Five Questions with Mark Gerson
Mar 4, 2021
Five Questions with Mark Gerson
Five Questions with Mark Gerson
I interviewed serial entrepreneur, investor and philanthropist Mark Gerson, on his new book, The Telling, and the lessons we can get from Judaism on entrepreneurship and impact investments. Mark Gerson is a serial entrepreneur, investor and philanthropist (see his short bio below). I first met Mark in Israel in 2003, when he offered me a job at GLG straight out of college. It was one of the most rewarding work and personal experiences in my career, and also where I met my wife. Mark is one of the smartest and thoughtful people, and I’ve been lucky to call him a friend ever since. This week, Mark launched his new book, The Telling , and I thought it’s worth sharing with a broader audience. While it’s not the usual startup/VC post, enjoy Mark’s unique perspective on faith, business and giving. VC Cafe: Congratulations on the launch of your new book “The Telling : How Judaism’s Essential Book Reveals the Meaning of Life”. what is it about? Mark Gerson: The book is about the Haggadah, which Jews use to guide us through the Passover Seder. The background of my approach comes from the first question that a reader — or a consumer of any media — has to answer: What is the genre? This is especially important with the Torah and with its great derivative work that we experience on Passover — the Haggadah. And the Torah and the Haggadah are not history books, cookbooks, law books or instruction manuals — they are guidebooks. The Haggadah is our guidebook for Passover, which is the Biblical Jewish New Year. As such, the Haggadah — using the entire Bible and even some Rabbinic stories that happened subsequently — exists to guide us in the New Year. It enables us to consider who we were in the past year, to take inventory of ourselves now and to deeply (and enjoyably) contemplate how we can live happier, better and more fulfilling lives in the year to come. The Haggadah is really the Greatest Hits of Jewish Thought, completely full of wisdom that is accessible, enjoyable and highly actionable. It is, quite possibly (aside from the Torah), the best book ever written. And yet, many people just pass through it without realizing that they are holding a genuine treasure. My goal in writing The Telling was to show just how this familiar book is a treasure — ready to transform the lives of everyone who will open themselves to it. VC Cafe: In my experience, a lot of secular Jews stay away from religion because they don’t know exactly how to engage with it or because they feel ‘excluded’ from the religious community. Yet it seems that you found a way… can you please share a bit more about your podcast, the Rabbi’s husband, and what inspired you to study religion after years of running and investing in companies? Mark Gerson: One of the many interesting things we read in last week’s Torah portion (Terumah) was about how the ark, which holds the Torah, must always be ready to go. One of the reasons is that the Torah is intended to travel — to everyone, everywhere. And it was intended to be read by ordinary people or even to ordinary people — as it debuted at the very dawn of literacy. The stories, lessons, learnings and discussions inspired by the Torah are intended for and accessible to everyone. This is not some modern and liberal interpretation. It is the straightforward reading of Deuteronomy 31:12: “Assemble the people — men, women and children and the foreigners in your towns — so they can listen and learn to fear the Lord your God and follow carefully all the words of this law.”
The Torah itself says that the Torah can and should be studied by everyone (including children) together — and that everyone can be expected to listen to it, learn from it and to act accordingly. If the Torah were difficult, inaccessible, intended only for people who are “religious” (whatever that means!) — this passage from Deuteronomy would make no sense. But of course it makes sense; it is in the Torah. So the Torah itself says that no one should feel excluded from the Torah or, even more so, the religious community in which the Torah is embedded. The Torah is the original and best-ever self help-book — and everyone can (and should) avail themselves of it. As you said, I am primarily an entrepreneur in both the commercial and non-commercial worlds. But I run for an hour every day on the treadmill, and study Torah when I’m running. And I find a little time elsewhere in the day. Because the Torah is so accessible, I was able to write this book while doing everything else. VC Cafe: In one of our recent conversations you mentioned that you look at Philanthropy, an area you’ve been very active in, like a business decision. Can you explain how you choose the causes you support? Do you think of it as ‘impact investing’, ‘ESG’, or ‘giving? What’s the difference? Mark Gerson: Yes, I consider philanthropy in exactly the same way that I do business. Given that they both involve allocating financial resources to achieve their highest expected return, there should be only one methodology — and this is by way of reference to achieving the highest return on investment. Consequently, we concentrate around 80% of our giving in two organizations that I co-founded and Chair — African Mission Healthcare and United Hatzalah. African Mission Healthcare partners with Christian missionary physicians and hospitals in Africa to bring care to the African poor in three ways — in the provisioning of clinical care, training and infrastructure (which could be power, water, housing or any number of other things). United Hatzalah is the crowd-sourced system of distributed first response within Israel that enables any victim of pre-hospital trauma (heart attacks, strokes, choking, accidents) to be treated within the first two minutes that separate life from death. We could discuss the ROI metrics of each organization in the same way as we would any company. For for now, let’s just stipulate that both save lives at a cost of under $450/per — with an enormous array of other life-enhancing services (providing children the ability to walk, preventing brain damage, ensuring safe maternal delivery) for even less. I don’t know what “impact investing” is — in a substantive sense. Every investment has an impact. Every successful company, for instance, has the following — and so much more: customers who can buy a product or service they value at a price they deem fair, on the employees and their families (from food on the table to career growth), friendships (and sometimes marriages!) that develop among employees, public goods that are bought with the tax revenue generated by the company, economies that develop and grow from the spending of the employees (from restaurants to real estate, and a thousand other things). That’s impact. If someone bought bitcoin seven years ago, would it have been considered an “impact investment”? Probably not. But what if that person made $15m with that bitcoin, donated $8m of it — and saved 16,000 lives…plus all of the people who were impacted by the 16,000 people now being alive? Did it become an “impact investment”? To at least a hundred thousand people, probably. VC Cafe: What principles have you taken from your religion studies that can be applied by entrepreneurs and investors? Mark Gerson: Basically, I think that investors (and the entrepreneurs they support) should become as financially successful as they can — and give as much of it away, in real time, to the highest ROI destinations they can find. And they should give more. The Bible guarantees, and modern sociology completely confirms, that they will never regret it — in fact, this practice will make them wealthier. Those dynamics are explored in the book. VC Cafe: What advice do you have for people who want to grow on the spiritual side of their lives but don’t know how? Mark Gerson: They should join a religious community — and start participating. Participating in a genuine religious community will involve fellowship, study and service. Participants will then discover how, by working with others to accomplish something meaningful, how they can best relate to God — and will be prepared to begin a uniquely crafted spiritual journey. And I emphasize a religious community. The mid-20th Christian scholar of Judaism, Harvard Professor George Foote Moore, probably did not know from the term “spirituality.” But he knew philosophy. And he said, so rightly: “The difference between philosophy and religion is that religion does something about it.”
VC Cafe: Finally, the world has changed so much in the past year… What are your predictions for 2021 and where are you personally interested to invest your time and money? Mark Gerson: Plenty of things changed and plenty of things didn’t — and sometimes, things don’t exist in that dichotomy. For instance, people ask us at African Mission Healthcare how they can best help with Covid in Africa. Our answer: Mt. Sinai was able to handle Covid in New York because it is a great medical institution. Great medical institutions are ready to handle everything. And, now, very few African hospitals have remotely sufficient oxygen capability — and many have none. And oxygen is, as Dr. Marty Makary said, the most important intervention in the history of medicine. It enables everything from Covid treatment to safe surgery of all kinds. So we at AMH have embarked on a campaign to build oxygen capacity at Christian hospitals throughout Africa. Please join us! Mark is the co-founder of GLG , the world’s leading expert network and several other companies. He’s also the co-founder and Chairman of United Hatzalah of Israel , the crowd-sourced system of volunteer first response that enables Israelis to be treated within the three minutes that separate life from death following a trauma, as well as the co-founder and Chairman of African Mission Healthcare , which supports the work of Christian medical missionaries who supply the indispensable source of care for the African poor. His podcast, The Rabbi’s Husband , brings interesting guests to discuss their favourite biblical passage.