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Blackstone CEO Talks New Book, Business Advice

Stephen Schwarzman, CEO of the multinational private equity, alternative asset management, and financial services firm Blackstone and No. 42 on Forbes’ Most Powerful People of 2018, spoke as part of a series of events hosted by the Boston College Chief Executives Program on Wednesday. Schwarzman promoted his new New York Times-bestselling book What It Takes: Lessons in the Pursuit of Excellence.

In an hour-long interview conducted by Jay Hooley, chairman of State Street Corporation and BC ’79, Schwarzman offered anecdotes and advice to the students in attendance. 

Schwarzman said he wrote the book because it serves as a sales pitch that allows him to persuade those with potential capital that he, and by extension Blackstone, are perfectly suited to manage and grow said capital. When asked “Why now?” in regard to why he decided to author his first book at the age of 72, Scharzman responded, “I’m getting older, apparently.” 

In response to questions about how he got his start in business and the influences that shaped him into the man he is today, Schwarzman said that he is a product of the experiences of his youth and his parents’ disposition—a mixture of nature and nurture. He cited his mother’s articulate, ambitious, and aggressive personality mixed with his father’s kindness as factors that have allowed him to be an effective businessman. 

Schwarzman also cited his time as a child working at his father’s business, a successful linen shop in the greater Philadelphia area, as integral to his formation as a businessman. A defining moment in his life, Schwarzman said, was when he pressured his father to expand the business, citing the success of the store and the lack of large linen chains at the time. His father declined, which frustrated Schwarzman.

“I was sort of surprised because I was always thinking if you could do something wonderful, why wouldn’t you do it?” he said.

In Schwarzman’s eyes, the creation of big, wonderful ideas are what each person should strive to achieve, he said. His first big, wonderful idea occurred to him soon after he began his undergraduate study at Yale University, where he decided he wanted to make himself a known presence on campus.

At that time an all-male university, Yale’s student body ached for a female presence, so Schwarzman set his sights on bringing the New York City Ballet to New Haven for a show. He recounted sneaking past the security guard at the New York City Ballet and gaining entrance to the backstage, where he ran into the general manager. 

Schwarzman, unable to get the ballet to come to New Haven, convinced him to allow Yale students and five of the all-female Seven Sisters Schools to bus into New York City and attend the New York City Ballet’s dress rehearsal of The Nutcracker. Schwarzman stated that pulling off that event gave him the confidence to pursue other big ideas. 

“I have always liked to do big things,” Schwarzman said. “I like them because I can understand them.”

Schwarzman repeatedly stated that in business you must “go big or go home.” He emphasized that creating and pursuing big ideas is a key to success in any field. 

Schwarzman said that the best talent is often drawn to big ideas, and he referenced his early days at Blackstone as an example. Blackstone has been a major player in the private equity game since its inception, as it was founded at a time when private equity did not have the popularity it does today. 

Schwarzman saw many of his personal friends getting into private equity and that the overhead for starting a private equity firm was simply “a telephone and a place to talk and think,” so he set out to create his own. 

He told those in attendance to take after his example and pursue good ideas regardless of pushback or uncertainty. He said to repeatedly ask “Why not?” and placed a tremendous emphasis on never giving up. 

Schwarzman, understanding that the majority of his audience will soon be entering the workforce, shifted his focus to advice about the hiring process. His main piece of advice centered around the need for perseverance. 

“You can’t just give up, and you have to take enormous psychological beatings,” Schwarzman said.

He advised seniors to be comfortable in their abilities and to not put too much premium on prestige. 

When asked if he had advice for those interviewing, Schwarzman responded that businesses want someone who is comfortable, intelligent, self-confident, responsive, and maybe even a little funny.

“Life isn’t mechanical,” he said. “In our business, things change, and if you can’t change in certain areas, that’s a bad thing—you aren’t usable. So all you have to do is be relaxed and be yourself and respond to questions.”

Featured Image by Jess Rivilis / Heights Staff

October 8, 2019