01 Oct 2001

Making a World of Difference

Alan Slifka's Venture Philanthropy
Re: William Sahlman
by Susan Young


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 shared humanity."

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


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