My belief is that education is the solution to everything. The movement I’d like to inspire, and to which I have contributed, is scholarships for students who want to go to college but cannot financially afford to do so. In addition, I would add worldwide vocational/technical education programs and give them the same cache as a college education.

In this interview series, we are exploring the subject of resilience among successful business leaders. Resilience is one characteristic that many successful leaders share in common, and in many cases it is the most important trait necessary to survive and thrive in today’s complex market.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Ed Hajim.

Ed Hajim is a seasoned Wall Street executive with more than 50 years of investment experience. He has held senior management positions with the Capital Group, E.F. Hutton, and Lehman Brothers before becoming chairman and CEO of Furman Selz. Hajim has been the co-chairman of ING Barings, Americas Region; chairman and CEO of ING Aeltus Group and ING Furman Selz Asset Management; and chairman and CEO of MLH Capital. He is now chairman of HighVista Strategies, a Boston-based money management company. In 2008, after 20 years as a trustee of the University of Rochester, Hajim began an eight-year tenure as chairman of the university’s Board of Trustees. Upon assuming that office he gave the school $30 million — the largest single donation in its history — to support scholarships and endow the Edmund A. Hajim School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Through the Hajim Family Foundation, he has made generous donations to organizations that promote education, health care, the arts, culture, and conservation. In 2015, he received the Horatio Alger Award, given to Americans who exemplify the values of initiative, leadership, and commitment to excellence and who have succeeded despite personal adversities. His memoir, On the Road Less Traveled: An Unlikely Journey from The Orphanage to The Boardroom (Skyhorse) releases March 2021.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. What do you think made your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Maybe it was my athletic background, but I always fostered a culture of teamwork and cooperation that was focused on the important question: “What’s next?” Our monthly board meetings were attended by all the division heads and other leaders. We would review the past month and everyone was encouraged to help one another in any way they could.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

Steve Blecher was an invaluable friend and business partner. Steve was my COO, CFO, chief legal officer, accountant and everything else for some 30 years. Steve did everything I could not do or did not want to do — and did it well. His work allowed me to focus on my passion: building businesses. In the investment banking and brokerage business, we frequently interacted with every three- and four-letter organization known to humankind e.g., IRS, NASD, SEC, etc. I rarely, if ever, had to go to any of the meetings. He shielded me from involvement and we ended up with an almost perfect record. Having Steve on my team meant I could do what I did best, knowing I had someone I could trust to tell me when I was making a wrong move.

Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

After graduation from the University of Rochester and my NROTC training, I was commissioned an ensign and assigned as an engineering officer aboard the personnel carrier USS Okanogan APA 220. I was only 22 years old and was put in charge of 180 men ranging in age from 18 to 50. It was the most responsibility I ever had up to that point in my life and that first year became a learning experience like no other. I learned every part of every engine on that ship and every pipe in the engine room backwards and forwards. During my three years, I served under four captains, some more difficult than others. I qualified as the chief engineer, the special sea detail officer of the deck (which allowed me to oversee pilots taking the ship in and out of port) and command duty officer (which allowed me to act on behalf of the captain if he wasn’t onboard). We had many interesting assignments, including delivering Navy SEALs up the Mekong River early in the Vietnam War. The experience taught me three important principles I carry with me to this day:

  1. Be deliberate in everything you do.
  2. Make sure every mission has well-defined rules.
  3. Nothing can be accomplished without a well-motivated team.

Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?

I went to work for Lehman Brothers in 1977 and realized almost at once that Lew Glucksman, the managing partner and the head of trading, was going to be adversarial. In spite of this, I worked hard and rebuilt the Lehman’s institutional equity business. After three years he essentially forced me out of the securities division and I became the chairman and CEO of Lehman Management Corporation, Lehman’s investment management business. Although the business was declining, I was able over three years to stop the decline and managed to raise the assets from about 2 billion to almost 10 billion. In spite of my success, Lew was able to again force me out of my position, this time into investment banking. He then pushed the chairman, Pete Peterson, out of the company and I decided to leave.

I joined Furman Selz, a boutique investment bank with just 20 million in revenues and 70 employees, as chairman, and later as CEO. Over the next 14 years, we grew the firm 10-fold. During that period, sold it to Xerox, and we bought it back and five years later sold it again, this time to ING, a large Dutch financial company. This experience was my dream job, and provided a significant financial rewards to my partners and employees. Without experiencing the setback at Lehman, none of this would have happened.

OK, thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?

Definition of resilience: Having the ability to overcome obstacles using your own capability, which requires toughness and a strong ability to bounce back.

Characteristics of resilient people: Self-confidence, toughness and optimism. What I call A Message to Garcia person, as in Elbert Hubbard’s essay. A person who hears the assignment and asks no questions — but goes out and does the job using his/her own initiative.

When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?

Winston Churchill: A leader who never gave up and never stopped working to save his nation by persuading the enter World War II.

Jackie Robinson: Being the first African-American baseball player to play in Major League Baseball, he broke the color barrier and faced every possible obstacle.

Beth Harmon: The inspiring character portrayed in The Queen’s Gambit who went from life in an orphanage to celebrated world champion chess player.

Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?

I grew-up for the most part, as an orphan, but I learned the power of education. I was living in an orphanage while in high school and decided I wanted to go to a good, private college. With no money, and essentially no parents to support me on any level, I was told my desire to attend a private college was nearly impossible. That didn’t stop me! I applied for as many scholarships as I possibly could and I worked nearly full time. I didn’t receive the New York state scholarship I applied for, but was able to get an NROTC scholarship, which with my savings allowed me to became a member of the Class of 1958 at the University of Rochester. Attending college allowed me to start with a clean slate and pursue everything I wanted but didn’t have as a child. It gave me stability and opportunity.

When I thought of pursuing an MBA at the Harvard Business School, I was told getting into the famous graduate program was another thing that was nearly impossible. My college grades were not great and even if I did get in, I did not have the means to cover tuition and expenses. (There weren’t scholarships available then for graduate students who could not afford tuition.) However, I wrote a very good application and obtained a couple of outstanding letters of recommendation and was accepted.

Fast forward, I not only graduated in the HBS class of 1964, but I was later elected to the Board of the Harvard Busines School Alumni Association and eventually became its president. I was also elected to the Dean Advisory Council and chaired several successful class reunions. I was very proud to have my daughter, Corey, also graduate from Harvard Business School.

My achievements allowed me to give back in other ways. In 1988, I became a member, and 20 years later, chairman, of the Board of Trustees of the University of Rochester. At the start of my eight-year tenure, and with my family’s blessing and support, I donated $30 million to the University of Rochester — making it the single largest donation in the university’s history. The gift was to support scholarships and the School of Engineering and Applied Science, which now bears my name. A year later, the school dedicated the Hajim Quadrangle, which contains the buildings of the engineering school. The only other person who has a quad named after him on the University of Rochester campus is George Eastman, whose donations built the school’s original campus.

I learned something important: The impossible just takes a little longer — and some luck.

Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?

When I was 3 years old, my father kidnapped me from my mother and drove us from St. Louis to Los Angeles. After we settled in LA, he told me that my mother had died. Being so young, I don’t recall my reaction, but I adjusted to the new “normal,” which included being cared for by a kindly neighbor when my father shipped off as a radio operator on a cargo ship. Everything changed after Pearl Harbor in 1941. My father became an officer in the U.S. Merchant Marine and left me, a Jewish child, with a Catholic welfare agency and asked them to put me into their foster care system. What followed was a series of Catholic foster homes that ranged from abusive to caring. After not seeing my father for almost five years, he returned from World War II. We reunited and moved to a hotel on Coney Island, where we got reacquainted. However, by the end of the summer of 1947, in order to get work, he signed onto a merchant ship and had to leave me alone, at the age of 11, in the hotel for part of the summer. Clearly this wasn’t sustainable. He contacted a Jewish welfare agency and they placed me in the Israel Orphan Asylum. Four years later, I was transferred to another orphanage for older boys. While this was a difficult and challenging time, I learned many important lessons that would accompany me through life, including:

  • Childhood disadvantages can become advantages in later life.
  • Embrace change and make it work for you. I lived in About 10–15 different places as a child. By learning how to adjust to different circumstances and become good at it, I learned not to be afraid of change.
  • Tough, hostile and abusive situations taught me how to appreciate good times and handle difficulties with less anxiety.
  • My lack of family forced me to seek out mentors and better understand the need for partners and people who cared.
  • By being alone, I developed self-reliance and learned how to become self-directed.
  • Being very poor produced a drive for financial independence and appreciation for money.
  • Not having control over my life as a child produced a strong drive to seek freedom as an adult.
  • Later in life, I realized that my childhood gave me the foundation to recognize the need to balance self, family, work and community.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

My belief is that education is the solution to everything. The movement I’d like to inspire, and to which I have contributed, is scholarships for students who want to go to college but cannot financially afford to do so. In addition, I would add worldwide vocational/technical education programs and give them the same cache as a college education.

We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the U.S. with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂

I’d love to sit down with Bill Gates because he has done it all and has successfully conquered what I call my four buckets of life: self, family, business and community/society. He has outperformed in all these areas and still seems to have humility.

Author Ed Hajim: Rising Through Resilience; Five Things You Can Do To Become More Resilient was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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