The alumnus and investing giant believes Columbia MBAs are perfectly poised to achieve success and fortune — and then give it away.
Warren Buffett ’51 thinks there’s no more perfect place for tomorrow’s business leaders than Columbia Business School. “You've got thousands of bright young people all over the world who want to come here every year. The best students attract the best teachers, and vice versa,” Buffett says. “You’re in action central, especially for finance — like being in Washington for politics. And you've got a tradition. What could be better?”
That’s tall praise from not only one of the School’s most famous graduates but a man who is perhaps the most successful investor of the 20th century. Often referred to as the “Wizard of Omaha,” Buffett is chairman, CEO, and largest shareholder of Berkshire Hathaway, where he has largely made his fortune by remaining true to the principles of value investing he first learned from Professors David Dodd ’21 and Benjamin Graham while a Columbia Business School student. But though he consistently ranks among the world’s wealthiest people, Buffett is also often counted among the most giving — he’s pledged to give away 99 percent of his wealth to philanthropic causes, primarily via the Gates Foundation.
In recognition of the School’s Centennial anniversary, Buffett sat down with Dean Glenn Hubbard to share his candid thoughts on philanthropy, leadership, opportunity, and the future of the School and business. Through his answers, he displays a characteristic optimism and contagious excitement — about what’s next and how we can help each other get there — that’s sure to inspire future generations. “If you don't see opportunity,” Buffett says, “you've got your eyes shut.”
Glenn Hubbard: Going forward, what do you think Columbia Business School can do to strengthen the kinds of partnerships that will create the next Warren Buffett?
Warren Buffett: I think how and what Columbia teaches students will create lots of Warren Buffetts. It’s the accomplishment of turning people on. That's what happened when I went there — I had already read Graham and Dodd. It was inspirational. Then when I arrived, both Graham and Dodd figuratively put their arms around me. They would take me up to this little restaurant every now and then for dinner. The encouragement I got from them was as important as the ideas. I could read the ideas, but it’s something else when you have someone whom you revere put their arm around you and say, “you know, you’ve got a great future.”
GH: What do you look for in a leader?
WB: People follow leaders who have passion. As a leader, you're trying to get people to join you, and they don’t see over the next hill. But you tell them, ‘I see over the next hill. Just follow me, and we'll get to the destination.’
What you hope is that the leader is not only bringing their talents to do something for their own benefit, but for others. Of course, the market system has been wonderful that way. I mean, Henry Ford couldn't drive a few million cars. He could churn them out, but someone else received the benefits of them. You want leaders who are creating ideas, products, medicine, you name it — things that can benefit millions of people. This country has been fabulous in developing that type of leadership.
GH: What is the best place to look for opportunity today?
WB: Opportunities abound now. We're so lucky to be in this country. I think the luckiest person in the history of the world is the baby being born today in this country. We're just starting, you know. Look at everything that’s happened since 1776. And it’s all profit. It’s all a gain to society. Where we’ve had failings, we’ve worked to make it right. There is no shortage of opportunity: it's just a question of which ones we have time to follow.
GH: How would you describe the future of business in one word?
WB: Great. That’s the word. I think the future of business in the United States is great. We have a country that started from scratch, with just 4 million people living here in 1790, and ended up with close to 25 percent of the world’s GDP and more than 300 million residents a few hundred years later. Something's right, you know. And business — along with laws that have helped build a market system — has been a huge part of that. Nothing was or is perfect, but we’ve always been aspirational. This country has always thought that it could do better than it was doing at the time.
GH: What advice would you give to Columbia Business School graduates, as future leaders, about being socially responsible and giving back?
WB: I've never given away a dollar that has changed my life in any way. I've never given up a movie. I've never given up a dinner. I've never given up a trip because I took money out of my pocket and gave it to someone else. Other people will do that. People will go to church this Sunday and put money in the collection plate, and it means they’re giving up a movie or a dinner or a toy for their child, so they're much more philanthropic than I am. I've got more money to give away and that's great, but I've never given up anything that truly cost me.
Most of the students who graduate from Columbia Business School are going to be somewhere between wealthy and rich. We live in a society where there is a lot of abundance, and it goes to people with good minds who have been well trained and who work hard. I would say to many of those students that you can have everything you want. Don't want something just because other people want it. Want it because you want it yourself. And then, when you start to make more and more, money starts having less utility for you — but it still has a lot of utility to other people. In my own case, anything above a tiny fraction of one percent of my net worth has no utility to me, but has enormous utility to other people. It can provide vaccines, education, opportunities in various ways, and I think if it’s something useless to you and terribly useful to someone else, why wouldn't you do something to help?
GH: How would you describe the future of Columbia Business School?
WB: Columbia Business School has an ideal position. Just the guest lecturers alone are impressive. In Bruce Greenwald's class, he has every investing superstar speaking directly to students. I’m sure students fight to get in there. It's like being interested in athletics and an all-star team comes to talk to you, is interested in you, and inspires you. As a student, you're in the right place at the right time.
It’s always been that way, and it just keeps getting better. One thing that impressed me about Ben Graham when I was 20 was that he came up to the School every Thursday afternoon from Wall Street; I think his wife drove him up sometimes. He would come to spend a couple of hours with us, giving us current examples that we could actually act on ourselves if we had any money. He wasn't getting anything for it. Seeing someone behave that way, when he didn’t need it at all, it shapes your attitude toward what you're going to do with your own life. The people you admire are doing things, not for personal gain, but simply because they want to help out a fellow man. That's a powerful message.