition, he attended law school at the University of Chicago, also on a full scholarship.
After graduating law school, Rubenstein was hired at the law firm of Ted Sorensen, the author of the JFK speech that had so inspired him. Yet, in Rubenstein’s own words, he quickly discovered he was “not a good lawyer.” So, he course-corrected and, through a personal contact, secured a job on Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign team. When Carter was elected, Rubenstein — at age 27 — became the deputy director of domestic affairs and was given an office in the West Wing.
Establishing The Carlyle Group
After leaving the White House and resuming his legal career, he came across two articles that helped change the direction of his career. The first was about Bill Simon, the Secretary of the Treasury under President Nixon and President Ford, who had become involved in leveraged buyouts. The other claimed that, statistically, most entrepreneurs are made before the age of forty. Rubenstein, at 37, realized he didn’t have any time to waste. So, with no experience in finance, he decided to start his own leveraged buyout firm.
To build the firm with respected financial professionals, he partnered with William Conway and Daniel D’Aniello, who would become his co-founders of The Carlyle Group. The three worked well together because each had their own specialty.
Their location in Washington, DC, away from the cutthroat competition of New York City, allowed them to take more risks. At the time, private equity (PE) firms were run more like mom-and-pop shops, with very few employees, because each raised and managed one fund. Rubenstein and his partners ignored this convention and raised a family of funds, fueling the firm’s global expansion, while building the infrastructure that allowed the company to scale and have the ballast of a big organization. This approach is now the industry model and has produced exponential growth. When Carlyle was founded, there were only about 250 PE firms, and now there are well over 6,000.