Volunteering to learn
07 August 2006
I COME from a close, loving family. I have three older brothers. My parents kept trying because they wanted a daughter, but had me as their fourth child. Thank goodness my younger sister wasn’t born first or I probably wouldn’t be here.
My parents are both 90 and very much alive. My mother was one of the first women graduates of Columbia Law School in the 1930’s. She graduated from high school at 14, college at 17 and law school at 19 or 20. She wasn’t even old enough to take the bar exam. When she passed the bar, she practiced law until she was 25 and then gave it up to raise a family. She returned to her practice at age 60 and kept working until she was 83.
My father has lived his whole life within 15 minutes of where he was born. He owned a plumbing supply business that his father had started. I grew up in Sea Cliff, a little town near Glen Cove, Long Island, and one thing I remember vividly is my parents’ volunteerism.
My parents were active volunteers in our community, doing all sorts of things, from the PTA to being on the board of the Y.M.C.A. When I was a kid, people used to laugh with my dad and say his volunteer work was his business and his business was his hobby. That rubbed off on me. I was a Big Brother in high school, for example, and I continued doing volunteer work in college.
I’m a big believer that you learn from those around you, that other people who do this type of work demonstrate through their actions and produce results you want to participate in. I have also found that the things I do today make a difference not only in the lives of those who need help but also with my friends, my family, my kids, my siblings, my colleagues. It inspires them while it inspires me.
I graduated from Hamilton College in 1979, and just before graduation, my brother Mark asked if I’d like to help him start a software company. I was thinking of going to law school but I decided to give it a try.
I joined Kronos and, believe it or not, it is the only company I’ve worked for in my 27-year career, which is pretty unusual in the software industry.
It’s always been important to me to find a balance between family and work, but also for things I could do to make the world a better place. Once I started working, I continued to volunteer.
It’s not a religious thing, though many things I do are in support of the Jewish community. It’s more just being part of something that gives back. There’s a Hebrew term, “tikkun olam,” which means “repairing the world.” The Jewish religion is grounded in the concept of making the world a better place, being charitable and generous.
And that’s how I met Malcolm. I joined the board of the Jewish Family Service in Framingham, Mass. I wanted to do more than sit on the board, so I volunteered for the Friendly Visitor program in which they pair a volunteer with an elderly person in need of companionship. Malcolm lives alone in an assisted-living residence.
He’s a very independent man, a very proud man and he’s physically healthy. We meet for breakfast, go to the movies, have dinner sometimes. We talk about what friends talk about: world politics and our families, our lives. He is interested in my work. Most people volunteer for a year. Malcolm and I have been together for five years and there is no end in sight. He just turned 80.
Malcolm has taught me kindness, humility, a positive outlook on life despite having obstacles that aren’t always easy. It keeps me grounded in my life. You can get caught up being the C.E.O. of a half-billion-dollar software company. You can escape reality very quickly.
I believe that you hire people who share your value systems and then they hire people who share their value systems and it perpetuates itself, particularly at a company where the managers have been there for a long time.
People say, “How do you have time to do that?” And I say, “If you want to do it, you can make the time to do it.”
As told to Glenn Rifkin.