Transcript: Koinos Podcast Interview

The Koinos Podcast, Episode 5 — Ari Betof

The Koinos Podcast
The Koinos Podcast is a show that connects with executives and entrepreneurs graduating from the world’s best Executive MBA programs.

The Koinos Podcast is a show that connects with executives and entrepreneurs graduating from the world’s best Executive MBA programs.

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[00:00:00] Intro speaker: Welcome to the Koinos Podcast. A show that connects with entrepreneurs and founders graduating from the world’s best Executive MBA programs. Whether you’re thinking about pursuing your own startup or advanced degree, or are already in pursuit of that dream, be continuously inspired by Koinos’ exclusive stories, presented to you by your host, fellow entrepreneur, investor, Cornellian, and startup coach, Sam Cho. [music] [00:00:32]

Sam Cho: Hi everybody, and welcome to the Koinos Podcast. We’re here today with Dr. Ari Betof, founder and president of Organizational Sustainability Consulting. He is a nationally recognized expert in organizational stewardship, nonprofit financial sustainability, and he’s a Cornell Executive MBA candidate for the class of 2021. Ari, thanks for joining us today. [00:00:53]

Dr. Ari Betof: Thanks, Sam, I’m glad to be with you. [00:00:56]

Sam: Ari, I know that your typical clients include senior leaders of private sector companies and boards of trustees from nonprofit organizations. In your own words, can you tell me what organizational sustainability means to you, and why clients seek your services? [00:01:13]

Ari: I’ve spent most of my career thinking about organizational stewardship. What it means for an organization to thrive, not just this year or next year, but for 5, 10, 25, 50, even 100 years into the future. At the core of that is this idea of financial and organizational sustainability. In the private sector, it means growing profits in a way that can continue, in a mission-aligned way over time, and certainly, in the nonprofit space, you still need that sense of financial health and vitality. [00:01:45]

Sam: How did you come up with this business idea? [00:01:48]

Ari: In 2005, I started a doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania, and I was researching organizational stewardship and group dynamics at the Graduate School of Education. Out of that, as the economy began to get wobbly, and we headed into the Great Recession, I began to pivot my focus from organizational stewardship to financial and organizational sustainability. Once I finished my doctoral work, I began to be asked to do more and more consulting, and then I got the opportunity, with my wife, to found this company and start doing this work full time. [00:02:21]

Sam: Wow, I didn’t know that it’s with your wife. [00:02:23]

Ari: My wife is a fundraiser. In addition, she does all sorts of important things with the company, helping to make sure that we’re doing the things that every company needs to do behind the scenes. [00:02:33]

Sam: That’s great. It’s really growing into a family business. I have to ask, what’s it like working with your spouse? [00:02:40]

Ari: We’ve worked together a lot of our career, at different places. We were both at an independent boarding and day school together, where she was an Assistant Athletic Director, and I had a number of different roles, Director of Institutional Advancement being the one that I had during the end of my time there. Actually, one of our last projects at that school was that I was doing the fundraising for a major building project, a Fitness and Athletic Center. She was actually on the design committee, helping design the building that I was raising money for. [00:03:10]

Sam: Oh my goodness, what an incredible story? [00:03:12]

Ari: It helps because she’s smarter than me. Generally, I defer to her in most situations. [00:03:17]

Sam: I’d do the same. [00:03:18]

Ari: I’ve learned that that’s a really wise thing to do. [00:03:22]

Sam: It’s great to be married to someone that you adore. Yes, that’s a wonderful gift, Ari. It also reminds me of the quote that you have on your blog post from April 17th. You said, “To be the change you want to see in the world, sometimes you need help from your friends.” That’s great that you are constantly getting help from your best friend. [chuckles] [00:03:45]

Ari: Sure. That’s absolutely true. [00:03:47]

Sam: I’m wondering, can you tell me how the friends you’ve met, maybe at school or at the Koinos events, helped you be the change you want to see in the world? [00:03:57]

Ari: I love this idea of cross-pollination. So much of my work has always been working across sectors and at the intersection of theory and practice, and of quantitative and qualitative work. I’m really an “and both” kind of person in that way. I love hearing about the lenses that people use in their day to day lives, seeing their perspectives, thinking about how they fit into other areas. One of the things I love about these events is that we get to know people in networks that we wouldn’t naturally come across in other ways. It’s also one of the best things about an Executive MBA program, and you get exposed not just to content, but to people that you wouldn’t naturally get to spend time with in the ways that you do. I’ve been so fortunate, and really, I’m incredibly grateful to have the kind of network where I can call people and people can call me. I ask a lot of people because I want them to reach out to me and ask me for help when I can be of service to them. [00:04:57]

Sam: What would be the main reason for any company, whether it’s a private or nonprofit, to reach out to you? What’s kind of the things that people are calling you today for during this pandemic? [00:05:08]

Ari: Today is a little bit of an unusual moment. In general, people often call me because I could do work in an integrated consulting model, combining financial and organizational sustainability, as I said, in organizational stewardship concepts, but also organizational effectiveness, group dynamics, and weave them into executive coaching as well as governance work. That ability to combine quantitative analysis and qualitative engagement with people really, I think, is something that generally when clients and potential clients are coming to me, those are the kinds of things that they’re looking for. In this COVID-19 pandemic moment that we are all trying to find our way through, much more of my work has tilted back to when I was doing some of my doctoral work, which is specifically financial and organizational sustainability of independent schools. I thought, for 15 years, about the health and vitality of independent schools, and small liberal arts colleges, and other private institutions. I’m doing a tremendous amount of work in those specific spaces right now, but also working with private sector companies in some other areas and doing some of the work I was doing pre-pandemic. [00:06:18]

Sam: I see. You’ve mentioned now, I guess the value of knowing how to pivot, whether it’s in a career, or given the circumstances in the economy, I’m wondering, how do you measure, for yourself, that this is the right pivot to make? Especially as a founder and running your own business, I’m sure you’re constantly weighing risks and potential rewards, but what kind of advice could you give to just thinking about when to pivot, how to pivot, and executing and following through with that? [00:06:50]

Ari: I love that phrase, “luck comes to the prepared mind.” So, there are those moments where you get opportunities that you didn’t see coming, and there’s always the question of, do I have enough agility and enough bandwidth to take on those moments? I think a lot about maximizing organizational capacity. You think about institutional capacity, money and resources and physical things, and intellectual or programmatic capacity, and adaptive capacity. I’m often doing this calculus in my head about, if we do this then we can’t do that. I’m asking a lot of questions to people. Everybody, I think, who knows me, especially in our Cornell program, knows that I’m somebody who asks questions, and I ask for a lot of advice. I filter that through, and I make the best decisions I can, but I try to get as much good information from people I trust as I can in the process as well. [00:07:42]

Sam: Right. What has been your biggest struggle with running your business while also being in school? [00:07:48]

Ari: Well, I was a full-time employee, an administrator in an independent school at the same time that my wife and I had our second daughter, while I was doing my doctoral program, so this idea of having five balls and we’re juggling three is a familiar one. We’re back to something that feels familiar to us, and so there are those choices about, what we can do, what can’t we do? Fortunately, we have gotten very good at scheduling our family, to the degree that we can do those things with a 14 and an 11-year-old. W e do the best we can. We love spending time with each other, and we make the most of the time we have on the weekends where we’re not in New York at Cornell. We do the best we can every day, I think is what it comes down to. It helps that I think both Shauna and I really love what we do. We love what we do with our family. W e love what we do with each other. W e love the professional paths we’ve been on, and that makes it a lot easier to frankly, just work really hard to get to the areas of your life. [00:08:46]

Sam: Nice. So, Ari, pre-COVID, what would you say is the biggest win that you’ve had in your professional career? [00:08:54]

Ari: I most appreciate those moments in our lives, especially our professional lives, where we get to bring value to other people, and use whatever expertise we have. It’s not exactly pre-COVID, but it’s one of those moments where pre-COVID came to fruition in the last few weeks. M aybe that’s why it’s top of mind for me, but several weeks ago, five of us were on a panel for more than 1,900 CFOs, heads of school, and trustees of independent schools across the country. Thirty-three different membership organizations, state, and regional, and national associations came together. Even an organization from Canada, to help a group of schools that are really struggling. They’re struggling to make payroll, or they may be struggling to make payroll. They’re trying to figure out what their organizational path forward is. Obviously, for someone who has spent my entire professional life thinking about organizational stewardship, that’s a topic I care tremendously about. To be able to be part of the group that helped bring that together, really meant a lot for me, and it was the combination, in many ways, of a number of professional moments that I’ve had ever since I started my doctoral work in 2005. I wish the topic was happier, but it was a special moment for me. [00:10:06]

Sam: Congratulations. That’s incredible, speaking in front of thousands. It’s certainly an accomplishment. I’m wondering, you’re like a lifelong learner, right? I think many of us are, but you are at a different level. [laughs] [00:10:18]

Ari: I don’t know if that’s true, but I appreciate that. It’s generous of you to say. [00:10:22]

Sam: I think some people would say just pursuing an MBA is hard in itself, but after having gone through your own doctorate, and then now pursuing your MBA, I’m wondering, how has this particular program helped you develop your business? [00:10:38]

Ari: I think one of the challenges that every professional needs to think about when they get into a program like that is, how much are you going to care about things like grades? What are the outcomes that you really care about? One of the nice things, I think, in part because of who I am and the opportunities I’ve had in my professional career, but also because I’ve done a previous graduate’s degree, I just really don’t care about grades. I know it’s easy to say that, but I actually just don’t. I care much more about what I’m taking out of the experience. I came into this program both wanting to deepen my content understanding in some key areas that I basically taught myself as the economy was falling apart during the Great Recession. My academic background is in physics and math. When I needed to teach myself finance or when I was pivoting from a stewardship to a sustainability-focus, I was able to do that to some degree, but putting some real rigor around that was part of my goal. The other part of my goal was to engage with the private sector in a different way. As more and more of my clients have been in the private sector, as I continue to think about opportunities over the long arc of my career, I love what I’m doing in our consulting practice, and I continue to plan to build that, but I’m also open to way opening and there being a right next path. Whatever that is as well. This was an opportunity to do a lot of those things at the same time. You said it was hard. Lots of things that are interesting and exciting are hard. I don’t think the hard part was as challenging as Shauna and me looking and thinking about the time and the commitment and if this was the right moment for us. She was actually the one who was really encouraging me to look at this opportunity because she knew it would be something that I’d really dig into and be excited about. Just trying to figure out how it fit into the whole three-dimensional picture of our family’s lives was, in some ways, the biggest piece to think about and weighing. [00:12:38]

Sam: Great. The last question that I have for you is, what is the most important thing an entrepreneur should consider while doing or pursuing their Executive MBA? [00:12:48]

Ari: I think lots of people want to be entrepreneurs. There’s so much mystique around it right now. There is not certainly just one archetype of entrepreneur, but I do believe that many people think that they have to fit into that mold. Either they have to fit in that mold to start a company, or they have to fit in that mold to be an effective Executive MBA or an MBA candidate right now. You have to know yourself. You have to know whether that’s the most right path for you going forward, of all the things that you can do. I’ve had the opportunity to bridge across a lot of sectors because that’s what I’m excited about and passionate about, but there’s also important and amazing things about going unbelievably deeply into one topic, and committing your career to a deepening understanding and engagement with that area of expertise. I’d encourage people to think about it. Hopefully, our careers have incredibly long arcs. I turned 40 this year, I plan to work for a long time from now. As we think about the many stages of our career, I think you need to understand how the areas of where you spend your time in a program like this really help you both now and into the future. I think that would be the best advice I could give, and have a lot of fun. These are tremendously fun programs. [00:14:02]

Sam: That’s great advice, Ari, thank you. Before we go, then what would you ask of the listeners of this podcast? [00:14:12]

Ari: I think, especially in this moment, we should all think about the ways in which we can be of service to others. Big ways. S mall ways. W ays that we can just help our friends. As I said before, one of the things I just love about this program is I have a new group of friends who are diverse in a whole bunch of different dimensions, and that are doing interesting things in the world differently than I would have been able to understand had I not gotten to know them over the last 12 months. Your cohort. M y cohort. I’m looking forward to meeting our new cohort coming behind us. With each of those conversations, one of the things I try to keep in my mind is, how can I help this person? Yes, I hope when there are moments that they’ll also help me, but I’ve just found it to be a more joyful way to go through the world, to think about how I can look for opportunities to be helpful to others. I t’s been the right path for me. [00:15:04]

Sam: Oh, that’s great. That also just reminds me of a blog post I just wrote. It’s a great plug for that. [laughs] [00:15:10]

Ari: That’s a great blog, so that works well. [00:15:11]

Sam: Yes. The idea of connect-working. [00:15:14]

Ari: Sam, this whole endeavor that you’ve been on, I think is a great example of that. You were talking about what entrepreneurs need to keep in mind, and I always try to help organizations I work with think about what’s core and what’s essential and what’s immovable. I think the path that you and your company have been on is a great example of what it means to think about variations on a theme. There’s always a through-line of the ways in which you have, not just engaged with many of us who consider you both colleagues and friends, but the different ways to be of service and put people together in different ways to make connections in different ways. That is so much a mini case unto itself of how to take something that you’re passionate about and to both turn it into something tangible, and also evolve it over time into something that is iteratively better than it was before. I would turn the question back to you. A s somebody who’s, I think, evolving your organization much more than I probably evolve mine. What lessons have you learned? What we’re doing right now is an evolution on that. [00:16:15]

Sam: Thanks, Ari. I think one big lesson that I learned is knowing how to not only service the customers, but to also service myself, to be honest. Because I used to think that being selfless was the way of just being of service, but what that turns into sometimes is you’re constantly giving, and you’re sacrificing, which is a good thing, but then it gets to the point where people start taking advantage of you. If you’re not actually careful, it could be very debilitating. Because things like, my wife could say, “You’re not spending enough time with me.” Or my friends could say, or my parents could say that, “We don’t see you ever.” It just forces you to reorient yourself and think about, “Where am I spending my time? How is it actually providing a service to my life? How is that helping me?” There’s one way of doing it just totally selfishly, which is, I don’t think the right thing. There’s a way of forming a life where you’re providing a service to others, and it’s also benefiting yourself. When those things are aligned, I think that actually is a stronger indicator of perhaps your purpose here in this world. [00:17:35]

Ari: Well, now that we’re talking about purpose, it leads us to talk inevitably about spirituality. I’m a Quaker, our family goes to Meeting for Worship regularly. I was born into a Jewish family, and that’s an important part of my life also, but for more than 200 years in Philadelphia, Quakers did well to do good. You can walk around the city of Philadelphia and almost every building of that era has a Quaker name associated with it, who was a prominent businessman or businesswoman, in many cases, who did tremendous things in the world in addition to doing incredibly well financially. We see that, and then we also see it in personal relationships. My wife and I have been married for more than 15 years, and it’s taken me a long time to really understand things like love languages, and what it means to engage and be present for her in a way that is meaningful for her, and how that might be different than what I need, or what some other human being in a different relationship might need. Being really present with the people that you care about when you’re there makes a tremendous difference. I know you do this because I’ve gotten to know you over the last year, being of service to your family and to the world in big and small ways. I think you’re a great example of that. [00:18:58]

Sam: Thanks, Ari. Awesome. Well, I really appreciate your time. It was great hearing about just your approach to pivoting in different times in your life. Also, the importance of having a strong support system, and to be the change in the world that you want to see, and doing it with your friends. I’m really encouraged by everything that you’re doing, Ari. I wish you the best of luck, and please let us know if there’s anything that Koinos can do to help you and Organizational Sustainability. [00:19:26]

Ari: Well, and the same thing goes. If I can ever be of service, as you all continue on your journey, I look forward to doing that as well. Thank you for the opportunity to be with you today. [music] [00:19:37]

Outro Speaker: Thank you so much for listening to the Koinos Podcast. Koinos is all about bringing people together to strengthen communities. Our vision of a renewed world where everyone lives in a vibrant community can become a reality with your support. To learn more about our mission and how you can get involved, visit us at Remember, the Koinos Podcast is your place to connect with executives and entrepreneurs. [music] [00:20:14] [END OF AUDIO]

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