The love that we invest in others comes back to us multiplied. Service to others is also service to ourselves. But don’t take my word for it. Experiment. Give of yourself and see what happens. Start small. Give a sincere complement and see how it makes you feel and how that seed blossoms in others… and gets paid forward. Then try something a little bigger that resonates for you. Have fun with it!
As a part of our series about “Social Impact Investors”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Joseph Deitch.
Joseph, (who most call Joe) has built a billion-dollar business. He’s the founder and chairman of Commonwealth Financial Network, the Tony-award winning Broadway producer of The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, an enthusiastic philanthropist, and a man Financial Advisor magazine once selected (alongside Warren Buffett) as one of the 35 most influential leaders of the financial planning profession over the previous three-plus decades. He’s also the author of #1 Amazon bestseller Elevate: An Essential Guide to Life. And most recently, he founded The Elevate Prize Foundation, which aims to elevate humanity on a global scale by funding, guiding, and scaling the platforms of social entrepreneurs within the areas of healthcare, the environment, poverty, inequality, the arts, and more.
Applying his for-profit-know-how to the nonprofit sector, Joe has introduced an innovative VC-style process to selecting, funding, mentoring and growing social entrepreneurs with the launch of the foundation. Read on for more on how he’s democratizing the world of social impact investing and working to empower the next generation of innovators and activists to get the support and spotlight they deserve.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Twenty-five years ago, I first heard the term “entrepreneurial philanthropy” — the concept of leveraging one’s resources to give back in an entrepreneurial way. It goes beyond writing a check to something much more exciting — empowering passionate, powerful, purpose-driven people to make a difference. Ever since, I’ve been working to refine, add meat to the bone, to make as big a difference as possible.
Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?
Strangely enough, it had nothing to do with business — it had to do with perception… and pants. I have a pair of beige, stonewashed jeans that I love. A friend of mine told me that they were gray. A spirited disagreement ensued, and I enlisted the help of various passersby to prove my point. Bizarrely, they all agreed that the jeans were gray. So, I started asking others in order to get the answer I wanted. At one point, I shared this story with an audience of 200 people (I wore those jeans that day) and finally three people agreed with me. Many lessons here. ☺
The big one is that perceptions and experiences that are so obvious to me, may not actually be accurate… or in sync with others. My perspective is just that — mine — and there are so many others out there. Understanding that, has opened up my world in incredible ways.
Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?
I think it was the point where I accepted, with humility, that I didn’t have all the answers — and that I needed help if I was going to succeed. My company Commonwealth Financial Network had been acknowledged as one of the fastest-growing private businesses in the country in the mid-eighties. I felt I had “made it.” Simultaneously, I realized that my company was actually faltering, and I was in over my head.
It turned out I was the problem, which is a jarring realization. But it also meant that I could fix it. So, I applied to Harvard Business School’s Owner/President Management Program (OPM). It opened my eyes — partly because of the strength of the program and partly because I was finally ready to listen. At the end of this three-year program, I had gathered a wealth of valuable information which I sat down and distilled to a critical insight: Listen.
I thought I had been listening before, but I was really just waiting to tell people why they were wrong. This insight represented a paradigm shift in my career. Listening has been my North Star ever since. And listening isn’t just something we do with our ears. It also includes our head, our heart, our gut instinct, and every other way there is to access information. Knowledge is power.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person or mentor to whom you are grateful who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Just one? That’s going to be tough!
Like most of us, I’ve had so much help along the way. Teachers, mentors, coaches, friends, colleagues… I’m so grateful for all of them and the lessons they’ve imparted to me.
I’d have to say, though, that my late wife Robbie is at the top of that list. For 25 years, she was my companion, coach, and involuntary therapist (she was an exceptional psychologist). More than anyone else, she helped me open my head and my heart in ways I could not have imagined. And truth be told, I had a lot to learn!
More recently, Lisa Genova (my other half) has filled that role. She’s a brilliant woman with a powerful heart and wisdom to match. Clearly, I’ve chosen partners who can give me what I need and yearn for; and in that respect, I’ve been incredibly fortunate. Given that we spend so much time with our life partners, the right choice is critical to our growth, success, and happiness.
And throughout it all, my son Matthew — Joe 2.0 — has been a guiding light. After finishing business school, he went into corporate consulting with Boston Consulting Group (BCG). That training and experience has been remarkable to watch and work with (we now work together). At the end of the day, our results in life are a function of perception, people, process, and passion; and when those people and processes are world class and in sync, it’s incredible to be a part of it.
You have been blessed with great success in a career path that many have attempted, but eventually gave up on. Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path but are afraid of the prospect of failure?
As someone who has their share of failures (and perhaps a few extra for good measure), I’d say that it’s our response to failure — in fact, our embrace of it — that can end up making the biggest difference in our journey to success.
I have a mantra that helps me in this way: “Turn frustration into fascination.”
If you treat the frustrations and failures in your life as opportunities — if you become truly fascinated by them, asking questions to get at the root of why you failed (why you acted or didn’t, what you missed and why, what you feared and why, where you were helped or hurt by emotions, what you now know that didn’t before…) — it completely changes your orientation. Suddenly, overcoming failure isn’t a trudge, it’s a treasure hunt. It’s energizing. I can’t overestimate how much of a difference this shift in perspective can make.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main part of our discussion. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share a few things that need to be done on a broader societal level to expand VC opportunities for women, minorities, and people of color?
Years ago, I was part of a monthly business forum where we shared our issues and helped each other understand, build/fix, and evolve. At one point, someone pointed out that our group was all men and suggested that we would benefit from inviting some women to join us. While that sounded reasonable to me, not everyone liked the idea. Where we saw expansion and opportunity, others felt threatened and uncomfortable with the idea. But we went forward and the results were spectacular — more than I could have ever anticipated.
The truth is: The broader the range of viewpoints, the richer the results. Not just in gender and race, but in all ways — professions, personalities, religions, socioeconomic backgrounds, and more.
That’s why “radical diversity” is one of the bedrock values of The Elevate Prize. It’s not just a nice-to-have… it’s essential. It fuels our success. In business as well as culture, our audience is diverse and our decision-making should reflect that. Otherwise, we’re fooling ourselves.
Once people understand the logic and wisdom of diversity, execution becomes desirable.
You are a VC who is focused on investments that are making a positive social impact. Can you share with us a bit about the projects and companies you have focused on, and look to focus on in the future?
The Elevate Prize seeks to mirror the world we live in and the people we want to inspire. In that respect, we’re a pretty big umbrella and relatively issue agnostic. We’re looking for opportunities to exponentially increase impact and leverage, and inspire a global audience.
We just finished our first year of operations and have been overwhelmed with the progress to date. Winners will be revealed in October, but we received nearly 1300 applications (and they were extensive) from 119 countries.
What you are doing is not very common. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were going to focus on social impact investing? Can you share the story with us?
I’ve always been aware that western culture rewards people with my specific talent set (marketing and sales, entrepreneurial businesses, and investments) disproportionately. I’m also aware that we all live together in this world and that a better, happier, and healthier environment is good for all of us. So I always wanted to give back in a big way.
It was a chance meeting with Mother Teresa in Calcutta years ago that connected the dots. I was with a few other business people at her orphanage. At first, she complemented us on giving people jobs and creating new and better products and services. But then she “suggested” that if we had money in the bank sitting idle, we could achieve so much more good by putting that money to work. So simple and so true!
Can you share a story with us about your most successful Angel or VC investment? Or an investment that you are most proud of? What was its lesson?
I’m most proud of those investments where the team came together to create an extraordinary, united, and exuberant force for innovation, excellence, execution, and evolution. Sometimes we can just luck out — the first company my son chose for us to invest in returned 17X — but that’s almost always because of the team, vision, and execution. As my high school drum teacher always said: “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”
Can you share a story of an Angel or VC funding failure of yours? What was its lesson?
When the senior team doesn’t have sufficient skin in the game, it lessens their imperative for success. I’ve made that mistake a few times.
Is there a company that you turned down, but now regret? Can you share the story? What lesson did you learn from that story?
I look at this slightly differently. If we turn down deals for the right reasons (e.g., not our area of expertise, don’t trust senior leadership, don’t like the deal terms), then I don’t feel bad if things work out stupendously and we would have made a bundle. Because if we didn’t have proper guardrails, then we would have lost even more money eventually.
Super. Here is the main question of this interview. What are your “5 things I need to see before making a VC investment” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- Am I excited?
- Do I like the people?
- Do I respect the people and trust in their ability to deliver better than their competition?
- Is the senior team properly incentivized?
- Are the major trendlines in their favor, or is the world moving in a different direction?
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
That’s easy — the Elevate Prize! I’m actually quite serious. Our ultimate goal is to inspire the world and literally “awaken the hero in all of us.” Amazingly, there is no organized fanbase or platform for social heroes. We have passionate fans and established platforms to follow athletes, movie stars, singers, and entertainers. But there is nothing for these incredible people who are doing so many amazing things.
Every four years, in anticipation of the summer Olympic games, we hear the powerful stories of the Olympic hopefuls. They’re inspiring people with inspiring stories… and we become inspired ourselves — to follow them, dream with them, and maybe dream a little (or a lot!).
That’s what I want to create for social heroes. But, unlike the Olympics, the stories won’t go into hibernation for four years after the contests are over and the results are in. Nor can we realize this vision by ourselves — it will require collaboration by foundations, media companies, influencers and your readers. It will require all of us. So exciting to imagine!
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
Here’s a little secret that’s been practiced by parents and spiritual communities for millennia: The love that we invest in others comes back to us multiplied. Service to others is also service to ourselves. But don’t take my word for it. Experiment. Give of yourself and see what happens. Start small. Give a sincere complement and see how it makes you feel and how that seed blossoms in others… and gets paid forward. Then try something a little bigger that resonates for you. Have fun with it!
We are very blessed that a lot of amazing founders and social impact organizations read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you’d like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this. 🙂
What a great question! At the Elevate Prize, we’re looking to awaken the hero in all of us — and we can’t do that alone. I would love to collaborate with like-minded people who can help us on that journey through their reach and influence. Some of the first people who come to mind are Barack and Michelle Obama, Bill and Melinda Gates, Oprah, Reed Hastings, and Jeff Bezos.
Now that I think of it, let’s invite them all!
How can our readers follow you online?
I’d recommend following the Elevate Prize, since that’s my greatest passion and purpose right now. You can find more information on Twitter (@ElevatePrize) LinkedIn (The Elevate Prize Foundation), Instagram (@elevateprize) and www.elevateprize.org.