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Taking Inspiration from Adam Blumenthal

In October 2023, Blue Wolf Capital's Founder and Co-Managing Partner Adam Blumenthal was recognized by the Yale School of Management as a Leader in Business & Society. Below is his acceptance speech which provides inspiration for his stellar career and a calling to understand how the American dream can work.


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Thank You. It's an honor to be here accepting this award.


I want to warn you about something: I've had a LOT of time, probably too much, to think about what I am going to say tonight, because I've spent the last three weeks in Upper Dolpo, Nepal -a sparse, alpine region, home to a population of a few thousand people, and to ancient monasteries of the Bon and Buddhist religions, far off the modern telecommunications grid. It's a region introduced to the outside world by Peter Matthiessen's 1978 book The Snow Leopard, a book which haunted me all these years, until I finally got the opportunity over the past month to follow his footsteps.


So on cold steep trails and during long nights in a leaky tent, my mind drifted to what to say when back in a world with infrastructure, accepting an award from a prestigious, Ivy League institution regarding leadership in Business and Society.


I am immensely proud of my association with the Yale School of Management, whose mission is preparing people for that kind of leadership. I was an MPPM student at SOM 35 years ago; four years ago I had the honor of being appointed a lecturer in the practice of management and began teaching classes on investing in both the regular and executive MBA programs. In my career, I've tried to put what I learned at the school to work in the private sector, in government, for labor unions, and at for not for profits.


SOM embodies a unique, and valuable culture. As at many schools, at SOM scholars and practitioners teach the craft and science of leadership, the modes of analysis and communications to make that leadership effective. What makes the school distinctive and special is that all of us -students, faculty, administrators, alumni - are not discouraged from wearing our hearts on our sleeves. The school's mission has always included encouraging students and faculty to incorporate their values into their careers - and to believe that the concept of "values" encompasses more than simply the creation of economic value. So when, back in my days as a student, Ed Kaplan applied operations research to invent the concept of needle exchange programs to combat AIDS, or today, when Dean Kerwin Charles brings management tools to public education, those initiatives are not peripheral - they are the reason we exist.


When I came to SOM in 1987, my only work experience was as a community and union organizer - and that was work many other schools didn't see as relevant preparation for a management degree. I wanted to find a way to incorporate the values that had motivated that work, into building businesses, as a way marry the inescapable resilience of markets with the compelling stories of the movements that had inspired me. Upon graduation, I found that particular combination of ideals and experiences left me unemployable by any one able to pay me, so I joined an unfunded start up called American Capital that hoped to respond to the deindustrialization of the American Midwest by creating ESOPs - putting our own stamp on these employee-owned companies by adding democratic features to governance and egalitarian features to compensation.


The CEO of an early company I helped create once astutely and correctly observed, "These guys say they're investment bankers, but they don't have two nickels to rub together." But our commitment to creating value and to using our values to see strategies others overlooked helped us preserve union jobs and communities in places like Toledo, Ohio, Erie, Pennsylvania, and Baltimore, Maryland. At the time, we hoped these companies could demonstrate a new economic model that would promote a more equal distribution of wealth.


Looking around America today, it's pretty evident we failed at that larger goal - but we created a pretty big investment company (at its peak American Capital boasted $16 billion in AUM) and kept tens of thousands of people employed and fairly paid. That's not a bad consolation prize, and I guess shows I was paying attention to the tools we were taught in class.


My approach at American Capital, and frankly every experience in my career, can be summed up with one sentence from Peter Matthiessen's book: "To become one with whatever one does is a true expression of the Way." I've always believed that. I've tried to live it.


But in a remote region of Nepal, as I thought about what I wanted to say tonight, I realized it wasn't the details of this deal or that strategy, or stories from City of New York Pension System, the UAW Retiree Medical Benefits Trust, or Blue Wolf Capital, that seemed important. In the high passes, my mind kept drawing back from the examples in my own life to an act of leadership by one of my great-grandparents - an immigrant, with a modest education, and in fact a person without a name.


He did have a name, of course, but in the late 1880s, it was one of recent vintage, having been made up on the spot on Ellis Island by an immigration agent who, perhaps having a bad day, thought "Lassor Agoos" was close enough to a name to be workable for the sick, young, penniless man before him. My great-grandfather passed through Ellis Island, emerged from a lengthy stay in a charity hospital in New York City, and made his way to New England where he was peddling trinkets from a pack, trying to earn the money to bring his wife and children over from Poland -from a small city almost all of whose Jewish residents would be murdered 50 years later.


At a store in one town near Boston, as he was literally peddling his wares, he was asked by the proprietor, "So, Mr. Agoos, I hear there are many Jews coming to America from Europe. You're from Europe - what are these people like?" And my ancestor stood, pulled himself up to his full five-foot three-inch height, looked around the room, and said, in his heavily accented English: "Gentlemen: Behold."

Those two words reflected a person not only unapologetically unafraid of being different, but also of announcing that difference to the world. They are the words of a person new to this country, his birth name stripped away, his economic status marginal, and yet his dignity uncowed.


Lassor Agoos died very young. I've already outlived him by several years, at least if you measure those things chronologically. Peter Matthiessen observed as he searched for the Snow Leopard, "The absurdity of a life that may well end before one understands it does not relieve one of the duty to live it through as bravely and as generously as possible." And the impact my great­grandfather had by living that way endures to this day.


After bringing over his wife and first two children, he went on to use the skills he had learned in Poland while soaked to the shoulders in chemicals working in the wet end of a tannery, to start a company that for a time monopolized the kid leather market in the U.S., and then to start the first Jewish family foundation in America. That foundation dedicated most of its resources over the past century to helping refugees and supporting healthcare institutions - and his actions influenced his children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren, many of whom, including the two of mine who are here today, are named after him.


My own career has been, shall we say, different from most - I started as an organizer, and I still identify more with that world than I do with the private equity and investment world where I've made my career; thirty-five years after graduating from business school, I have yet to receive that first job offer from a for-profit entity able to pay me. My oldest child, Eli Agoos Feasley, decided to merge a data science career with a Yale law degree to bring modern tools to the world of public defense; my middle child, Lassor Feasley, is using a design background to create Renewables.Org, raising funds for solar projects in developing countries. My youngest isn't here, but consults on citizen participation for nonprofits. Last year my wife Lynn, in part inspired by Lassor Agoos' story, started our own foundation, Adeline's Kitchen, which has sponsored and resettled 26 Ukrainian refugees so far this year and is rapidly growing.


So I know intimately the impact of the original Lassor Agoos' insistence on being, unapologetically, his short, accented, foreign and ambitious self. In the Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen says: "Many paths appear, but once the way is taken, it must be followed to the end." In many ways, the end of the path my ancestor took has not yet been reached- it's a path that is being walked across generations.


Returning home from the timeless isolation of the high passes in Upper Dolpo, it is transparently easy to see that we live at a time when not only the impact of my ancestor's bravery, and that of many like him, but also the movement of the dark currents that tossed him and so many other up here in the first place, can be readily identified not only in our society, but around the world. Europe, Asia, South America, Africa, and Australia all reflect the dangerous and frightening tendencies we see at home. Whether it's a matter of religion, of gender identity, of race or of native language, seizing on the inevitable differences between people to instill rage and paranoia, is a recipe for success in global public life. The consequences today of being proudly, unapologetically different can be grave.


Institutions like SOM, and the tools we teach there, can help us clarify the choices and strategies associated with the difficult tasks that come with leadership positions.


But it is the bravery to face the world unafraid, to say "Gentlemen, Behold," when we are different, that is the root of true leadership. And for those of us who command the resources to do so, making the decision to protect and elevate others who embody those differences, regardless of the consequences, is an essential component of leadership.


Looking around the world right now, those are the aspects of leadership that I believe business and society need today and are likely to continue to need for many years to come. I am proud to accept this award because I believe the Yale School of Management is a community that shares that belief, and I look forward with great anticipation to seeing how it, and all of us, put it into action in the coming months and years.


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