2007 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"The American dream is having the ability to work hard and, through your labors, achieve great things."
David Rubenstein, an only child, was born in 1949 in Baltimore, Maryland. His father was a file clerk with the U. S. Postal Service. When Rubenstein was six, his mother began working in a dress shop. The family lived in a row house in the northwest section of Baltimore, a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. "When I was young, Baltimore was a religiously segregated city," says Rubenstein. "The Jews were in the northwest part of town and it was very much a ghetto situation. I was 13 before I realized everyone in the world was not Jewish. Up to that point, everyone I knew was Jewish."
From an early age, Rubenstein worked hard in school. He held summer jobs that included working as a camp counselor, selling magazine subscriptions door to door, and working in the post office. He had a sense that if he worked hard, he would get ahead in life. Academically, his diligence began to pay off when he skipped a grade in middle school. He entered high school at the age of 14 and graduated when he was only 16. He felt a need to prove himself with older students and so his drive to work hard continued. He wanted to go to college and knew the only way to make that happen would be to earn a scholarship.
As a boy, Rubenstein was inspired by John F. Kennedy. He developed a keen interest in government and politics and knew that was what he would pursue when he was older. His parents gave him their loving support in whatever he wanted to study. "We were a very close family and I wanted to make them proud," he says. "My mother sort of wanted me to be a dentist. She thought that was the height of professional achievement."
Another influence on young Rubenstein was a boy's club in Baltimore called the Lancers. Organized by a local judge, the Lancers brought together young men from all over the city for athletic competition, lectures from prominent leaders, and lessons on citizenship. "I think the Lancers inspired me to think outside of the provincial world in which I was living," says Rubenstein.
Further growth took place when he entered high school. He attended City College, the third oldest high school in the United States and the sixth largest. Students came from all segments of the city and Rubenstein began to see the world as a much more complex place with myriad opportunities for those who were willing to work hard. "There were 1,500 students in my class," he says, "which was a lot of competition, but I was a serious student and did well academically."
He attended Duke University on a scholarship, but also took out loans and worked part time to cover expenses. He continued to get scholarships in college based on his high grade point average. He was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and graduated magna cum laude. On a full tuition scholarship, he attended law school at the University of Chicago, where he made the Law Review based on his academic performance.
Still interested in politics, Rubenstein knew that he wanted to pursue public service. He felt he didn't have the charisma to be a candidate so he decided he would be the "man behind the man." He took a job on Wall Street with a politically attuned law firm, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. "The firm included a number of attorneys I had always admired, including Ted Sorensen," says Rubenstein. "He was a role model for me since he had been the top speechwriter and advisor to President Kennedy. I was a very young associate and he was a very senior partner, but I did work with him on a number of projects and developed a high regard for him."
A few years later, Rubenstein moved to Washington, D.C., and at age 25, became chief counsel of the U. S. Senate Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Constitutional Amendments. The Subcommittee was chaired by Birch Bayh, who was then running for the 1976 Democratic Party nomination for President. When Senator Bayh dropped out of the race, Rubenstein joined Jimmy Carter's election campaign. During the election, he helped craft domestic policy with campaign advisor Stuart Eizenstat. The two formed a close working relationship and after the election, Rubenstein found himself as the President's deputy domestic policy advisor at the age of only 27.
"Working for the Carter administration was a heady experience," says Rubenstein. "I was 27 and had an office in the West Wing. I got calls from the President asking for my views on issues. There are few thrills that are better than being three years out of law school and walking out of the Oval Office with no one but the Secret Service and the President of the United States, getting on Marine One, and having your parents standing on the south lawn of the White House. I loved every minute of it."
In 1981, Rubenstein became a partner of a large Washington law firm, Shaw, Pittman Potts & Trowbridge. Within six years, he became a partner, but he soon realized he did not have a passion for law and began to look for other opportunities.
In 1987, Rubenstein and three other partners raised $5 million to start a private investment firm that does venture capital and buyouts. From the beginning, they focused on government-oriented companies, believing their Washington base would enable them to better understand those companies. Today, 20 years later, The Carlyle Group has grown into one of the world's largest private equity firms and has been a recognized leader in institutionalizing and globalizing the private equity industry. The firm manages more than $55 billion. Operating from 26 offices worldwide, it controls companies with more than $70 billion in annual revenues, employing more than 300,000 individuals.
When asked for his interpretation of success, Rubenstein says that it is important to remember where you have come from because that is your foundation. "If you work hard, if you chase your dreams, if you are humble about what you want to do and where you have come from, you can achieve great things with your life," he says. "In this country there are no limits to what you can achieve. If you have an idea that you think will work, and you develop a passion for it, this country will put no limits to how far you can go. You just never know where life will take you."