“A modern polymath solving problems, making a difference”
I met Mr. Rubenstein in Boston, at a business/social dinner – and about one minute into our conversation I knew I’d ask him for an interview. I have met, interacted and worked with many successful business people – the hubris that sometimes comes from successful leaders is not part of Mr. Rubenstein’s personality and comportment. On the contrary, he exudes that kind of confidence and influence which come from genuine interest in others and just simply ‘things’ happening; his keen sense of what is truly urgent and relevant; his alertness to anything that could possibly be a novel solution or approach to solving a problem and, to put it simply, he has refreshingly interesting and sharp answers when all we usually hear and are inundated with are cliches and equivocations. He listens to others with both sharpness of intellect and unassuming manner – open to other opinions, ready to weigh different views.
Mr. Rubenstein’s experience is very rich; he is a true modern polymath both in terms of his education and career. He has a degree in liberal arts, having concentrated on history and political science; started his career intending to go into the field of education but instead ended up in government, business, entrepreneurship and finance – much of which focused on alternative and green energy – and then finally did come to education. He can discuss in depth and with complexity any global political or social issues and then switch to the most pressing environmental issues, explaining various engineering methods and solutions from which he smoothly continues on to discuss financial matters globally or domestically. That, of course, he will connect to education and the pressing need to make research, innovation and entrepreneurship effectively linked with academia.
In Mr. Rubenstein’s case, all of the above is coupled with an honest and sincere interest in making a difference and finding ways to make our world better – which he has successfully done, and continues to do.
How would you describe your business activities and management services?
Anyone who gets to know me rapidly comes to understand that I have many interests; these have led me into multi-faceted and complementary careers in business, finance, academia and the non-profit sector. The common theme through all of these activities is that they are coupled with the ability to make change happen – improve a business, implement a project that delivers a more sustainable world, advance the opportunity for entrepreneurial talent to succeed in commercializing their innovation, advance a new idea that helps improve the way in which we live and work together on this planet.
Your business interests/projects have taken you all over the world. You are originally from the US – and you are an American – but you decided to settle down in the Czech Republic. You are also very active in Slovakia – why these two countries? What do you think about the business environment, culture and opportunities in the Czech Republic and Slovakia? How do they compare with the US – or the rest of western Europe?
Yes, I am originally (and still) a US citizen; I lived and worked in New York through several prior careers in government, business and finance. I decided to explore finance opportunities in Europe in 2005 and to do that from a base in Prague. The financial crisis in 2008-9 led my wife Lenka and I to move from Manhattan to Prague (we had been traveling back and forth regularly for about 3 years) to work here full time – a decision I have never regretted. And I am now also a Czech as well, having acquired Czech citizenship – and a garden that needs tending – at about the same time (some 3 years ago).
Business opportunities have been good in both Cz and Sk and, working with great colleagues in the field of finance, we have been able to deliver solid results for multiple clients in energy as well as other industry sectors. Both countries have business marketplaces that are often like the “small villages” people refer to (albeit very sophisticated ones!). And many finance industry colleagues in the US and Western Europe still need to wake up and see the opportunities which these markets present – especially as regards entrepreneurial and emerging technology companies.
A note of caution is perhaps in order, though – the advent of illiberal democracies in this region (as well as in others) COULD threaten this region’s hard-earned prosperity. Such governments often look to restrict cross-border activities (immigration, trade) which are vital to sustaining the growth of economies. And trade restrictions have historically been a harbinger of conflict. I believe that the EU’s focus on no/low barriers to intra-European commerce is critical to our region’s economic health going forward. And I worry about the effect of possible restrictions to international commerce that are so much in the news today.
A lot of your finance projects have involved sustainable and green energy. How would you describe the state of these industries – in terms of research, potential and the actual application/use? Are there still people/industries that are difficult to convince about using sustainable and green energy? How do you see the future – could you project when most of the energy we use will be renewable/green?
Much has been spoken about the movement of industry to its “4.0” next stage of development. And while much of this is in part due to the involvement of information technology and automation/robotics, I think we tend to overlook energy industry innovations. These include the continually improving efficiency of renewable energy generation, the reduced cost of related technologies and the heightened availability of lower cost and increased capacity energy storage options. These are, especially taken together, important enablers of our ability to ensure the sustainability of our civilization.
Renewable energy as a reliable and cost-effective source of energy has progressed to the point that not to use it could in and of itself be considered an imprudent business decision that would enhance the risks of the business in question – almost any business. So it is for this along with other reasons that I believe that we will see a preponderance of energy from clean sources become the norm within my lifetime (and I’m not THAT young anymore…).
You have a degree in liberal arts and concentrated your studies on History and Political Science. You intended to have a career working in the field of education – how did you transition from your initial focus on liberal arts and education to finance and alternative/green energy?
It’s a looooooong story – my interest in History and Political Science led me to take an internship with the legislature in New York state and I became intensely interested in the ability to make change at that level – so much so that I abandoned any advanced degree work and even let a law school admission lapse. I worked in government for 8 years, then worked as a consultant for another decade. That work in turn led me into finance, as I saw that many of my clients required access to new sources of capital. And my client base at the time was comprised of entrepreneurial and “clean tech” (a term that had yet to be invented) companies – areas which have been foci of mine ever since.
In your opinion – what are the most important traits of a successful entrepreneur and a successful leader?
They need to have multiple abilities: they need to think out of the box and encourage others to do so as well. They need to be open to accept – and to expect – that the best ideas are not necessarily one’s own.
They need to listen. They need to defend the concepts and ideas that they really believe in vigorously – with solid data and with passion.
They need to understand the value of actively cooperating with others (sometimes while competing with them elsewhere); entrepreneurial success relies in part on helping to develop critical mass and taking an active part in the start-up ecosystem.
How do you think “doing business” generally and entrepreneurship – and being successful – have changed due to globalization?
This is a tough question! Like all changes there are both positive and challenging aspects. Business has become much more competitive. With globalization has come reduced barriers to entry in a whole host of industries – and challenges in innovation, new business models and approaches to markets can, and do, come from anywhere – and quickly. I am convinced that both the Cz and Sk economies and companies can compete well in the globalized marketplace – both countries have a strong combination of intellectual capital and manufacturing capacity, enabling both development and delivery of innovation from the same economy.
What would your advice be for young people entering the workforce – trying to make a difference and lead?
Be flexible and be willing to take reasonable – and sometimes more than that! – risk. Don’t just go work for a company – and that’s a fine thing for many people to do – if you want to work on developing your own entrepreneurial opportunity. There have NEVER been more tools available to help resourceful people connect – with other likeminded people, with potential business partners, with technological expertise, with financial sources, etc. If you want to lead by innovating there are plenty of people out there looking to help you do so – and this interviewee is one of them!
Any special message for our readers?
Pursue your vision and do not be afraid of change. Change has been a welcome friend to me – in times both good and challenging – and I recommend you get acquainted! I’ve had (depending on how you count them) five different and at times parallel and complementary careers (not counting work in the garden) while living on two continents. And the pace of change continues to advance…and I often wonder what my next career will be…
By Miriam Margala