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Billionaire Insights With David Rubenstein

Self-made billionaire, David Rubenstein regularly brainstorms business, life and success habits with entrepreneurial peers like Warren Buffet and Bill Gates. Here’s his take on what makes great entrepreneurs tick.

Nadine Todd



David Rubenstein

Vital stats

  • Player: David Rubenstein
  • Company: The Carlyle Group, one of the world’s largest private equity firms, launched by Rubenstein and his partners in 1987.
  • Claim to Fame: David Rubenstein is currently number 257 on the Forbes 400 Richest People in America list. His personal wealth is valued at $2,6 billion, and his Forbes self-made score is 9 out of 10, due to his lower middle-class upbringing. He is one of 140 signatories of the Giving Pledge, a commitment by the world’s wealthiest individuals and families to dedicate the majority of their wealth to philanthropy, spearheaded by Warren Buffet and Bill and Melinda Gates.

David Rubenstein knows a thing or two about the mindset of a successful entrepreneur. He’s not only built one of the largest private equity firms in the world, but he’s done so from the base of a blue-collar background, working hard to become the first person in his family to get a degree, to practising as a lawyer, and finally finding his entrepreneurial feet.

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Through both the Giving Pledge and his role at The Carlyle Group, he regularly interacts with some of the most successful entrepreneurs in the world. Here are the five characteristics that he believes ultimately lead to success.

1. Tenacity

Great businesses are never just about a good idea, working hard, and then success comes easily. Most entrepreneurs face a multitude of struggles before achieving success. The tenacity to overcome those challenges is a real determining factor in what a business and the founder ultimately achieves.

Entrepreneurs don’t take no for an answer. By definition, if you’re starting a new company and selling a new product, it’s a product that doesn’t exist, but that doesn’t mean that someone didn’t already think of the idea, and didn’t think it would work.

Most entrepreneurs are trying to push against the grain and convince the naysayers that their take on the concept has merit. If you easily take no for an answer, you won’t be a good entrepreneur.

2. The drive to succeed

Entrepreneurs are driven people. It’s rare to meet an entrepreneur who says, ‘You know, I’m going to go into work today at about 10am, and I think I’ll leave at around 4pm because I want to play golf.’ It’s a rare entrepreneur who says, ‘I don’t work on weekends’. It’s a rare entrepreneur who comes from a wealthy family.

Generally, entrepreneurs are driven people who are more interested in proving their ideas work than making a lot of money. When I interact with other members of the Forbes 400 who built their companies, virtually none of them say, ‘I wanted to make money’. They say: ‘I had an idea and I wanted to prove it would work’.

In most cases, being a genius isn’t a determining factor of business success. Einstein was a genius, but there’s no evidence he was a good businessman. It takes a certain amount of intelligence to be a successful entrepreneur, but drive is a far more important determining factor: The drive to improve yourself; the conviction that you’re doing something that’s going to prove you’re correct; and the ability to work with other people, and get them to see the world the way you do are essential.

3. They’re not in it for the money


Obviously when you make a lot of money you’ll find people accumulating the trappings of wealth, but I don’t think most entrepreneurs are as pleased with having a yacht or a plane or multiple homes as they are with proving that the company they thought was a good idea when no-one else did is a success.

A key driver that I see over and over again is the joy entrepreneurs take in the fact that they were right and others were wrong.

4. The desire to change the world for the better

In many ways entrepreneurship is like parenthood. As a parent you have a great deal of pride for how your child develops. You will sacrifice everything for your child, and do anything to try and make their life better.

This is how entrepreneurs feel about their companies. They create them, nurture them in the early years, and see them grow and mature into an adult form. There’s an incredible sense of purpose to both parenthood and entrepreneurship.

Entrepreneurs want to make the world a better place. Businesses create jobs, help others earn a living and give them dignity and self-worth.

Entrepreneurs create wealth for themselves, their employees and society through taxes and hopefully offering a product or service that adds value to society and other businesses as well. There’s a massive sense of pride in a business that really adds value.

The interesting entrepreneurial conundrum occurs when the business matures, though. Some entrepreneurs want to keep creating, others can also be managers. Business owners often need to figure out which they are. Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mike Bloomberg all created companies and ran them for many years, but this isn’t always the case. Many entrepreneurs are great at creating companies, but they aren’t good at running what they created.

The problem of course is that the personality of a successful entrepreneur comes with a sizeable ego.

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The trick is to also have enough humility to understand where and when you’re adding value, and when it’s better to step down for the good of the company. The truth is, you don’t need an entrepreneur to run mature companies, you need a manager. 

5. They want to give back

When I signed the Giving Pledge, it was because of a deeply held belief that those who have been fortunate and lucky in business have an obligation to give back and help make society a better place, whether it’s by helping people to get educated, medical treatments, or supporting charitable organisations.

When I grew up, I never saw myself as disadvantaged. I didn’t know about wealth.

Looking back I can say, okay, I didn’t have the wealth that other people had, some people might have said I was slightly disadvantaged because I didn’t have a wealthy family and contacts to propel me into success, but in hindsight it was a very advantaged upbringing. The most advantaged thing you can have, as Warren Buffet has said, is the unconditional love of two parents.

If you’re fortunate to have two parents, and they give you unconditional love and support in what you are doing, that’s worth a lot more than the money you might have gotten.

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The hardest thing in life is to achieve personal happiness. The people who achieve it are not the wealthiest people. If you’ve created wealth, put it to good use.

6. The Role of Luck

Luck is the most important thing in life. Most successful entrepreneurs have had a fair amount of luck in their business endeavours. Bill Gates is a very smart person, but it was IBM’s mistake in not buying the operating system that he developed, and letting him license it to them instead, which helped propel his success.

Steve Jobs was thrown out of his company, and only later brought back as CEO. If that hadn’t happened, he probably wouldn’t have been heard from again.

I owe a lot of my own success to luck. It was not preordained that I would be a successful businessman. I came from a modest background; my parents did not graduate from high school, and my father worked at a post office and earned a modest salary. I worked hard to earn the grades that would secure me the bursaries I needed to study law.

My goal was to work at the White House, which I had achieved as a lawyer under the Carter administration by the time I was 27. Had Carter won the 1980 election, I would have stayed at the White House, and my career would have progressed in the political sphere, as a lawyer or lobbyist for successive administrations.

Carter didn’t win though, which meant I went back to the private sector, where I soon realised I actually wasn’t a good lawyer. Had I been a good lawyer, I’d probably still be practising law today.

What seemed like bad luck — working for a single-term President and then realising I wasn’t suited to my chosen profession, actually turned out to be incredible strokes of luck, because they gave me the opportunity to pursue something I was very good at, namely private equity.

Even more fortuitous was the fact that I was based in Washington DC. I didn’t have a Wall Street background, which meant there was no way I could have launched a PE firm in New York. Washington DC was different.

No one was doing this there. People laughed at me and what I was trying to do, but they also had no one else to compare me to. This meant I could convince people to join the firm who had more financial skills than I had, although they also had no Wall Street experience.

In 1987 I started the first private equity firm in Washington DC, and thanks to luck and good fortune, it became a highly successful global company.

There’s an art to using luck though, and that starts with the understanding that luck comes and goes. Spot it and use it when it comes, but let go of missed opportunities. They happen. Fixating on them doesn’t help you find the next opportunity.

I’ve personally missed more opportunities than I’ve probably taken. I had a chance to invest in Facebook at the beginning; I turned it down. I had an opportunity to be a big shareholder in Amazon; I turned that down. I had a chance to be an initial investor in Netscape and walked away from that too. We all make mistakes.

7. Entrepreneurial DNA

Over the years, I’ve noticed that many of the most successful entrepreneurs in the world share similar characteristics: They come from modest backgrounds, often lower-middle class; they’re driven, intelligent people, but not geniuses; they’re people that know how to motivate other people, and lead either by communicating very well or leading by example; they don’t take no for an answer; and they’re more interested in the success of their company and showing people that they are right in what they thought than the trappings of wealth.

Nadine Todd is the Managing Editor of Entrepreneur Magazine, the How-To guide for growing businesses. Find her on Google+.



Lesego Maphanga of Standard Bank

Lesego Maphanga is young (he only graduated in 2014 with an Industrial & Systems Engineering degree), yet he has already made a name for himself in multiple industries. His secret to success? Always doing more than is asked of him.

GG van Rooyen




Vital stats

  • Player: Lesego Maphanga
  • Company: Standard Bank
  • Position: Manager: Card & Emerging Payments; Africa Regions
  • About: At only 27, the maths & science whizz works at Standard Bank as an Emerging Payments manager responsible for implementing remittances products across multiple African Regions. He also has his own radio show on CliffCentral called the Urban Culture Drive, and is founder of social entrepreneurship movement called Unplugged and in Charge.

I studied engineering knowing right from the start that I would never work as an engineer. I just couldn’t see myself working at a mine, or something like that, but I knew that engineering would give me a solid foundation and allow me to keep my options open. A STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) degree is a great base, as it shows that you have a mind for numbers and the analytic mindset needed to get things done. I don’t think you can go wrong with a degree in one of these fields, even if entrepreneurship is your ultimate aim.

Related: 20 Quotes On Coping With Change From Successful Entrepreneurs And Leaders

How can I set myself apart?

You have to ask yourself this question. There’s a lot of competition out there. You might have a great academic history or work experience, but so do a lot of people, so you need to have a differentiator — something that makes you stand out. I entered Mr South Africa, for example, because I knew that it would increase my profile and add something interesting to my CV. I didn’t win, but I was a top-five finalist, which was good enough for me.

Find interesting things to add to your CV as well, since it’ll make it stand out in a massive pile of similar submissions.

Always go the extra mile

I had a lecturer who always said: “There are two kinds of bad engineers. There are those who don’t do what they’re told to do, and there are those who only do exactly what they’re told to do.” You need to add value and show that you are a crucial part of a team, so don’t just do what you’re told. Instead, look for ways in which you can go beyond the brief. Work hard and spend time coming up with your own ideas and projects. At the end of my studies, I interned at Standard Bank. I knew that I only had five weeks to make an impression, so I gave it my all. When you’re young, you don’t have many responsibilities apart from work, so that’s the time to put everything into your work.

Be audacious and make things happen

Seizing an opportunity that comes to you is great, but creating your own opportunities is even better. Don’t take no for an answer, and don’t wait for someone to give you a chance. A friend and I had an idea for a radio show and decided to put a proposal together. We had no experience and no contacts in the field, but we emailed our proposal to everyone we could think of. We spammed them, sending it out every single day. Eventually, CliffCentral got in contact 
with us.

Related: Design The Life Of Your Dreams Using These Simple Tips

I don’t want a ‘normal’ life

I want an extraordinary life, so I demand a lot of myself. I think Elon Musk is a great example of this. He’s doing things no one thought possible. Of course, it requires extreme levels of dedication and hard work. If you’re aiming for the top, I don’t think work/life balance is possible. You need work/life integration. You need to be pursuing your passion all the time. If you’re on a path you’re truly interested in, work doesn’t feel like sacrifice.

Exercise is important to me

I go to gym twice a day. It’s significant to me, as it allows me to relax and clear my mind. It also provides structure to my life. When I get up early and go to gym, I find that the rest of my day falls into place. It sets the tone. As long as I maintain focus in this part of my life, I find that things overall stay under control. Sometimes, though, I need to take a day off and just sit in front of the TV. Generally speaking, however, I find that routine helps maintain focus and momentum.

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Joel Stransky Shares His Insights On What Makes A Great Leader

Enter Joel Stransky just as friendly as the rest of the team, also casually dressed, also wearing a smile. As a founding director of the innovative Pivotal Group, he explained that their value proposition particularly in Pivotal Talent.

Dirk Coetsee




Posters displayed on companies’ walls representing the business’ Vision and value system are a common occurrence. A general value that numerous companies share is to be client centred and to provide excellent service. Yet, unfortunately a proportion of companies do not live according to their values as tools to actualize their collective Vision.

An observant individual would take only a few seconds to notice that the Leadership group at Pivotal has gone to great lengths to establish a definitive and value driven culture as well as a motivating climate for their team members. As I waited in the reception area I was met with smiles from several people passing by and there was generally no way to assess what their position was as they were all casually dressed, friendly and approachable.

Related: 5 Things Businesses Can Learn From Rugby

Enters Joel Stransky just as friendly as the rest of the team, also casually dressed, also wearing a smile. As a founding director of the innovative Pivotal Group, he explained that their value proposition particularly in Pivotal Talent, is the use of Augmented Intelligence and data analytics within the “human capital space”.  The application of AI and data makes talent acquisition and career guidance much less of an enigma and challenge as opposed to the recent past where traditional talent acquisition and career guidance methods became less and less successful and more and more time consuming.

The “pivot” of the 1995 Victorious Springbok world cup team shared that he always starts off an employee-employer relationship with the assumption of mutual trust and respect. He believes that once you have put in the sincere effort to understand people better, bigger belief in them is a natural result.

“The greatest asset in business is people,” Joel passionately explained and added that it is possible for a brilliant product to fail in the long run when the wrong people are employed.


“Hiring the right people that would not only help sustain the current culture but add more value to it is critical to any team or companies’ sustainable success,” Joel explained. The Millennial generation think differently and have different expectations from a working environment, therefore it is a critical factor for any manager and/or Leader to understand what drives the emerging generation and also how to manage the polarity of generational gaps.

Related: Servant Leadership – Will You Serve?

As a result of diversity and generational gaps Leadership and management has become a fascinating space to operate within South-Africa as not only cultural and language barriers might offer a challenging HR environment, the millennial generations unique behaviours amplify the need for useful adaptations within all spheres of work.

As a practical example, employee X is twenty-three years old. Some of the key questions that management needs to figure out, that is if they sincerely want the best for, and the best out of employee X, are:

  • Is X motivated by monetary rewards and/ or does she/he need a regular hug to feel part of and add to the company culture?
  • Does X need to interact with management socially for example be taken out do dinner?
  • What skills does X have or lack that impacts his/her performance?
  • It is impossible to motivate someone else. In what way can I create an environment for X wherein he/she can motivate himself/herself and excel?

How you satisfy Xs’ needs and manage all related factors to his or her needs has become critical success factors in how we as leader’s approach career development in general.

Reflecting on the development of his own sports and business career, as well as his family life Joel is adamant that whatever drives you in sport also drives you in business and within your family life. Whatever he has achieved within all aspects of his life came as a result of setting goals and making those goals a reality.

Both in sports and in the business world within South Africa there is a general tendency towards over structured management and coaching. Although a structure and daily management is an integral part of business and sports, a paradigm shift towards inspirational Leadership that empowers other leaders to succeed is key in terms of serving others and creating a motivating and sustainable environment within which all team members can thrive.

Reflecting on Joels’ observation: “Our countries’ value chain is broken” the moment has most certainly arrived within which more and more value driven and ethical Leaders, emerging from all generations must arise and collectively work towards an improved future.

Critical to the actualisation of a collective future vision is the development of Leadership skills therefore one of the keen interests of the author is to recognise and learn from other Leaders’ character traits. Joel’s’ highly effective communication skills underpinned by the core people skill of active listening quickly came to the fore as he could quote part of my question and comments in each of the very insightful answers that he provided. His keen willingness to innovate and to create inspiring working environments makes his enthusiasm and skill as a Leader tangible.

Let us all challenge ourselves to learn from prime Leadership examples offered by individuals such as  Joel Stransky and leave more and more Leaders behind for only in such a way can an inspiring future be built.

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Company Posts

Nhlanhla Dlamini Not Only Has Guts, But Grit – In Spades

An alumnus of WBS and Harvard Business School, Nhlanhla Dlamini did some soul searching when he was doing his MBA at Harvard, and knew that the corporate ladder, although tempting, was simply not going to be enough.

Wits Business School




It takes guts to venture into entrepreneurship. And when you’re in a ‘cushy’ job with a top global auditing firm who are grooming you for partnership, it takes even more guts.

Nhlanhla Dlamini not only has guts, but grit – in spades.

An alumnus of WBS and Harvard Business School, Nhlanhla did some soul searching when he was doing his MBA at Harvard, and knew that the corporate ladder, although tempting, was simply not going to be enough.

“I started thinking, ‘what is the best thing I can do with my life?’”, recalls Nhlanhla. “I always felt a pressing need to get involved in lowering the unemployment rate in South Africa.  It’s a notoriously difficult space, but entrepreneurship is the real engine of job creation and I felt compelled to rise to the challenge.”

When he left his job at McKinsey in March 2015, Nhlanhla decided to explore the agricultural sector – having no idea what product or what part of the value chain he would end up in. He spent until December that year exploring the agri-food sector, gaining as much understanding as he could about the entire industry by talking to famers, co-ops, agricultural associations and various other stakeholders.

Related: 10 Young Entrepreneurs Under 30 Share Their Start-Up Secrets

“I wanted to export products to the US and I looked at tree nuts, blueberries, dairy products or meat. Because of stringent FDA regulations, meat wasn’t an option – but a friend of mine from WBS days suggested meat in the form of pet food.”

And so Maneli Pets was born, and Nhlanhla moved his fledgling business into a factory, which he re-purposed for meat processing, in October 2016. By June 2017, he had started operations with 30 employees on board, and by September he had 50 employees.

Maneli Pets

What makes Maneli different from other US-bound pet food products in an already saturated market? The answer is high protein meat from animals that are unique to South Africa.

“I discovered a market for the off-cuts of meat  from specialist butcheries – so crocodile, warthog, ostrich etc,” Nhlanhla explains. “The result is a very high quality, high protein pet snack with a difference – and US pet owners are willing to pay for the best they can get.”

Under the brand name ‘Roam’, Maneli Pets products are exported to a pet food wholesaler in Boston, US, owned by the family of Nhlanhla’s former WBS classmate, who had planted the seed of the idea in the first place.  Nhlanhla is now preparing to launch the products under another brand name for distribution in South Africa and export to the EU.

But pet food is only the start. Maneli Pets is an offshoot of the Maneli Group, a diversified food company which is looking ooking to build further businesses in the green energy sector, while boosting black entrepreneurship.

According to a City Press report, South Africa has relatively few black-owned food production businesses, which is why government is actively promoting agro-processing and the manufacturing sector in general to spur economic growth.

Nhlanhla has worked tirelessly to secure government funding, and was thrilled to obtain R26 million from the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC). Just last month, he received the news that Maneli Pets had been awarded grant funding of R12.5 million from the Department of Trade and Industry’s Black Industrialists Scheme (BIS).

Nhlanhla, who was also a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University, considers his PDM at WBS a “superb” way of preparing a student for the real world of work. “The group dynamics was an essential learning experience in terms of delivering on a mandate with a group with entirely different skill sets.”

Related: Edward Moshole Founder Of Chem-Fresh Started With R68 And Turned It Into A R25 Million Business

Describing himself as a “passionate and active WBS alumnus”, Nlhanhla still stays in regular contact with a core group from his PDM class, proving that one of the enduring benefits of a PDM (and an MBA) is the opportunity to connect and network with like-minded people and form life-long friendships.

Apart from what he learnt in the Entrepreneurship Management module of the PDM, such as the pillars of entrepreneurship, macro trend support and financing an idea, Nhlanhla considers the keys to success are threefold: Recognising the value of a social network, tenacity – and just a little luck!

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