David Rubenstein, who rose from blue-collar – not blueblood – beginnings to become one of the world’s foremost financiers and philanthropists, recently shared his story and words of wisdom with the 2016 class of Coca-Cola Scholars

Rubenstein's father dropped out of high school to fight in World War II, then worked for the postal service in Baltimore. “I realized early on that we didn’t have a lot of money,” Rubenstein said March 31 during his keynote remarks at the Coca-Cola Scholars Banquet in Atlanta. “Initially, I thought it was a disadvantage, but eventually realized it was an advantage. Because when you don’t have money and you have to do something on your own, you have a much greater chance of success in life.”

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address connected with Rubenstein. “What I really wanted to do was serve my country," Rubenstein, who was in sixth grade at the time, recalls. "The idea of making money didn’t occur to me,” he said. “Ultimately, I decided to do that by getting myself a good education.”

His family couldn’t afford to send him to college, so he buckled down and earned scholarships to Duke University and, four years later, the University of Chicago Law School. When he entered the real world, his desire to serve his country was stronger than ever. With an eye on pursuing a legal career in government, he moved to New York and got a job at the law firm where Ted Sorenson, who’d written the aforementioned JFK speech, worked.

Determined to eventually make it to the White House, Rubenstein worked as chief counsel of U.S. Senator and presidential hopeful Birch Bayh. "Thirty days after I joined his Senate staff, he dropped out of the race,” he said with a laugh. “There will be times when think your career is at a dead end, but then something happens by serendipity that makes life better.”

2016 class of Coca-Cola Scholars
Claude B. Nielsen, Chairman and CEO of Coca-Cola Bottling Company United and Chairman of the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation, welcomes the 2016 class of Coca-Cola Scholars in Atlanta.

For Rubenstein, that came in the form of an opportunity to work for Jimmy Carter, a Georgia peanut farmer turned Democratic presidential nominee. “When I joined his campaign, he was 33 points ahead of Gerald Ford,” he said with another laugh. “When we finished, he won by one.”

At the age of 27, he was named President Carter's deputy domestic policy advisor. Four years later, in 1980, Carter lost his re-election bid to Ronald Reagan, which meant Rubenstein was out of a job. He went through his Rolodex, dialing up dozens of contacts he’d made over the four years prior. Nobody called him back. 

“If you’re out of power in Washington, you’re a dead man,” he said. “One day I’m flying on Air Force One and advising the president of the United States at Camp David, and the next day I can’t get a job.”

Reluctantly, he returned to the legal field, taking a job at a firm in Washington. But he wasn’t passionate about the work and, as a result, says he wasn’t a very good attorney.

“If you’re going to do something well in life, you have to love it,” he said. “And I didn’t really love practicing law, so I decided to do something else.”

David Rubenstein
David Rubenstein, co-founder and co-CEO of The Carlyle Group, addresses the 2016 class of Coca-Cola Scholars.

Around that time, he read two articles that changed his outlook and inspired him to take a career detour. The first was a piece on former U.S. Treasury Secretary Bill Simon, who’d parlayed a $1 million leverage buyout in the early ‘80s into $80 million in a mere two-and-a-half years. The second was a report that, on average, entrepreneurs start their first company between the ages of 28 and 37; making the leap becomes much more difficult after that.

“I was 37 then, so I thought, ‘I better do this now’,” he recalled.

He recruited three financial professionals to leave their jobs and join him on his yet-to-be-proven venture in 1987. In six years, they raised $5 million.

Today, The Carlyle Group manages $200 billion in assets and is one of the world’s largest private equity firms. A 2004 issue of Forbes disclosed Rubenstein’s net worth (~$3 billion), so Bill Gates called him and asked him to join the Giving Pledge and donate the majority of of his wealth to charity. He accepted, and is following through on his commitment in what he calls “reasonably intelligent ways.”

“It’s harder to give money away than it is to make money, in some cases,” he said.

Coca-Cola Scholars

‘Patriotic Philanthropy’

Rubenstein classifies his charitable focus as “patriotic philanthropy” – or giving back to the the country in a way that “reminds us of our heritage… the good and the bad… and gets people to think of themselves as influential citizens.” He has purchased a portfolio of historic documents including the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, the 13th Amendment, the Emancipation Proclamation and the Bill of Rights and putting them on public display.

“It’s my theory that if you put these documents in places where people can understand them,” he said, “then we’ll have better citizens and a better democracy.”

A second area of focus is education. Rubenstein chairs the Board of Trustees at his alma mater, Duke, and holds advisory leadership posts at several other prestigious universities around the world, as well as the Smithsonian Institution, the Brookings Institution, the Library of Congress and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

“The greatest treasures we have in this country are our youth and our institutions of higher education,” he said, “so it’s the obligation of everyone in this country to support the system as best we can.”

Rubenstein wrapped up with the following advice for the rising college freshmen:

Don’t rest on your laurels. “All of you Coke Scholars have won what I’d call the first 25 percent of life. I didn’t, so I realized I had to keep working. My fear about the people who win the first quarter of life is that they will take everything people tell them about how great they are and coast. You may have a temptation to say ‘I don’t have to work as hard as I did to get here’… if you do that, you won’t benefit in the second, third and fourth quarters of life.”

Read as much as you can. “The reason I’m where I am today is because I love to read. When I was young, I was allowed to take 12 books home per week from the public library. I’d read them in about two hours and would have to wait another week to get 12 more. I urge all of you to read, read, read. Exercise your brain. If you do you, you’ll enjoy the pleasures of life.”

Be humble. “The most impressive people I’ve ever met in life – Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners, Supreme Court justices, United States presidents – are people who are really humble. People who are arrogant and brag about how wonderful they are don’t really accomplish much. Humility is such an important thing.”

Give back. “During the short period of time we have on Earth, we’re not here just to make ourselves wealthy. We’re here to do something much more important, and that’s to help humanity. The ancient Greek word philanthropy doesn’t mean rich people writing checks. It means loving humanity… and you can love humanity by giving your time, your energy, your ideas. I have a theory that if you do so, you’ll live longer life. Make it a part of your DNA. Don’t do what I did and wait until you’re 54 to decide to give back to society. I’m 66 now, and wish I’d started doing this earlier. When you get to your death bed, no one says I wish I’d worked harder or made more money; they all say I wish I’d spent more time with my family, and that I’d helped my community.”

The Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation celebrates visionary leaders who are refreshing the world. Through the Coca-Cola Scholars Program, the foundation awards 150 college scholarships of $20,000 to socially-conscious and service-minded high school seniors across the nation each year, resulting in a network of more than 5,700 program alumni who have become a powerful force for positive change. For more information, visit www.coca‑colascholars.org or contact Lauren O’Brien at laurenobrien@coca‑cola.com.

Previous keynote speakers at Coca-Cola Scholars Banquets have included Condoleezza Rice, Tom Brokaw and Suze Orman.