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Philanthropist David M. Rubenstein — a member of the Harvard Corporation, the University’s highest governing body — discussed leadership lessons from his experience in private equity and public service at a Harvard Institute of Politics Forum Monday evening.
The event was moderated by Kennedy School professors Meghan L. O’Sullivan and Graham T. Allison Jr. ’62, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense for Policy and Plans. The talk was co-sponsored by the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
During the event, Rubenstein, co-founder of The Carlyle Group, shared anecdotes from his career, his thoughts on education, and how he discovered his passion for private equity.
Rubenstein has made donations totaling more than $700 million to charitable causes during his lifetime, including many to historical museums and monuments such as the Smithsonian, the Washington Monument, and the Lincoln Memorial — a practice he called “patriotic philanthropy.”
Rubenstein said he hopes to help people remember the history and heritage of the United States, emphasizing the importance of learning from past mistakes to build a better future.
“You study the mistakes of the past so you can correct them for a better future. The civilization can progress by learning mistakes and correcting them,” he said.
Discussing the decline of history majors in the United States, Rubenstein posited the push towards STEM degrees has crowded out students’ potential interest in history. He emphasized the need to convince people that studying history does not equate to unemployment.
“When I look at people, I never look at what they major in,” he said. “I look at how they talk, can they communicate, that they have a sense of personality, if I think they’ve learned how to write.”
Rubenstein encouraged students to explore different fields of study to find a subject they care deeply about.
“Experiment with many different things. I did four or five different things before I found what I really like,” he said. “You should all find something that you really love. Nobody has ever won a Nobel Prize hating what they did.”
“As a general rule of thumb I just don’t think there’s anything more you can do that supports your early stage of life than getting a good education. If you are highly educated, you are more likely to do things with your life that are going to be interesting,” Rubenstein added.
IOP JFK Jr. Forum Co-Chair Robert Fogel ’25 said he appreciated Rubenstein’s diverse set of experiences and focus on passionate learning.
“When you look at his career path, particularly for a lot of students who are very unsure about their own careers, I think it offers them a lot of reassurance and guidance in knowing just to follow your passion,” Fogel said.
Rubenstein also encouraged audience members to find ways to become involved in public service.
“Public service is a great way to give back to your country. And I think everybody ought to think about what you can do to give back to your country in some modest way,” Rubenstein said.
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