This story is part of the Behind the Desk series, where CNBC Make It takes a look at successful business leaders to find out everything from how they got to where they are to what brings them out. from bed in the morning to their daily routines.
At 50, Jonathan Greenblatt was an entrepreneur, worked as a corporate executive for Starbucks and Realtor.com, and served in the White House twice.
But nothing has been more rewarding than the job he does now, he says. “We are helping victims of hate crimes,” says Greenblatt CNBC Make It.
Greenblatt is CEO and National Director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the world’s oldest anti-hate nonprofit and one of the oldest civil rights groups in the United States.
Prior to taking over as head of ADL in 2015, Greenblatt spent two stints in the White House as director of social innovation under President Obama and as assistant to President Clinton. He also co-founded Ethos Brands, a premium bottled water company that helps children around the world access safe drinking water.
In 2005, upon the acquisition of Ethos by Starbucks Coffee, Greenblatt was appointed vice president of the company’s global consumer products.
But Greenblatt left Starbucks after a year to continue his mission to change the world.
“One of the perks of being at ADL is that everyone is motivated by their mission. Nobody joins the nonprofit sector because they are looking to make money, ”he says.
Greenblatt says that over the past four years in the United States, hate crimes have exploded. At this moment, the ADL faces the recent wave of anti-Asian hate crimes, he says.
In a recent report published by the ADL’s Center on Extremism (COE), white supremacist propaganda, which includes racist, anti-Semitic and anti-LGBTQ flyers, nearly doubled from last year, averaging over 14 incidents per day in 2020.
“You can’t legislate or you can’t stop people for fighting hate, you have to change hearts and minds. So we found at ADL that the best way to stop hate is education,” says Greenblatt.
ADL teaches its anti-bias education in schools and law enforcement training programs across the country. Gleenblatt says her passion for helping others came from her grandfather, who was a Holocaust survivor.
“Staying close to your roots is really important to your long term success,” he says.
Here, Greenblatt talks to CNBC Make It about discovering his passion through his grandfather, what Howard Schultz of Starbucks taught him, and ending hate.
About his Holocaust survivor grandfather: he ‘lived through the worst of the worst’ and still had ‘hope’
I grew up in Trumbull, Connecticut, which is kind of a nice little town. It’s about 90 minutes from New York. I was the first in my family to graduate from college. I went to Tufts University and lived a sort of middle class life. My father was a salesman and my mother was a secretary.
The only thing that was very educational for me was that my grandfather was a Holocaust survivor in Germany. He lost almost his entire family to the Holocaust. He came to this country with nothing, no language, no money, no contacts and sort of carved out a middle class life for himself in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
His experience of going through the worst of the worst and yet having hope that really shaped my point of view.
When I was little, my grandfather took me in this movement to free the Jews in the Soviet Union.
When there was a Soviet Union, they were very repressive towards the Jewish people. They would not let them practice their religion. They wouldn’t let them work in many jobs. And they wouldn’t let them leave the country. So there was this movement to free the Soviet Jews and my grandfather took me to the marches.
Then something happened, which was [the Jewish people] were effectively released. Even before the fall of the Soviet Union, they began to leave them [emigrate].
It left an impression on me. We wanted to change the world and we did. Being a part of that has stayed with me my whole life. If you ask me about my personal philosophy of changing the world, it is partly from this experience.
The other thing that happened to me when I was in college in my senior year, I volunteered for the Clinton campaign for president. Most people didn’t think he was going to win the nomination.
I was a work-study student and I worked in the dining halls to pay for my studies. Bill Clinton had this idea of young people serving their communities after college to pay off their student loans, and I felt like it was a much better deal than cleaning the floors and working in the dishwasher.
So I started volunteering and then one thing led to another. When I graduated from Tufts I moved to Arkansas and worked for [then] Governor Clinton at campaign headquarters in Little Rock, [Arkansas]. So you wouldn’t know he actually has the [presidential] nomination and we won.
It was a real moment of validation for me that I could change the world.
These two experiences left an indelible mark on me and it has been my true north ever since.
I think sometimes I got into organizations like a tornado. Early in my career, I was so excited to make positive changes from day one that I quickly instituted the ideas that I thought were the best.
But over time, I really understood that leadership is not about your product or service. It’s really about supporting your people. I learned part of this [former Starbucks CEO] Howard Schultz. He was in many ways a mentor and a role model.
Howard believes in the ethos of servant leadership, [a leadership philosophy that focuses on individuals’ “growth and well-being,” according to Greenleaf.org, rather than power]. I’ve learned the hard way when you don’t use this you often lose out in the long run.
So I try to emulate this model of servant leadership and it’s something that I really enjoy today that I didn’t necessarily understand when I started out.
I meditate. I just turned 50 last year and it’s one of those times when you stop, take a break, and start thinking. I have found that meditation really helps me focus and bring some balance.
At ADL, we deal with the toughest issues. We are dealing with extremism and hatred. In the past four years in this country, hate crimes have exploded. Right now, we are facing the surge in anti-Asian hate crimes. We follow all kinds of the worst elements like the white supremacists and the armed militias that stormed the Capitol.
We deal with this problem every day. So it can be very disturbing and very upsetting. I have found that in my daily routine, meditation really helps me. It calms you down, it centers you, and it gives you a kind of focus.
I believe the best way to fight hate is to humanize others.
Education is a great antidote to this kind of ignorance. Often, prejudice is the product of ignorance. People who don’t understand that we actually have more in common than the things that separate us. Whether it is harassment, vandalism or violence, it is often rooted in ignorance of others and where they are from, how they pray or who they love.
The more we can do to break down barriers and help see others as human beings above all, it makes a huge difference.
The strategy I used and it’s a learned strategy … it didn’t come naturally to me … it’s reaching out. We strive to reach people, even those with whom we do not agree.
I think dialogue is the most effective approach to overcome ignorance. It forces you to take a risk. It forces you to be open about whoever you disagree with or may not understand.
It can be humiliating at times. It can be a little scary. But I’ve learned at ADL, to reach out to people I may have vehement disagreements with, and to try to see if we can find some common ground.
At ADL we are over 100 years old, and I will often notice how proud I am to be in this organization that literally fought for racial equality.
It all began to fight for racial equality in the 1940s. ADL began to fight for immigration reform in the 1950s. Previous ADL leaders marched with Dr. King to Selma in the years 1960.
ADL is really not just an organization, it is an institution. It’s kind of part of the civic fabric of America. You get to own the ups and downs, but you also have to recognize the failures and missteps.
At ADL, we do three things. We do advocacy. We are trying to change the laws in the courts or in Congress. We try to enforce the standards in the court of public opinion concerning the protection of minorities and the fight against hatred.
Second, we work with law enforcement. We monitor anti-Semitic incidents and hate crimes. We are investigating the extremists. We have a whole research unit that literally investigates bad guys.
Then we educate the police. We train around 15,000 officers every year. We teach more law enforcement officials than any other group in the United States about extremism and hate.
I was prepared to take risks. Not necessarily the ones that would generate the most financial return on investment [return on investment] but would drive the most impact.
It’s never too late to take risks.
In many ways, entrepreneurship is really about mitigating risk. It’s not about jumping into a lake and you don’t know how deep it is. It’s about being smart about the risks you take – but it ultimately involves a certain degree of risk.
I think the most exciting and challenging opportunities come only when you’re willing to take some degree of risk.
I would encourage people to step out of their comfort zone. Also, don’t get too caught up in yourself. It doesn’t matter if you’re a CEO or a chairman or this or that. At the end of the day, everyone is just one person.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
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