Businessman, philanthropist Mikhail Fridman on achieving success today

Fridman, co-founder of LetterOne, talked about his rise from humble beginnings and his role as a supporter of Jewish and other causes.
Photo of Mikhail Fridman
Mikhail Fridman (Photo by Harold Shapiro)

Mikhail Fridman, the international businessman and co-founder of LetterOne, the international investment firm, spoke recently at Yale about both his inspiring rise from humble beginnings and his growing role as a leading philanthropist of Jewish and other causes.

Fridman gave a talk at the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale, home of Yale Hillel. He was introduced by Eric Fingerhut, the president of Hillel International.

He is an active supporter of Jewish causes around the world. He co-founded the Genesis Prize, which is awarded annually in Jerusalem,” Fingerhut said. The $1 million Genesis Prize honors individuals who have attained excellence and international renown in their chosen professional fields, and who inspire others through their dedication to the Jewish community and Jewish values.

He has understood that Hillel through its reach across the world plays an important, role, indeed a central role, in helping each generation of Jews find their own voice and their own journey into Jewish leadership and into Jewish communal life,” Fingerhut said of Fridman.

Asked to share his Jewish journey with his listeners, Fridman noted he was born in Lviv in Ukraine. Before World War II, he said, the city of more than 200,000 was one-third Jewish and had many synagogues.

By the end of the war, he said there were fewer than 100 Jews. There was no synagogue for him to attend when he was growing up, or kosher food for his family to purchase.

Jewish religion was more or less prohibited,” he said, and certain careers and positions were blocked for Jews. He went to a synagogue for the first time in Moscow, where he went to attend university.

He said his learning of Jewish history and tradition provided him with a philosophy and principles for how to lead a successful life. He also saw himself as a link in a long chain of hundreds of generations of Jews, and wanted to see the chain continue.

That was probably, for me at least, my way of becoming a Jew,” he said.

One of the Yale students at the talk told Fridman that, in speaking with some fellow Jewish students, “Oftentimes they would say something like, ‘I really want to learn more about Judaism and my Jewish identity, but I am uncomfortable with the institutional Jewish community’s approach to Zionism or Israeli policy.’”

Fridman said it was important to restore close ties between Israel and the Jewish diaspora, and that it was dangerous for both sides if those ties do not exist.

He also mentioned the ongoing challenge of preserving Jewish tradition in a world that has become more secular.

It is very important right now to find the right way how to, on the one hand, preserve tradition and, on the other hand, to be kind of open-minded toward a modern, sophisticated and fast-changing world,” he said. “It is important to send a message that our tent is open. We welcome everyone who wishes to be come a Jew.”

Fridman also spoke with students at the Yale School of Management about how to become a successful entrepreneur.

To be a successful businessman, you need more or less the same features to be successful in any other area of human activity, whether it’s science or art or whatever,” he said, noting one needs to understand human nature as well as being a well-educated analyst.

It’s always about the human being,” he said, reminding the students that the recent Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel was awarded to a behavioral economist, Richard Thaler.

While people dislike living in uncertainty, Fridman said we are all living in a time of rapid change.

The main characteristic, probably, for a successful businessperson today would be willingness to act in this unpredictable and uncertain environment,” he said. And, while we all compromise in our day-to-day social lives, he maintained that the competitive business environment demands that compromise be resisted if a better result is possible.

Fridman began his own business career by starting a window-washing business in Moscow with classmates. There was little competition for his business, he said, but, when it became more competitive, he and his partners moved on to selling consumer goods, and established their own bank to provide themselves with capital and currency.

We lived in a country with no tradition of doing business, with no property rights,” he said of the obstacles that he and his partners faced.

He said the formation of LetterOne, which manages $23 billion, was driven by the large increase in state-run businesses in Russia, and the desire to invest abroad.

He told the students it was important to follow their “gut feelings” about the conditions they are observing, which would lead them to logical steps in their business careers.

“People always need something,” he said. “That is why I always believe it’s possible to make a successful business project, any time and any place.”

Asked about his philanthropic activity, Fridman said he decided early in his career to devote wealth to positive things, adding that running successful charitable endeavors is difficult.

To spend money smartly and successfully and to achieve results would be maybe even more difficult than to get money,” he said.

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