The business of a balanced life

“How many of you want to make a fortune?” health care entrepreneur Jeff Margolis asked a roomful of bright, eager MBA students at the Jewish Leadership Initiative (JLI) Conference in Santa Monica on Jan 30.

A flurry of hands went up.

“How many want to save the world? Do something really meaningful?” Margolis, the founder of TriZetto Group Inc., a health care technology firm and a frequent lecturer at Wharton and Harvard prodded. “And in what order? Should you make your money first and then do something meaningful?”

One student had an answer: “How about coming up with a business model that makes saving the world profitable?”

“You mean like Mark Zuckerberg?” Margolis asked, only half-jokingly.

That was perhaps the most telling — and topical — of questions lobbed about at the JLI’s second annual conference, which brings together Jewish business and law school students, young professionals and the business titans they hope to someday become for an afternoon of learning and networking. 

This year’s conference attracted more than 200 aspiring business leaders as well as top executives and entrepreneurs from around the country, including Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, the Tennis Channel chairman and CEO Ken Solomon, and Jeff Smulyan, chairman of Emmis Communications Corp., an Indianapolis-based broadcasting company that publishes Los Angeles magazine, among others. 

During six 45-minute sessions, seasoned business vets offered their best advice on how to become rich, powerful and philanthropic, and they also handed down a mix of practical tips (“Have a long-term plan”) and spiritual philosophy (“The measure of your success will be how you get through adversity”). The usual emphasis on tikkun olam figured in, along with broad strokes about the value of Jewish values and living a balanced life — this, despite the glaring fact that not a single female presenter appeared.

“You are an ambassador of your culture, whether you ask for it or not,” Solomon said during the opening keynote. Being a Jewish leader demands right action, he said, citing how, when Israeli tennis champion Shahar Pe’er was barred from a tournament in Dubai, his company refused to broadcast the games. “We heard about this,” he said, “and we felt it abrogated all human rules of sportsmanship and dignity.”

Despite considerable professional success — Solomon has held top posts with the Walt Disney Co., DreamWorks and News Corp. — he maintains that his nonprofit work is his most rewarding. Last February, the Obama administration appointed him to the President’s Committee on Arts and Humanities. “It’s the non-business stuff I’m most proud of and most committed to,” he said.

Smulyan, who named Emmis Broadcasting after the Hebrew word for “truth” (emet), also lauded the virtues of non-business pursuits. “You all want to take great vacations, have nice homes, nice cars,” he said, but he encouraged the group to “believe in something that is greater than yourself.”

“My life isn’t complete until I make a difference,” he said.

Founded as the Jewish Graduate Student Initiative (JGSI) in 2007 by Rabbi Dave Sorani and a group of students from UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, the conference aims to link up-and-coming business leaders to their Jewish counterparts across Southern California. The organizers’ goal is to promote a Jewish communal connection so students might one day become community leaders and parlay their success into charitable giving.

But for now, the organization tries to provide some Jewish continuity at a time when many young Jews are disaffected from Jewish life.

“There’s nothing that catches young professionals as this stage of life,” said Estela Wolf, 32, a business strategy consultant for the financial consulting firm Deloitte, who also sits on the board of JGSI. “You go from Hebrew school to confirmation, and then people are pretty much disengaged until they have kids.”

Although the conference is one of many initiatives in Los Angeles aiming to engage young Jews, Wolf was careful to distinguish it from other youth-seeking enterprises, like Aish or JDate, because of its emphasis on career development. “This is kind of on another level,” she said.

Until recently the only female on the JGSI board, Wolf said, when asked afterward, that the absence of female presenters at the conference was unintentional. “That doesn’t mean there isn’t a lack of female representation in the Jewish executive population in Los Angeles in general,” she said. “Go out there and look — it’s disproportionately male.”