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The Lucky One

It has been a long journey from rural Nigeria to Wall Street. From washing dishes in McDonalds, to high finance in New York, Jide Zeitlin has ridden his luck to the top.

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Jide Zeitlin

Country of origin: Nigeria

Industry: Finance

om Jide Zeitlin’s office, on the 44th floor of a sleek building on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, you can see the soaring skyscrapers and iconic New York City landscape stretching out ahead of you. Standing self-assuredly, hand in one pocket, the man himself cuts a dashing figure in a sharp black suit over a white shirt.

Zeitlin isn’t even 50 yet. But, he has spent 20 years at Goldman Sachs, rising to partner and global operating officer of investment banking. He owns a telecommunications outfit in India, has his own investment firm, The Keffi Group, and is a director of Coach Inc, one of America’s premier luxury brands. He also sits on the boards of various philanthropic, educational and commercial organizations. He looks like a man who has always been destined for success.  Zeitlin’s life could have turned out very differently.

He was born in Ibadan, Nigeria, to a young single woman who worked in Lagos as a domestic servant. Her employers were a foreign family who were working in the bustling, dense city. While his mother was working in the city, Zeitlin lived in the Nigerian countryside with relatives.

By luck—which Zeitlin says is a major thread in his life—one of his mother’s jobs was with an American family. The father, who was a journalist, was there with his homemaker wife and their two young daughters.

One weekend, Zeitlin went to spend the weekend in Lagos with his mother and her employers. There, he met the American family and quickly formed a friendship with their eldest daughter, who was roughly the same age. Encouraged by the good relationship between Zeitlin and their daughter, the American family came up with an idea. Rather than send the young boy back to live with relatives in the countryside, they proposed that he live with them and that they place him in the same school as their daughter. His mother agreed; and the boy went to live in with the American family, the Zeitlins, and was put into a new school in Lagos.

Eighteen months later, the Zeitlin family was due to be posted to Pakistan where the father was going to work as a correspondent for the Associated Press. They asked the young Jide if he would like to go with them. If he did, they would become his legal guardian, providing him with the opportunity to have a much better education than he would get if he stayed behind with his Nigerian mother.

“She was an amazing mother who just didn’t have a lot of resources,” he says.

“My American family did not have a lot of money. They were solidly middle-class—but the one thing that they both had was they both came from strong educational backgrounds. On my mother’s side was a long line of university professors and even though she was American she had been born in China and lived there until she was a teenager because her father was a professor there. So the family was very big on education.”

Jide left Nigeria when he was just five years old and moved to Pakistan, which was going through the Pakistan-India war, with his new American family, and became Jide Zeitlin. Five years later, the family moved again to the Philippines—which was under martial law at the time—where they lived for three years before being given 48 hours to pack and leave the country because of critical articles that his adopted father had written about the then premier, Ferdinand Marcos.

By then, his American mother had decided to go back to graduate school and was admitted to Boston’s Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to get her PhD in biochemistry. The family moved yet again, this time to America, to Cambridge, Massachusetts. Although he’d paid some visits to the US during vacations, this was the first time that Jide, then 11 years old, had spent any real time in America.

On the recommendation of a friend who’d advised his parents that public schools in Massachusetts were not very good, Zeitlin was sent to Milton Academy, a top boarding school where the Kennedys were educated.

Having spent the previous 10 years of his life in developing countries that were going through political and social upheaval, he suddenly found himself thrust into the very traditional elite world of Milton Academy. It was something of a culture shock, but he survived. He is still proud that on graduation from the school, he was awarded a prize for being someone who most epitomized the school’s strongest values.

Then it was on to Amerhurst College to study economics and English. To this day he is still very much involved in his alma mater, sitting as chairman of the board of trustees. In his role, he has helped transform it into one of America’s most diverse and selective colleges.

It was in his sophomore year at Amerhurst that his journey into the finance world in New York City began. Summers spent washing dishes at McDonalds to pay his college fees became boring and he decided an office job would be nice. One of his father’s cousins, who had gone to Harvard Business School and was working at Morgan Stanley, gave him the names of some firms to write to. He wrote to them. Every single bank wrote back, turning him down.

Zeitlin was unperturbed. He’d known from the age of three or four that he liked business and would pursue a path in that arena.

“When you grow up in Nigeria, you have it in your blood—it’s a very commercial kind of environment. I didn’t know what kind of commerce or business but I knew that I enjoyed negotiating for things and trying to create things. I’d always had little businesses, like shoveling snow for $5 per hour. There was always that commercial side to me.”

One day while visiting his father’s sister outside Philadelphia, he was told that her neighbor’s best friend was a partner of a firm that Zeitlin had never heard of. That firm was Goldman Sachs.

He wrote to the partner at Goldman Sachs, receiving a response which said that while Zeitlin basically seemed like a nice kid, there were no jobs available for him. However, the partner added, should he ever be in New York, he would take him for tea.

On receiving the letter at his room in Amerhurst, Zeitlin immediately, not recognizing it as a brush off, decided to board a Greyhound bus to New York City. He showed up in New York, at Goldman Sachs’ offices, and ended up going for tea with the shocked partner who eventually decided to give him a chance, offering him a summer internship at the investment bank. When, decades later, Zeitlin became a partner of the firm he was shown the original letter that he’d written.

After that first summer, he ended up going back to Goldman Sachs every summer while he was an undergraduate student and then while he was at Harvard Business School after graduating from Amerhurst. When he earned his MBA, Goldman Sachs offered him a full time job.

Starting out as a Merger and Acquisitions banker, a pure generalist working across multiple industries, one of the first people that Zeitlin got to work with was Hank Paulson, who later became the chairman and chief executive officer of Goldman Sachs, and then 74th United States Secretary of the Treasury.

It was Paulson who encouraged him to run Goldman Sachs’ global healthcare business. It was also Paulson who, after being promoted to CEO of Goldmans, asked Zeitlin to come and work in the company’s executive office along with himself and the company’s co-presidents which he did for three years, cutting costs and helping rationalize after the dot com bubble exploded.

After Zeitlin was promoted to Global Operating Officer, Paulson came to him yet again. Remembering that Zeitlin had lived in Pakistan as a child, he asked him to go and figure out what the company’s strategy should be in India.

While in India, Zeitlin met with a number of Indian government officials and business people including Sunil Bharti Mittal, owner of one of the largest telecommunications companies in the country. Zeitlin noticed that Mittal still owned large parts of his physical infrastructure whereas in the US and some parts of Europe, they’d mostly been sold off to third parties. Spotting a tremendous business opportunity, Zeitlin asked Mittal if he’d be willing to sell some of his assets to Goldman Sachs. Although Mittal didn’t give a firm answer, Zeitlin began looking further and put a team on the case. Over three months, he attempted to convince Goldman Sachs to do it but having never invested at that scale in India before they ultimately declined.

Spotting a tremendous business opportunity, Zeitlin told Paulson that since Goldman Sachs wouldn’t invest, he was going to leave to go and do it himself. “It was an interesting opportunity, given my childhood, and where I could see the global markets going. I didn’t want to just be in New York with contacts in the west. I wanted to start reaching out into the emerging world more.”

Zeitlin eventually retired from Goldman Sachs in 2005, although retirement is hardly the right word. He went on to build a wireless infrastructure business in India, a place in which he’d never done business. He also had no experience in telecoms. However, over a period of three years, he built out a “modest” sized business. Bharti Mittal eventually decided not to sell his assets but endorsed Zeitlin’s business concept.

His company, The Keffi Group, currently invests in wireless infrastructure, life sciences, and financial services in India, Israel and West Africa, respectively. Since leaving Goldman Sachs, the father of two, has also been asked to use his finance experience in wider roles. He spent some time on President Barack Obama’s economic transition team and was ultimately offered a role as a representative of the United States of America to the United Nations for UN Management and Reform. Although he eventually turned the role down, he was pleased to have had the experience of Washington, especially as he increasingly acknowledges the intersection and convergence of business, civil society and politics.

Zeitlin is proud of his African roots and his Nigerian mother. He is equally thankful about the opportunities that were afforded to him by his American family. Whether it’s being adopted early on or meeting Paulson when he started at Goldman Sachs, he says about his life: “It is just a huge amount of luck from one step to the next.”

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