Stephen A. Schwarzman, the Frankford native and Abington High School grad who heads the $545 billion Blackstone Group, and Josh Kopelman, the tech company founder (Infonautics, Half.com) who runs First Round Capital, one of the busiest U.S. venture capital funds from his Philadelphia base, talked about money and the people who make it in large piles — or try to — in successive one-hour sessions at the brand-new Fitler Club at 24th and Market on Tuesday. It marked the first day of the B. PHL Innovation Festival, a three-day string of events backed by Independence Blue Cross to showcase Philly-based money, tech, and creativity.
Schwarzman, queried by marketing executive and past Inquirer publisher Brian Tierney, and Kopelman, questioned by former Inquirer editor William K. Marimow, gave diverse takes on several common themes:
Both say they gained from disparate parents. Schwarzman’s father ran the family linens business on Frankford Avenue. He badgered his father to expand the business, buy more stores, and turn into a proto-Bed, Bath & Beyond. “He said, ‘I don’t need it. I’m happy!’” Mom was the hard-charger.
Kopelman’s father, Richard, still a City University of New York business school professor, “was always encouraging imagination. The basement of my house was an airport for two years. The garage of my house was a detective agency. Conversations with my dad always began with, ‘Imagine if.’ Mom was so grounded in reality. ... It’s not what you say. It’s about what you do.”
How to invest
Schwarzman: “My first job, I had no training, I didn’t know what a stock was.” He makes sure Blackstone’s new hires have thorough training to reduce anxiety. “I want everybody comfortable.”
That includes humanists: Chief operating officer Jon Gray studied poetry in college. “There is a creative element in finance. It’s actually nonlinear. You are trying to solve problems. To solve problems, you have to know what the problems are. People will not always tell you. Sometimes they are not fully aware. You need to figure out what’s really going on and how you can help them solve something.”
Kopelman calls starting a business “the ultimate exercise of deferred gratification.” Founders “face rejection, pain, anxiety, uncertainty piling that on.” Evaluating 4,000 hopeful companies a year — and funding just 20 to 30 — he needs to know a founder can persevere. “While we pick businesses, we really pick people.”
As a startup founder, or an investor, Schwarzman says, "you’re only temporarily successful. You are about to be badly damaged by some smart people who are just as hungry as you used to be. There’s also somebody brighter quicker hungrier more clever .. Your job is to keep ahead
Most of Kopleman’s profits come from two or three companies a year. "That doesn’t mean that the other companies are failures.” A lot of companies can build motorcycles or bicycles. Venture capitalists are looking for the handful of “rockets” that could eventually make a lot of money fast.
Schwarzman, an intimate of President Donald Trump’s, credits Jack Ma, boss of Chinese digital shopping giant Alibaba, with teaching him about artificial intelligence, computers that learn from experience and adjust their commands to succeed. Ma “said it’s a little controversial. [Tesla boss] Elon Musk thinks it’s absolute evil. [IBM CEO] Ginni Rometty thinks it’s great. Bill Gates thinks it’s in the middle. I was thinking, 'I know these people. How could they be so different?’ ” So Schwarzman has made multimillion-dollar investments in a Chinese technical university — and a big AI program at MIT, expecting other U.S. colleges will have to do the same. At the same time, he worries that Americans need to deal with the way AI may put many people out of a job.
Kopelman has had to learn the news business quickly since the late Gerry Lenfest left him chairman of The Inquirer’s board. After years of “disrupting” old-style businesses such as news, he’s come to see that “having an independent local press, having public-service journalism is really important. Whether it’s doing our own asbestos-testing in schools, or [reporting on] people in positions in power abusing trust, or cheering on the heroes ... Gerry helped me realize these newspapers are under such tremendous assault by the internet. ... We have an incredible newsroom, incredible leadership, good raw materials, we just need to find a good recipe to get to the future.”
Schwarzman said he’s been surprised to learn with Tierney’s tutoring how the region “has one of the highest standards of living, for the price.” And so many engineering graduates: “You could develop this into more of a high-tech hub” now that jobs are starting to relocate to where bright young workers are, instead of the other way around.
Kopelman calls Philadelphia “an incredibly collaborative city.” Its tech start-up community is undersized, “but the level of community and of shared learning is incredible.” And “Philadelphia founders tend to be scrappiest,” which means quicker profits, but also short-term planning. Other cities have been more supportive of well-planned ventures that are built to last.