01 Oct 2001
Making a World of Difference
Alan Slifka's Venture PhilanthropyRe: William Sahlmanby Susan YoungTopics:
On a bus in Israel, two seven-year-old boys talk about their
interest in sports. One makes a joke, the other laughs. The boys, one
Jewish, one Arab, are new friends. They met at a day camp designed to
bring two of the world's most strife-ridden groups together. As they
ride side by side, telling stories and getting to know each other, any
fear and prejudice they may have felt before meeting is gone.
This is the sort of scene that Alan B. Slifka (MBA '53)
had in mind in 1989 when he cofounded The Abraham Fund, a nonprofit organization
dedicated to promoting coexistence between Israel's Jewish and Arab
citizens. "In order for people to get along, they have to respect
each other's differences," says Slifka, a successful Wall Street
investor who has applied his business talent to various philanthropic
ventures that aim to enhance human understanding. "When we talk about
issues like gender, race, and religion, we are really talking about how
we get along with others and how we create a world that is safe for difference."
Slifka is working hard to create such a world. The theme of
coexistence emerges as a common thread throughout a far-reaching, ninety-minute
conversation in the midtown Manhattan headquarters of Halcyon/Alan B.
Slifka Management Company. In discussing the success of his investment
firm, he points out that his traders are not only innovative and individualistic
but also cooperative. When asked about the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish
Life at Yale, his undergraduate alma mater, he proudly explains that it
is a place where all students are welcome, not just those who are Jewish.
Born a twin, the New York City native jokes that he had to learn the basics
of coexistence even before birth. He and his sister were homeschooled
by their mother while their father ran successful textile and real estate
businesses. Both parents believed in the importance of moral values, and
in the fourth grade, the twins began studying at the Ethical Culture Society's
Fieldston School. "Each week we'd have a lesson on ethics —
the material might come from the morning paper, a history lesson, or a
conflict in the classroom," recalls Slifka. At HBS, he notes, General
Georges F. Doriot's manufacturing course also had a powerful impact.
"He taught us to be innovative, to be courageous, and to appreciate
the value of being different," Slifka says.
The fact that Slifka places a high value on innovation can be seen in
his involvement with the Big Apple Circus. A founding member and early
supporter, Slifka has seen the Big Apple become the leading single ring
circus in America. It is also recognized as being extremely well managed:
80 percent of its budget comes from ticket and concession sales, compared
with the standard 50 percent of most performing arts organizations. With
numerous public outreach programs, the Big Apple, adds Slifka, "is
both an incredibly successful performing arts endeavor and a very successful
social service institution." Linking his involvement in the circus to his other interests, Slifka observes
that "the circus is something you feel with your belly, not with
your head. And belly stuff is where humans connect." His eyes light
up and his smile broadens as he talks about the annual United Nations
Night at the Big Apple: "People from completely different backgrounds
and cultures sit around the ring and laugh at the same time, worry at
the same time, and applaud at the same time," he says proudly. "The
ambassador of Israel once told me, 'I come to this event every year,
and it gives me hope for the world.' It puts us in touch with our
It was a lack of such shared humanity, in fact, that motivated Slifka
to establish The Abraham Fund after visiting Israel and finding that his
Jewish friends there did not know any Arabs. "I discovered that there
was no mainstream Israeli institution that was devoted to the interconnections
between Jewish and Arab citizens," remarks Slifka, who then identified
282 Israeli groups that were dedicated to strengthening relations between
Jews and Arabs.
Over the years, The Abraham Fund has supported hundreds of grassroots
projects that promote tolerance, mutual understanding, and trust between
Arabs and Jews in Israel. Each year, the fund awards grants to a variety
of applicants from schools, summer camps, hospitals, and nonprofits.
"We are interested in developing people's capacity to relate
to each other," he explains. "One can learn manners, but one
must also learn that another person has feelings and wants to be seen,
acknowledged, appreciated, and respected," adds Slifka, who accepted
a Medal of Honor from Israel's Knesset last year. The Abraham Fund's
unique contribution, says Slifka, is the "discovery that enhanced
tolerance and coexistence is an educational matter. The implications are
vast — we can begin to imagine a world safe for difference when coexistence
education enters the school curriculum."
Slifka's investment career began as a summer associate at L.F. Rothschild
& Co. Upon earning his MBA, he joined the firm and was able to combine
his undergraduate training as an industrial engineer with his business
knowledge to become a securities analyst specializing in the chemical,
drug, and paper industries. He then managed Rothschild's research
department, viewing the research process as "a combination of factual
and psychological analysis." In 1960, he moved from conventional
research to arbitrage research for the firm's own capital account,
where, he explains, "returns were based upon outcomes such as deal
closings, which could be qualified more readily than stock movements."
In 1982, after thirty years with Rothschild and having been promoted to
partner, Slifka founded Alan B. Slifka and Company, an asset management
firm that specializes in event investing. Today, the firm (which joined
with Halcyon in 1996) manages thirteen investment entities consisting
of more than $2.5 billion in equity capital. "On Wall Street, where
individual success is so highly prized, we have created an enterprise
that combines enormous individual effort into a collective enterprise
that is very successful," notes Slifka, the firm's managing
principal. It is not surprising that the atmosphere in Slifka's firm
— easygoing, hardworking, collaborative — mirrors that which
he strives to create through his philanthropic activities. "I believe
that in today's world, the corporate executive cannot be of major
value unless he or she has the capacity to coexist with difference,"
says Slifka. "Coexistence in the marketplace is essential to success."
— Susan Young