Making Something From Nothing: Mike Leven Of Jewish Future Pledge On How To Go From Idea To Launch

An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis

Fotis Georgiadis
Authority Magazine
Published in
10 min readJul 3, 2022


Make sure you surround yourself with the right people. Starting a company — though immensely rewarding — is a very difficult professional endeavor. When you make the leap to go out on your own and put your idea into action, you want to make sure you are bringing smart, measured people along with you.

As a part of our series called “Making Something From Nothing”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mike Leven, a legendary business executive and visionary philanthropist. Inspired by Warren Buffet’s and Bill Gates’ Giving Pledge, Mike co-founded the Jewish Future Pledge to carry on his family’s commitment to Judaism.

Mr. Leven currently serves on the boards of The Marcus Foundation; AEPi Fraternity Foundation; Birthright Israel Foundation; Board of Advisors of Prager University; HERSHA Hospitality Trust; Independent Women’s Voice; Turning Point USA Board of Advisors and SESTRA Group.

Professionally, Mike ended his tenure in 2019 as the chairman and chief executive officer of the Georgia Aquarium to devote more time to charitable endeavors like the Jewish Future Pledge. In the past, he has served as president and chief operating officer of the Las Vegas Sands Corporation, the chairman and chief executive officer of US Franchise Systems, the president and chief operating officer of Holiday Inn Worldwide, and the president of Days Inn of America.

Mr. Leven is a co-founder of the Asian American Hotel Owners Association (AAHOA), an organization that has more than 19,000 members owning more than 40,000 hotels.

Mike is the author of Can’t Do It Yourself: How Commitment to Others Leads to Personal Prosperity, which shares his roadmap to personal and professional success, ending each chapter with a lesson to live by in business and life.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

Thank you so much for the opportunity. I really appreciate it. I grew up in Boston, Massachusetts in a three-story walkup. We lived in a Jewish neighborhood, a 20th-century shtetl, with 86,000 people within a three-square-mile radius.

My mother’s parents were immigrants, and we would often have family come and stay with us. My grandfather was vice president of a synagogue, so I grew up with a lot of involvement in the Jewish community. I grew up eating kosher food, attending Jewish summer camps and singing in a Jewish choir. Jewish life was a very important part of my upbringing.

I also worked quite a few odd jobs when I was a kid, such as delivering groceries, setting up bowling lanes, and working at a pharmacy and in a kitchen. I was interested in talking with people, including non-Jewish people, and I studied the Old and New Testaments. In terms of my education, I attended Boston Latin School for high school — the oldest public high school in the United States — and then I went to Tufts University.

What is your favorite life lesson quote? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I live by the quote “Status quo is a prescription for failure.”

I’ve always tried to look beyond the typical ways of doing things. From my career as a hospitality executive to my work investing in the future of Jewish life through the Jewish Future Pledge, I’ve always looked for innovative approaches to old challenges. I believe this is the best way to achieve one’s goals and leave a lasting impact in the long term.

This view is also related to a quote from Albert Einstein, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” You can’t keep doing the same things, the same way, time and time again. You need to innovate to grow.

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

I’ve always loved Broadway musicals. One show that resonates with me is The Music Man, which is about a music teacher named Harold Hill. That character really sold imagination. He is an interested person — that’s the reason for his success. I relate to Harold Hill in his desire to be interested rather than interesting.

There is no shortage of good ideas out there. Many people have good ideas, but struggle to translate those ideas into an actual business. Can you share a few suggestions from your experience about how to overcome this challenge?

You must understand your product. Is there already a market for it? If not, you need to create the market. Your product has to fulfill a need. Just because you have a good idea — an idea that you personally like–doesn’t mean it makes a viable business. Once you do your research, you need to decide on the type of organization and people you need to build and deliver that product. I thought there was a niche to fill in the travel industry, so I worked in budget hotels. I knew there were going to be customers who needed them.

Similarly, I developed the Jewish Future Pledge, a commitment that from the funds you leave to charity at your passing, at least half will be earmarked to support the Jewish community and/or the State of Israel, in accordance with this very strategy — filling a gap within a market. In this case, the gap was Jewish giving, and the market, philanthropy. Many Jews are interested in supporting the institutions that have built our community — the summer camps, the synagogues, the community centers — but maybe didn’t know how or didn’t feel there was an organized effort, to support the Jewish future. I believe the over 6,000 pledge signatures we’ve received over the last two years show just how deeply that gap was felt within our community.

Often, when people think of a new idea, they dismiss it saying someone else must have thought of it before. How would you recommend that someone go about researching whether or not their idea has already been created?

It doesn’t make a difference if it’s already been created. You’ll just have the look at the other person’s product and see what they left on the table. Find an opening to create another product within this market. Remember that products change and evolve over time. For example, cars became more efficient, and phones became smaller. It’s not so much about originality as it is about differentiation.

Consider the Giving Pledge. This initiative was founded by Bill Gates nearly a decade ago, well before the Jewish Future Pledge. The Giving Pledge urges the ultrawealthy to give vast sums of their wealth to charitable causes. While the organization has been very successful in securing donations to a range of wonderful organizations, many donors wanted to make their impact felt specifically within the Jewish community. There was an opportunity — so we created the Jewish Future Pledge. The Jewish Future Pledge applies a similar concept to a different situation, creating an opportunity for everyone, no matter their age or net worth, to give back to Jewish causes.

Even within our organization, we’ve seen the need for differentiation. For example, we realized that we needed to figure out a way to reach younger people — who do not yet have access to the same financial resources as older generations. With that in mind, we launched the Jewish Youth Pledge to help young people establish a lifelong commitment to the Jewish community. Instead of asking young people to commit money to the Jewish future, the Jewish Youth Pledge urges them to give their most precious resource — their time — to Jewish causes through volunteer work. So far, over 7,000 young people have signed the Youth Pledge. Had we worried that the concept behind the Jewish Youth Pledge was too similar to the Jewish Future Pledge, or the Jewish Future Pledge too similar to The Giving Pledge, we may not have been able to reach these thousands of people.

For the benefit of our readers, can you outline the steps one has to go through, from when they think of the idea until it finally lands in a customer’s hands? In particular, we’d love to hear about how to file a patent, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer to distribute it.

The basic principles are applicable to pretty much any business.

Find people who know what they are doing. If you look at Jewish Future Pledge, I hired people to create an aesthetically pleasing website. I then asked important Jewish influencers to sign the pledge so that it went viral.

Make sure you look at distributors and decide how your product is going to be sold and released to the world. You can go through third parties, for instance.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started Leading My Company” and why?

1. Make sure you surround yourself with the right people. Starting a company — though immensely rewarding — is a very difficult professional endeavor. When you make the leap to go out on your own and put your idea into action, you want to make sure you are bringing smart, measured people along with you.

2. Don’t think you’re right about everything. Instead, ask others for input. Surrounding yourself with “yes” people will only create echo chambers, which are rarely effective at innovating or problem-solving. Instead, recruit talented folks with the expertise to offer sound advice and the disposition to provide it regularly.

3. “Are you sure your product works?” There’s no way around this one. If your product or service doesn’t work, your business won’t go anywhere. Make sure your product lives up to its promise before bringing it to market.

4. What will you actually need to do business? Things are going to be slower than you think. No Fortune 500 company was built overnight. Developing a customer base takes time. Be prepared for the first few months to feel slower than anticipated. But use this as an opportunity to test your business model and refine your approach.

5. Do what you think is right, even if someone is trying to convince you otherwise. Not everyone has what it takes to be an entrepreneur. If you took the risk to make your dream a reality, trust your intuition. Many people have great ideas; few have the drive and perseverance to translate those ideas into successful businesses. There’s a reason you are where you are. While you should seek outside advice and second opinions, at the end of the day, go with your gut.

Let’s imagine that a reader reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to invent. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?

The first thing that I would recommend they do is: figure out if there is a need and a void in the market that their product could fill. From there, they should think about how long it will take to create the product, how much it is going to cost to do so, and when an initial profit can be expected.

It’s a lot more fun to build an innovative product than it is to address logistical questions like these. But even if your business is driven by an excellent product, it won’t achieve success unless it’s underpinned by a strong foundation. That starts with your business plan.

There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?

It depends on how complicated the product is and how much you already know. You need to hire people who can fill in the gaps where you have weaknesses. You could bring together a panel or committee that has the knowledge and work together and complement one another. You can meet and brainstorm together.

What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?

It depends largely on the nature of the business.

Venture capital (VC) may work well for some businesses, but it is important to remember that venture capitalists have certain things they’re looking for. If you’re seeking VC dollars, you’ll need to make sure you have the right concept and a plan for what you’ll do with their money. Many VCs expect returns within five years — that’s standard industry practice — so you’ll want to clearly lay out how you intend to deliver within this window.

You need to really try to understand the business. Bring on advisors if you need to in order to understand business and how venture capital works. Make sure that your goals align with your funders’ goals as well.

Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

I’ve given away around a third of my net worth and had a foundation for a while. I wanted to give once I took care of my family.

You have to know what’s really important to you. For me, that’s the Jewish people and the State of Israel. That’s why I’m prioritizing those causes through the Jewish Future Pledge. That more than 12,000 people have already taken the Pledge and shown their commitment to sustaining the vibrancy of Jewish life for future generations, is a source of great pride for me.

You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I think it’s absolutely disgraceful that children lack basic learning skills. I want to improve early childhood education. A better education product will lead to a better society overall.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I would want to have a private meeting with Abraham Lincoln. I’d ask him how he was able to manage and run everything. How did he handle it all? Some other people I’d love to meet with are George Washington, Aristotle, and Jonas Salk.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

Thank you!



Fotis Georgiadis
Authority Magazine

Passionate about bringing emerging technologies to the market