We Waged War Against Norwegian Air Shuttle and Won

For anyone that knows me, rarely am I ever in the position to unequivocally say that something is really, unequivocally horrible.

ENTER: my experience with Norwegian Air Shuttle.

Given its name, I mistakenly thought Norwegian Air Shuttle was a government-owned national airline (it is not). To me, government-owned, flagship airlines showcase the very best of their country, and usually have world-class service like Qatar Airways and Singapore Airlines. Obviously, there are also government airlines of less-affluent, third party countries like Uzbekistan Airways and Sudan Airways, but Norway is one of the world’s most developed countries and ranks #1 as per the United Nations’ Human Development Index. I therefore assumed my first time taking this airline would be a special treat.

I’m a huge fan of airlines doing the right thing.

I’m sure everyone has had their fair share of bad experiences with airlines, but I’ve never felt I’ve ever had to actually sue an airline and write an entire blog post about it.

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Background – REWIND to 2014

One of my best friends and fellow Indiana University Phi Kappa Psi fraternity pledge brother, Greg Ciesielski was scheduled to get married on Saturday October 4, 2014 to Carolina Brochado

Here is a group photo of our pledge class the day we become brothers of the fraternity on October 12, 2002 (I’m next to Greg in the front row).

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Greg and Carolina met as MBA students at Columbia University.  They were getting married in Grasse, France, and I was honored when Greg asked me to be one of his groomsmen.  But it gets better.  Our very own death-defying Sunny Parikh (another one of our fraternity brothers, and who also escaped death and destruction when our NYC apartment burned down in the fire in 2008) was also asked to be one of Greg’s groomsmen.

Greg, Sunny and I were all fraternity brothers together at Indiana University, we all moved to NYC together and all worked in investment banking, we were roommates together, and have traveled the world together.  Check us out in this picture in 2010 when we visited Israel, Jordan, and Turkey.  

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We have each other’s backs no matter what. Now one of us was getting married, so Grasse, France here we come!

NOW – FAST FORWARD to October 2014

Like responsible adults, we planned our trip way in advance to fly out on Thursday October 2nd 2014. Since the wedding was on Saturday, October 4, we ensured that we would have enough time to travel and get situated before the ceremony and services.

We were good groomsmen and planned for plenty of time to get to the wedding while balancing our very busy work schedules in New York City.

Sunny and I decided to take a flight from JFK Airport in New York City to Nice, France on the evening of Thursday October 2, 2014, as Greg and Carolina were getting married in Grasse, France on afternoon of Saturday, October 4th).  Grasse is about 40km from Nice.

Looking at flight options on Google Flights (the world’s most complete database of flights), we noticed Norwegian Air Shuttle had a significantly lower price than all the other airline competitors, so we decided to book the flight and save some money.  All we had was a short layover at Gatwick Airport in London.  Easy, right?

On the evening of Thursday October 2nd, Sunny and I arrived three hours early to our Norwegian Air Shuttle flight at JFK Airport.  As we approached the gate, we saw a big line as other passengers told us that the flight from JFK to Gatwick Airport would be delayed at least 4 hours.

To say the least, this was weird. What airline today does not email, call, text, or somehow notify their customers in advance of such delays, especially when it is already well known to the airline employees, terminal customers, and the airline’s communications representatives on ground. Norwegian Air Shuttle had our cell phone numbers and our email addresses, and unlike my experiences at other airlines, they didn’t notify us of the delay. Sunny and I also live in NYC, so it wasn’t as big of a deal as for us as others that don’t live here.

We told the gate agent that we had a connecting flight from London to Nice that we would miss due to the four hour delay. We searched on our phones and saw there was a later flight taking place the next day that would still get us to Nice, France in time, but no one from Norwegian Air Shuttle could help make the booking for us.

Normally, an airline has staff at the gate that can help arrange and reschedule flights. This was not the case at Norwegian Air Shuttle. After not understanding why the representatives could not help us make other arrangements, we found out that they were not able to do anything to help us at the desk as no one at the entire airport of JFK actually worked for Norwegian Air Shuttle!  

They were all third party contractors hired by the airline to work the gate and they had no access to any to the Norwegian Air Shuttle database or booking systems. Instead, they literally gave us a small white sheet of paper with a phone number on it and instructed us to give it a call. This was absurd, never have I ever not been able to deal with an issue with an airline at the airport with actual employees of the airline. I actually felt for the first time in NYC that I was dealing with a third world country by not actually taking responsibility or rectifying a situation.

So, with no other choice, we called that number. Since no other passenger that night was notified about the delay, everyone on our flight came to the airport, and we all had to call that number from that piece of paper – while included hundreds of stranded passengers. After a few minutes of speaking with this representative, I realized, that just like the representative at JFK Airport, he was also unable to help us. We then realized that this person didn’t work for Norwegian Air Shuttle either!

I then started asking him questions of who he was, and it turns out at he was someone who was based in Lithuania and was hired by Norwegian Air Shuttle to be a third party representative who had no access to the Norwegian Air Shuttle database or booking system. He further told me he doesn’t even have a computer or access to the internet. How does a person from JFK Airport in NYC get directed to a third party person that doesn’t have any access to a computer or the internet! He was literally in a room by himself with a phone in Lithuania. At this point I was actually dealing with a Third World country.

After a couple hours of frustration and this situation going nowhere, the gate agents told us to just get on delayed flight to Gatwick Airport and immediately after landing we will be greeted by actual Norwegian Air Shuttle agents who actually worked for Norwegian Air Shuttle who would be able to actually help book that other flight option for us immediately after getting there. I was skeptical, but figured since Norwegian Air Shuttle is a European-based company, it made sense that they should have actual employees at European airports at Gatwick Airport in London who could actually help us.

At this point it was three (3am!) in the morning and Sunny and I could have just gone to our apartments in NYC to actually get rest and come back to JFK first thing in the morning to figure it out fresh.  But, the gate agents promised us in London there would be actual Norwegian Air Shuttle there to greet us and help us.  They confirmed this to us.

So, believing them, we waited until 4am in the morning and then finally flew to Gatwick.

The Horrible Continues in London

We got to the Gatwick Airport on Friday, early afternoon.  We immediately went on the hunt for Norwegian Air Shuttle agents who could help us make the flight to Nice. We already missed our connecting flight and lost a day.  We were supposed to be in the wedding the next day.

Guess what, once we found the Norwegian Air Shuttle counter at Gatwick Airport, we discovered that no one there worked for Norwegian Air Shuttle either!  They were all third party contractors and no one had access to their booking systems or could make any decisions for us.  They also gave us the same sheet of white paper to call the people in Lithuania!  At that point I felt bad for those poor people in Lithuania, I’m sure they get yelled at every day by stranded, Norwegian Air Shuttle passengers from foreign countries, all whom I’m sure make more money than them and have more opportunities in life, but instead they have to just absorb all the negativity that this airline causes.

To make matters worse, Norwegian Air Shuttle didn’t have any other available flights from Gatwick Airport to Nice, France that would get us to the wedding on time.  The best available option they could give us would get us to Nice was on Sunday, October 5, and we would have completely missed the wedding).  At this point, Sunny and I were in major stress as we realized there was a real chance we could actually miss the wedding, even though our original flight plan gave us at 3 days to get from New York City to Nice, France.

Having no other alternative, Sunny and I purchased the next-available flight from Gatwick Airport to Nice which was on EasyJet, a totally different airline.  The flight would take place the next day on Saturday, October 4th, the day of the wedding.  We had to pay for this out-of-pocket (thus eliminating any savings from booking originally on this “low-cost” Norwegian Air Shuttle).  

Here was our EasyJet flight confirmation receipt.

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We were still not in the clear yet, because even if the flight arrived according to schedule, Sunny and I would still arrive to the wedding after it already started. And as groomsmen, we were supposed to be standing right there by Greg’s side every step of the way! We didn’t want to let our friend and brother down. It was so frustrating because we did everything right, and felt so powerless at the grip of Norwegian Air Shuttle irresponsibility and failure to communicate.

For the second night in a row, we had to sleep in commute to France. On Thursday, October 2, it was at JFK Airport in NYC, and on Friday October 3rd, it was at Gatwick Airport in London.  We took the EasyJet flight to Nice, France the following morning, arriving to Nice on Saturday, October 4, 2014. 

DESPITE our horrible, 3-day journey from New York City to Nice, Sunny and I finally arrived at the wedding (even though we missed the first half of it).

Here is a photo of Greg with Sunny, me, and the the other groomsmen including Dennis Trafny, Adam Higgins, Dustin Pittman, Carolina’s father and Greg’s father.

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We all had a great time at the wedding, even though we all got chased by a big dinosaur.

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But, all fun and games aside, when we came back to NYC, it was payback time.

We had to stand up to injustice. Plus, if we didn’t stand up for ourselves, then who would? And if we did stand up for ourselves, we could set a precedent in defense of others as well.  I personally believe there are tens of thousands of other people who have had the same situation with Norwegian Air Shuttle like us.

The first thing we did was research our options online. I quickly found that in the European Union, there’s actually a law that provides financial compensation for passengers traveling on flights that are delayed. It’s a law that’s put in place to protect passengers from airlines.

I found a service called Flight Delayed that will actually do all the work for you to file your claim and sue the airline.  All you have to do is submit your information online and you don’t pay any fees unless you win.

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It literally took us three days just to get us from New York City to Nice, France, and I knew we had an easy case, as our flight was clearly delayed, and Norwegian Air Shuttle caused more and more trouble each step of the way for us.  We even had to pay out-of-pocket for an extra flight so we wouldn’t be delayed a fourth day.  According to EU law, we should receive financial compensation, and it was an ethical and moral that they would at least to the law (and especially on top of that we had to spend even more money with extra hotels and flights)!

The Payback Begins

In November 2014, we completed the first step in the process, which was to provide Flight Delayed background information about our case as well as provide them evidence of booking the flight. So, I basically provided them all the information you just read about and also had to submit evidence that we actually paid for the flights.

Here is our Norwegian Air Shuttle e-receipt after booking and paying for our flights.

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After submitting all this information, we received an email from Flight Delayed saying our claim was processed.  This was back in November 2014.

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After a couple weeks, we received an email from Flight Delayed saying our claim was validated.  This meant Flight Delayed believed we had a valid legal claim against Norwegian Air Shuttle.  The next step would be for Flight Delayed to write a letter to Norwegian Air Shuttle.

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Two weeks after submitting the letter to Norwegian Air Shuttle, Flight Delayed asked me if we heard back from Norwegian Air Shuttle.  Obviously, we didn’t.

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After six weeks passed without a response, Flight Delayed informed us that they would consider taking further action.

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Considering that we haven’t received a response yet that would take the next step in the claim process: lodging a complaint with the enforcement authority, the Civil Aviation Authority (“CAA”) in the U.K.  Flight Delayed informed me that the CAA would be responsible for evaluating our claim and reaching a verdict.

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Then, a few months later, in May 2015, after six months of filing our claim, we were informed by the CAA that Norwegian Air Shuttle claimed that they claimed that they never received payment for the flight, and that the CAA has closed our file!

How could it be that our credit card was charged, we received an e-receipt for the flight, issued boarding passes, and took the flight if we didn’t pay for the flight.  It seemed to me that Norwegian Air Shuttle found a loop-hole as the CAA wasn’t able to validate their claim.

It was at this point that I knew not only a Third World country, but also a company that is willing to deceive anyone, including its passengers and now government authorities.  This is the main reason why I am now sharing ever detail of this story.

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I then call Stephanie Edge from the CAA in the U.K. and informed her of all of Norwegian Air Shuttle deceptions.  She tried to investigate but informed me that the CAA has no legal power and is unable to assist.  I thought it was odd to have a government agency having no legal power, and I’m still unclear as to what the CAA’s role is.  I also thought it was odd for Norwegian to blatantly lie to the CAA and mislead them, but it seemed that the CAA couldn’t do anything about it.

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So, with the CAA not having any power to do anything and with Norwegian lying to them, I go back to Flight Delayed and push them to finally take this matter to court.

Three months later, in October 2015, Flight Delayed stated that Norwegian Air Shuttle was now in default of the payment as they have not responded to our claim.  They would be mail a letter to Norwegian Air Shuttle informing them of having to pay the compensation due to us.

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Then, in April 2016, after eight more months with a response from Norwegian Air Shuttle, and after pushing Flight Delayed to continue the legal battle, they informed us that they would finally take the matter to French court.

As you see below, Flight Delayed requested more information from us to file the legal claim.

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A couple months later, in June 2016, we finally heard back from Norwegian Air Shuttle, and they claimed to the CAA that the case was closed.

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I was shocked.  This case was certainly not settled with the CAA and Norwegian Air Shuttle already lied to them about the case a year before.  Norwegian Air Shuttle was clearly playing a game with Flight Delayed, the CAA, and us, their passengers.

All we wanted was to receive our legal claim and send a message to them that they should not do this to the tens of thousands of other passengers like us who I’m sure have been in this situation with Norwegian Air Shuttle.  It’s a simple matter of law and they are responsible for the compensation, it’s as simple as that and they are delaying making the payment.

I then get notification from Flight Delayed in October 2016 that the case will finally go to court!  It’s been over two years now since we took those flights.

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Then, a couple months later, on December 5, 2016, Flight Delayed notified me that we won!  We had been awarded €1,705.68 in total, and Flight Delayed would be compensated 25% of the total claim amount.

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It took over two years of fighting Norwegian Air Shuttle through the European Union, the Civil Aviation Authority of the U.K., and the French court, but we persevered.

If it wasn’t for the lack of customer service and lack of empathy of the part of Norwegian Air Shuttle, we would have never pursued such a long battle against the company, and surely wouldn’t have taken the time to share all the details of this story. I hope Norwegian Air Shuttle changes its behavior.

The Norwegian people are the happiest in the world, and many of our most awesome WindowsWear interns are from Norway.

According to a recent report by Reuters, Norwegian Air Shuttle is now expanding its network of flights to the United States starting in June 2017 after receiving approval to operate more routes across the Atlantic, with limited number of one-way tickets offered at $65, with the next pricing tier starting at $99 (by comparison, a one-way ticket from New York to Dublin in mid-June on other airlines ranges from about $655 to $2,755 on the Expedia travel website).

If your flight is on time and you have no connections, then it would be a great deal. If your flight is not on time and you have connections, you might want to further consider the decision.

My Most Cherished Chabad Experiences

Chabad has been a part of my life before birth. You see, when my parents immigrated to America from Israel in the late 1970’s, they were familiar with Chabad’s international efforts. Knowing that when they build a new life for themselves in America, they could find a local Chabad House to connect to the Jewish community and meet other Jewish people in America.

What is Chabad? Chabad is a Jewish organization committed to Jewish outreach that strives to connect Jews worldwide through providing communities where Jewish people can study Torah, do mitzvot, pray, celebrate events, and of course drink wine and eat yummy Kosher food.  Most likely, you have a Chabad House nearby (you can use the Chabad House search engine, or just Google “Chabad and [Your city]” to find your nearest Chabad).

Chabad is run by the world’s ultimate entrepreneurs. Rabbi’s and Rebbetzin’s are deployed around the world and successfully build and create communities, with little resources and many times from scratch.  Like Navy Seals, there is no location too remote or situation too challenging, if there is a community to serve, Chabad is 100% there (Chabad just placed a Rabbi in South Dakota, Rabbi Alperowitz, to serve a tiny community of only 300 Jewish people that live there).

Like many immigrants, my parents arrived in America with a dream for a better life, where they can give back and reach their fullest potentials. My parents wanted their children to have a better life, and at times, that meant sacrificing themselves, to give me and my sister a better life.

When my parents moved a world away from their families and friends, they gave up the abundant social resources that they had, all in order to give us a better future. Finding Chabad in 1987, was a lighthouse for my parents, who spent the past decade pursuing their Master’s degrees and setting up their family’s foundation. They loved being able to attend services and share holidays with their children and other families where their native Hebrew was not only spoken, but upheld with heart.

Here’s a family photo of us in 1984.


Going to Chabad as a Kid

I was five years old when I first went to Chabad. From elementary school until my Bar Mitzvah, I attended Chabad of Upper Montgomery County in North Potomac, Maryland, run by Rabbi Sholom Raichik and Rebbetzin Chana Raichik.

Some of my best childhood memories are from going to the Raichik’s Chabad House as a kid. The Chabad House was this magical place where my parents always got along, sang songs together, and my family felt like it was perfect for once. The Raichik’s Chabad house was where I also learned that I love chicken. Chabad Houses cook the most amazing chicken. I can still remember when they started and operated out of the basement in their home, and 25+ years later, they are moving into a beautiful, historic farm house.

Little known fact: I was Rabbi Sholom Raichik’s first Bar Mitzvah student at his Chabad House. By now, he’s surely helped hundreds of young men approach their transition to adulthood.

After I graduated from high school, I moved to Indiana for college, and started attending Indiana University’s Chabad House, run by Rabbi Yehoshua and Zlata Chincholker.

At six feet, Rabbi Chincholker, originally from India, was intimidating at first glance, but I quickly discovered that he was the nicest and most caring person that I’ve ever met. I was really lucky to have him in my life too. Since I did not know anyone when I moved to Indiana University, it meant a lot to have Rabbi Yehoshua Chincholker and his wife Rebbetzin Zlata’s Chabad House to go to when I needed to feel at home. They took me under their wing, and I am forever grateful for making me feel like family.

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Rabbi Yehoshua and me at the Chabad Annual International Conference in 2008.

After I graduated from Indiana University, I moved to New York City and started working at Lehman Brothers in 2004.  Although I had a couple of cousins in the city, given that NYC had such an immense population, I felt like I was back at square one. I did not really know anyone when I first got here (and now that’s the opposite case, as 12+ years later I have had the pleasure of meeting tens of thousands of awesome people; plus Olya Moskalenko, one of my favorite NYC-ers, who calls me the “networking King of New York City”).  At Lehman Brothers, I was always too busy at work to celebrate most holidays, and when I did have time, I would spend it with my cousins.

In 2008, I was way more immersed in the Indian-American community than the Jewish community (I served as a Board Member of the America India Foundation’s New York Young Professionals Chapter “AIF NYYP”, co-founded a retail store that exclusively worked with top Indian fashion designers), and some of my best friends were Indian including Sunny Parikh.  I served on the Board of AIF NYYP for four years, and one of our Board Members, Priya Malani of Stash Wealth, even thought I was Indian at first.

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American India Foundation New York Young Professional’s Board, 2012.

While I may not be Indian, but I am an official Phaal Curry Master. I love Indian food and can handle the heat. For anyone familiar with the famous hottest curry served in the U.S. at Bricklane Curry House’s in NYC, just know that I finished that entire bowl of curry and it was delicious.  Here’s a photo of me and my Phaal Curry Master award.

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The truth is that everywhere that I have been in my life, at each time, is more than and beyond my understanding. That same year when I was involved so much in the Indian community was the year of the brutal Mumbai Attacks against Indians. Even Mumbai’s Chabad House was fatally attacked in 2008, tragically ending the lives of the young Chabad emissaries Rabbi Gavriel and Rebbetzin Rivkah Holtzberg.

A few days after the attack, the Indo-American Arts Council and the South Asian Journalists Association at the Asia Society organized a panel to discuss the tragedy, which was moderated by Sree Sreenivasan and included prominent members of the Indian-American community in New York City, including Sir Salman Rushdie, Suketu Mehta, Mira Kamdar, and BBC Executive Producer Rome Hartman.

After hearing about the discussion being organized in New York City with hundreds of guests and prominent dignitaries, I knew that I needed to make sure that Chabad was part of this discussion. India has always been a great place for the Jewish community (unlike many parts of the world, Jews have historically lived in India without any instances of antisemitism). Given that the Chabad organization has had to persevere through terrorism and violence, while promoting peace and the greater good, it became my mission to make 100% sure that a Chabad voice was part of this panel.

My first thought was Rabbi Yehoshua Chincolker, my Indiana University Chabad rabbi of Indian descent who was also born in India. Alas, he could not make it, but he connected me with other members of Chabad in NYC who could help me, including Shmuel ButmanAvraham Berkowitz, and Yirmi Berkowitz.

It was through those efforts that Chabad was invited to speak at the Asia Society conference.  Chabad got a roaring ovation after their speech that highlighted the lives of the Holtzbergs and the great history of India for the Jewish people.

A week later, as a thank you, Shmuel Butman invited me to light the world’s largest Chanukah Menorah!  I was lifted up on a crane just to light it. Yes it was that tall!  I had to use a torch just to light it. Yes it was that large!

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That’s me on the top right side, lighting the world’s largest menorah in 2008 in NYC.

Now, let’s fast-forward to mid-March 2009.  I wanted to celebrate Passover, but did not have a place to go.

I did what any person living in 2009 would do in my situation, I used Google, and searched “NYC Passover Young Professionals.” Actually, many people just Google their city and Chabad, but I specialized my search to find a Chabad that caters towards young professionals (and I guess those details matter when it comes to becoming “The Networking King of New York City”).

It turned out that Rabbi Levi and Rebbetzin Perel Shmotikin’s Chabad Young Professionals was Google’s #1 Search Result. I later learned that Levi and Perel actually moved to NYC the month before to start a Chabad House for Young Professionals in NYC. Surprised by having the top search result on Google, I asked Levi was who does your marketing, he said “Hashem.”

Here is Levi and me.

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Even eight years later, ChabadYP.com still ranks as the #1 search result.

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It used to be that Chabad Houses were organized by geography, but now with so many Chabad Houses around the world, they can now focused on demography. So, I made sure to invite as many people as I could to their events to help them increase their awareness in NYC.  Levi also recently invited me to be a guest speaker at the first ever Chabad Young Professionals convention hosted by WeWork.

Later, Rabbi Levi told me that he was not even sure if they were supposed to host that first Passover Seder in 2009.  Given that the Passover Seder is one of the most elaborate holidays – it goes on for hours, there are procedures of eating and meals, with washing hands and prayers, and you need a lot of space and a ton of Kosher food that takes days to weeks to prep – Levi was not sure if he and Perel should be hosting a seder. They had just moved to NYC and Perel was only weeks away to giving birth to their first child. For weeks no one was making a reservation. What are they supposed to do if no one is going to show up?

Feeling forlorn and confused, Levi decided to pray on it. So Levi went to Ohel Chabad, the Rebbe’s gravesite, and asked what he should do. He sought the Rebbe’s support by being there, similar to having a lawyer by your side as you stand before the judge, Levi prayed for help and clarity.

What is a Rebbe? The leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch organization, Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, or the “Rebbe”.  Many world leaders and famous people know the power of the man, like Ronald Regan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Rudolph JulianiIvanka Trump and Jared Kushner and even the latest winner of the triple crown.

The custom is that you go to the Ohel and you write a letter and you pray and light a candle and you ask for something. But at the same time, it is said that you need to give something too, like money to charity or take on an extra commitment to giving back.

While Levi was at the gravesite, he turned his phone off as a sign of respect. When he came out again, and turned on his phone, behold! A text message from one of Levi’s congregants appeared on the screen, requesting reservations for the Passover Sedar. Now there was no question. Levi and Perel would be hosting a seder that year.

Guess what also happened during that time when Levi was praying at the Ohel? Picture it, there I was, Googling for a Passover Sedar! They ended up having a sizeable turnout that year.

My Personal Experience at The Ohel

Rabbi Levi Shmotkin also taught me by example when I was in a predicament a few years ago.

I was beside myself when one of my housemates not only refused to pay rent, but also refused to leave the apartment. The housemate literally hijacked the room, changing the lock on the door and everything. It was a terrible situation.

After a couple months, I asked Levi what I should do. Nothing was getting better. “Do I call the police and put a restraining order so my roommate can’t legally come into the apartment? Do I move all my roommate’s belongings out during the middle of the day? Do I have to get a lawyer and legally evict my roommate?” The list went on.

Levi told me that he was going to the Ohel and suggested I come with him, to pray for help.

Two days later, Levi picks me up and we drive to the Ohel. When I get there I write a note and say I literally need immediate help now. I will do anything and this intolerable situation is affecting my life. Levi then dropped me off at my apartment, and within 10 minutes of being back at my apartment my roommate told me she was leaving.

Just in case you missed the last part, here is a summary: I prayed for help, came home, ten minutes after I got home, my squatting housemate who was resistant for months suddenly decides to give up and move out.

Levi encouraged I make sure to donate money to charity, tzedakah, every single day, even if it’s only a penny.

Fast-forward to last year, when I was looking at the Rebbe’s picture and I said to myself, what a brilliant man, he’s giving out dollars but the true value of the dollar is to make a connection with another human being as well as enable that human being to make a connection with someone else. It’s a simple, powerful plan.

The Rebbe may have passed away in 1994, but his memory is still bright and loving, and when I looked at his picture that day, I said to myself, “I will bring back the Rebbe’s Sunday dollars.”

The next thing that I knew, I was at Shabbat dinner at Saadya and Mushky Notik’s apartment (Musky is also the co-Founder of MIMU Maxi) and we were happening to talk about the Rebbe and how he inspired me to give to people in the subway.  Sarah Kamaras of NowThis media was at that dinner.

Saadya and I are a lot alike. He also truly believes that if you happen to stand next to a random stranger, then it’s for a good reason. Saadya, also like I am, is willing to go up to anyone at any time for whatever reason just to say hello and connect with a fellow human.

For anyone who has not been on a subway in NYC, here’s a shocker: Pretty much everyone in the NYC subway keeps to him or herself. There is little willful human interaction. And eye contact? Forget about it.

Wait wait wait, I must confess that yes, there are some people who stand up, making announcements to the general subway car public as they await their future destinations. As far as I know, those announcements are generally petitions or pleas for your donations.

But how many people do you know that willingly give out money or blessings to complete strangers? The Rebbe did that!

I knew that we needed to make that happen again.

Seeing people get up to request money made me realize that it’s time to flip the script in the 1Dollar NYC subways. Instead of asking, we need to give. Instead of ignoring, we need to acknowledge. Instead of begging, let’s go blessing.

Just a couple of months ago, NowThis featured our NYC subway Sunday Dollars story!

Chabad’s Other Volunteer and Charitable Opportunities

I’ve been a board member of Chabad’s Children’s of Chernobyl (CCOC) which helps children affected by the Chernobyl nuclear explosion. To date, CCOC has saved 2,878 children on 100 rescue flights, providing them with housing, education and medical care in a loving, supportive environment. CCOC also provides assistance to those in the affected areas.  In 2009, we were invited by NASDAQ to ring the closing bell (I’m pictured on the right side in the front with the rest of the CCOC team).

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I’m also a board member of the Chabad Relief Project, and every month we organize food drives to deliver meals to elderly and underprivileged households in NYC (it’s estimated that 20% of NYC’s elderly population lives in poverty).  Besides just giving them a box of food, it’s also an opportunity to make a personal contact with elderly and less fortunate people in NYC, many of whom had had amazing experiences in their lifetimes.  

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That’s all I have for now.  I look forward to continuing to work with Chabad and with their mission around the world.  I am not the only one here whose life has been changed by Chabad and their communities – that’s why I felt obligated to write and share my story.

Thank you to my amazing sister Laurie Harari for helping edit this post, as well as my other posts!

I Left Lehman Brothers 80 Days Before It Went Bankrupt

Today is my 35th birthday, and I would like to share a special story with you.  It’s a story that I have never shared publicly, and no one really actually knows about.  It’s a story that I often think about, but have never publicly shared.  The story is a little long, but it also reflects what I believe is my single biggest act of courage in all my 35 years.  Read the story of why I left Lehman Brothers exactly 80 days before the firm filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

For anyone who needs a little refresher on Wall Street in 2004 to 2008, working as an analyst at a global investment banking like Lehman Brothers was a “big deal”, and there was a lot of competition across Wall Street to work on bigger and bigger deals, and it became that the definition of a “good deal” was a deal that happened to be larger than the one before it.  It was also no doubt that my investment banking analyst position at Lehman Brothers was great win for my alma mater at the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University, where I earned my finance degree, magna cum laude, from the business honors program (I also sneaked into Stanford University to score that job at Lehman Brothers).

When Lehman Brothers hired me, I was very excited.  Here I was, working for a highly reputable investment bank where I would surely learn more about business and finance than I would ever know, and maybe even about myself in the process.  And then there was the enormous salary on top of that (my salary as a first-year investment banking analyst at Lehman Brothers at 23 years old paid me more than each of my parents’ salaries at the height of their careers).   Then, a couple years later, I was selected to work on Wall Street’s biggest deal.  I thought nothing could get better than this!  But instead, things got worse.

Read the story of why I left Lehman Brothers 80 days before it went bankrupt.  

It was the Spring of 2007, and I was selected to work on the biggest [i] leveraged buyout [ii] in the history of leveraged buyouts.  Big deals were exclusively reserved for the firm’s top analysts in the merger’s and acquisitions group, and any deal over $1 billion was considered “big”.  Further, it was a “big deal” to be selected to work on a “big deal”, and working on a once-in-a-lifetime deal was a “very big deal”.  And because of it’s record-breaking size, this was certainly a “good deal” to work on.

At 25 years old, as the analyst on the deal, I was principally responsible for Lehman Brothers’ financial model of the proposed $51.8 billion dollar leveraged buyout of Bell Canada Enterprises (“BCE”).  BCE is one of Canada’s largest companies and communications providers – it is basically like the AT&T or Verizon of Canada (BCE was called Bell Canada Enterprises because it was named after Alexander Graham Bell, who was the inventor of the telephone).

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Our clients were several large institutional Canadian-based pension and investment funds that were interesting in bidding for the company.  The financial model was highly complex, with thousands of individual assumptions.  My role as Analyst was to maintain the financial model and organize all the analysis, while keeping track of thousands of variables and inputs while running different scenarios.  This huge deal also attracted the best bankers within Lehman Brothers, and I was excited to work with and learn from some of the best within the firm.

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This deal was expected to generate $34 billion of new debt ($34 billion was also the GDP for the entire country of Guatemala in 2007), and it was estimated that $500 million to $1 billion of fees would be generated for Wall Street investment banks if the deal went through.

Lehman Brothers expected to achieve huge financial gains, and every major investment bank on Wall Street wanted to quench its thirst with this BCE deal.  For any bank that didn’t get a cut of this deal, their competitors surely would, and by default they were forced to try to be involved in this deal just to keep up with the fierce competition across Wall Street.  There were hundreds, if not thousands of investment bankers across all the major Wall Street firms all competing against each-other and all wanting a piece of this action.  With all this money to be made for Wall Street investment banks, this deal was certainly turning out to be a “good deal” for everyone involved.

I was eager and excited to start working on this deal, and the first step was to build the financial model from scratch using a blank Excel spreadsheet.  For anyone that knows me, I pride myself on being an Excel Master – just like Mozart mastered the piano to make beautiful music, I mastered Excel to make beautiful spreadsheets.

But before building the financial model, I had to first understand BCE through its financial statements.  When analyzing the income statement of BCE in 2006, we see that (A) Revenue is at $17.7 billion, and if you look at that Revenue from 2002 to 2006, you see that the numbers are stable, and it’s not really growing.  This makes sense because this company is basically like a public utility and has very consistent and steady revenue because everyone needs a telephone but there are not too many prospects of significant growth (back then, people still had telephones wired in their homes so we had to model the growth of mobile phones but at the same time we knew people would be cutting off their contracts for their home phones, so it was basically a wash).   We also see that (B) their Net Earnings is $2.0 billion, and that number is also very steady.  $2.0 billion might seem like a lot of money, but given the company’s operating and financial cost structure of $15.7 billion, which pays for the salaries of tens of thousands of employees, re-investments in new infrastructure, and more – BCE’s earnings were on very thin margins.

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Now let’s look at their balance sheet. As you see, (A) BCE only has $581 million of cash in its bank account, which is like nothing.  Further, we see that (B) their long-term debt is at $11.9 billion, so adding $34 billion of new debt is a tremendous amount (even though BCE could potentially add on some additional debt, $34 billion could pose a big threat to the long-term sustainability of the company).  Further, the proceeds of the $34 billion in new debt would be used to buyout the existing owners, so the company wouldn’t get the benefit of having the cash generated from the debt on its balance sheet.

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It took a couple days of putting the financial model together, and when it was finished I noticed that this deal would only generate a return of 7-8% at best, with the peppiest revenue growth prospects and highest-possible reductions in cost structure.  Further, the addition of new debt would significantly slash the net income of the company and it would deteriorate its ability to generate meaningful cash flow to shareholders.

At the end of the day, a good deal is defined by its Return On Investment (“ROI”), and this deal did not have a good ROI.  It seems like the existing owners of BCE would get bought out at a good price, Wall Street investment banks would make a lot of money in fees, and yet our clients would only make 7-8% financial gain on the deal at best (and much less or even worse if things didn’t work out as planned, which tends to always happen).  Our clients didn’t seem like they would be the big winners, yet everyone else was (which did not include the existing bondholders whose investment in BCE’s existing debt would be negatively impacted by the addition of new debt on the company).

Everyone who had a short-term stake in BCE would be winners (the old equity stakeholders and the Wall Street investment banks) and everyone who had a long-term stake in BCE would be losers (the new equity stakeholders and new and existing debt holders of the company).  You could also argue that you could take all of that money and just invest in the S&P 500 (which has an average rate of return of 10%).  It was always understood that you only do a leveraged buyout if the deal gets you at least a 20%+ return because of all of the risks involved. At the end of the day this didn’t seem like a “good deal”.

As you can imagine, my superiors didn’t like returns of only 7-8%, and they wanted to show the deal looking better than it actually was.  They wanted the clients excited about making this deal happen since this Lehman Brothers could make a lot of money from it.  What that meant for me was instead of spending time on this deal learning new insights, I felt myself digging a hole, then filing it back up, then digging another hole again, and then filling it back up.

Tweaking numbers made no difference to this financial model, the deal was weak, but it seemed like no one wanted to listen.  I spent months changing financial model assumptions in thousands of ways, back-and-forth, and back-and-forth.  Needless to say, the work was very tedious, and at times I felt I was going insane.

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Even though I was the youngest and most junior banker working on the deal, I knew that the Bell Canada Enterprises leveraged buyout was not financially sound and could potentially bankrupt the company within a couple years – the numbers were clear and all of my financial modeling said so.  I remember thinking to myself it should not be this difficult to identify a good deal, and we were all spending more time and work helping make this deal look better than it actually was.

In school, I learned that I should became proficient in the art of interpreting the language of numbers. Numbers speak if you listen. And if you listen, numbers will tell you their story. But, I realized my job was to do as I’m told and be a numbers whisperer.  The numbers were loud; yet no one seemed to care enough to listen. I started my career at Lehman Brothers to learn as much as I could as I always wanted to be an entrepreneur, but changing numbers back and forth to make the deal look good is not learning.  Numbers tell a story – numbers are black and white, and they don’t lie.  The best thing you can do in business is be true to your numbers and add value to someone else.

So, after three months of working over 100-hour-weeks on this deal with financial modeling all telling the same story, I finally mustered up the courage to walk into the office of my supervisor to tell him I have to walk away from working on this deal.

I couldn’t keep on working on something I didn’t believe in and just changing numbers back and forth and back and forth.  I told him that I’m not the right analyst for this project and told him I didn’t think this deal would work.  I also felt I was going to throw-up, but there was nothing more I could humanly do.

Doing this was unheard of.  If your superior gave you a project, you accomplished it to the best of your abilities. As an investment banking analyst, going against your superiors was like being a solider in the military going against the commands of your higher ranking officer – your role is to execute the commands of the officers above you, and you do not have the authority to go against them. Approaching my superior in this way was insubordination. Further, doing so on such a once-in-a-lifetime, record breaking deal was unprecedented. However, for me, being selected as the analyst to work on this record-breaking deal was an honor that meant that nothing if I wasn’t being true to myself and true to my numbers.

Walking away was also hard because it also meant walking away from my colleagues and teammates. I’m 100% a team player, and I felt that walking away was like going against my colleagues and friends (we even smuggled beer inside duffel bags and put our colleagues together at Lehman Brothers). Still, I had to do what was best for me because the numbers were loud, and I didn’t believe that just piling on a ton of debt onto a company was the right thing given its revenue prospects and cost structure. I ultimately did not feel proud to be part of this, but I also didn’t want others to think I’m being weak or that I’m not able to perform because I wasn’t able to perform my job.

Arguably, it wasn’t the bank’s decision to move forward with the deal, it was our clients who wanted to potentially acquire the BCE. But, I could also analogize a situation that a plastic surgeon must feel if he or she has a client who wants to have multiple plastic surgeries. It is ultimately your client’s decision to do multiple plastic surgeries and you can continue to perform them for your client and get paid significantly for it, but at some point you might say to yourself no I can’t do this anymore. You risk the client going to another plastic surgeon and you risk losing on getting paid, but at least you have had the integrity and ethics of telling your client what is ultimately right for them.

A year later, in May 2008, Lehman Brothers offered me a promotion to be an Associate, which was a promotion from being an Analyst and the starting salary would be $250,000 per year plus bonus. At 26 years old, I turned that offer down and formally left the firm.

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A month later, in June 2008, my apartment burnt down and I luckily escaped death and destruction.

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A month later, in July 2008, I was hired to work for hedge fund Aurelius Capital Management. What struck me as interesting when I was interviewing at Aurelius was it was focused on distressed debt. Out of all the hundreds of other financial firms I was looking at, there was no firm that I came across that was focused on distressed credit. I said to myself, this is interesting, this is unique. At Aurelius they also truly valued the opinions of their Analysts to provide critical and independent thinking and it’s also where I learned a significant amount about finance, business, and decision making.

The first thing Founder & CEO of Aurelius Capital Management Mark Brodsky told me to do was to read the book Fooling Some of the People All of the Time by hedge fund legend David Einhorn. Today, I can still say that Einhorn’s book is most inspirational one that I have ever read, and it’s a story of how hard and persistent David Einhorn had to be in digging the truth out of a company, and because the truth was hidden so deeply, there were immense profits to achieve in revealing the truth. I agreed 100% with this philosophy and the duty of hedge funds like Aurelius Capital to reveal the truth – I said to myself finally, this firm would be the perfect fit for me post-Lehman Brothers.

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Two months later, on September 15, 2008, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, and the bankruptcy evoked a flood of troubled credit and distressed debt. Aurelius turned out to be the perfect career decision to position myself in a post-Lehman Brothers bankruptcy world. I actually escaped destruction again.

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Three months later, on December 11, 2008, the proposed leveraged buyout of Bell Canada Enterprises officially went dead. After the credit crisis, all the Wall Street investment banks wanted to wash their hands clean of issuing any new debt because they knew they would incur huge loses once they would issue that debt. In regards to the BCE deal, the official nail-in-the-coffin was when accounting firm KPMG issued a report stating that the transaction failed its solvency test, which was a requirement for the deal to go through. That meant it was in KPMG’s professional opinion that BCE would go bankrupt if company would issue $34 billion in new debt. No expensive KPMG report was needed, it was all clear to me over a year and a half earlier.

In 1992, when my father was an aerospace engineer at NASA, he won NASA’s Space Flight Awareness award.  The Award is one of the highest and most prestigious awards available to employees of the NASA’s spaceflight team for their dedication to quality work and flight safety. My father specifically won the award because he predicted that an upcoming NASA shuttle launch would explode. My dad was so certain of his analysis that he went out of his way to alter the highest of NASA’s current’s missions to abort the launch and publicly challenged his superiors with his models and investigation when they all disagreed with his analysis. My father risked his reputation by going against his superiors, and the delay of the launch cost NASA millions of dollars. It was later determined by NASA that my father was right, and he saved the lives of those astronauts and billions of dollars. It’s those stories you never hear about or get advertised. It was also my father who taught me to go against what everyone else says if you believe it’s right. My father also taught me to always follow my gut, because that’s how you find the truth.

This is an image of the Award. It was signed by Astronauts David Wolf and Eileen Collins, both of whom I also thrilled to met at the awards ceremony and I was 10 years old at the time (it’s a dream to meet an astronaut when you’re in elementary school), and I was extremely proud of my father.

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If you’re still reading this story, I want you to take away at least this one thing today:

Value your relationships with others above everything else.  

Coincidentally, the one thing I remember everyone always talking about at Lehman Brothers was how important it was to value relationships with your clients; that’s what ultimately matters the most. You never know how what you’re doing today will ultimately leverage you to where you hope to be. Always stay true to your values, and be good to the people around you.

I have many, many friends in investment banking and I am very supportive of its function within the industry. And to all my friends working in finance, please remember with all the power you have, you have that much more in responsibility.[iii]  Everything ultimately in business relates to people, and passing money between people constitutes a relationship.  Relationships are the most important thing we have in life, and they are more important than any deal or amount of money you might stand to make.

***

[i] Capital B intentional: Only transactions larger than $1 billion were considered “Big” according to Lehman Brothers’ Mergers & Acquisitions Investing Group.

At a projected valuation of $51.8 billion, the unprecedented Bell Canada Enterprises leveraged buyout of 2007 would have set a new world record and raised $34 billion in new debt.

What’s $34 billion? For perspective, think about how $34 billion was Guatemala’s 2007 GDP (World Bank).

Only the top analysts in the group were selected to work on Big deals like this one. Foremost, leveraged buyouts of this magnitude involved complex financial models embedded with intricate line items, all with individual assumptions per line item transaction.

If this sounds like confusing financial analyst jargon to you, just picture a Knex scale model of the United States, and you’re living inside it with the rest of your universe. Now imagine a whole bunch of analysts coming in and shifting pieces around. They better know what they’re doing, right? So basically, Lehman Brothers was highly selective in deciding who to assign on to big deals. Each move that I made had from hundreds to thousands of pieces at stake, all of which may directly affect the lives of at least as many people.

[ii]  A leveraged buyout is a type of transaction that would enable investors to finance the purchase of a company through raising debt.

Think about how you buy a house.  As a buyer of the home, you put 10% or maybe 20% of the total value of the house in cash, and then a bank would loan you the rest of the money needed to purchase the home. You obviously need to make enough income to support your mortgage every month, and the worst case in this example is that you can’t pay your mortgage, which then puts you in default of your loan. Ultimately you might be forced to give your home back to the bank.

In finance, this would be called a bankruptcy, and the buyer would have to give his ownership of the company to the lenders who would then likely restructure the company and sell it to new buyers.   And that’s essentially how leveraged buyout deals work.

[iii] Remember again: Every line of revenue line item relates to people paying for a product or service, and every expensive line item relates to someone getting paid for their product or service. Everything ultimately in business relates to people, and passing money between people constitutes a relationship. Value your relationships.

I Sneaked into Stanford University & Scored a Job at Lehman Brothers

In the Fall of 2003, I was interning at Sun Microsystems.  Every year, Sun Microsystems would recruit the top four students at Indiana University’s Computer Information Systems major and offer them a semester-long internship in California’s Silicon Valley (the southern portion of the San Francisco bay area).  Being a college student at the time, Sun Microsystems paid extremely well and even offered free housing.  For me, I jumped on the opportunity, and it was especially amazing for my resume and an honor to be selected.

Sun Microsystems had beautiful campuses all across Silicon Valley, and I did my internship with three other awesome business honors classmates: Matt Kobe, Ran Li, and Vicky Dhir.  Our awesome internship supervisors at Sun Microsystems were Nadeem Sheikh and Randy Moog.

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When I was originally selected for the business honors program at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, I declared my major was Computer Information Systems, a business major with a focus on business and technology.  I always loved computers, coding, and technology.  But after a few classes in computer information systems and during my internship, I discovered I wanted to get a broader business background, as I always wanted to eventually do something entrepreneurial.  I felt like my major in computer information systems was too limiting in this respect.

So, I called my cousin Yair Harari, who at the time was an investment banking analyst at Credit Suisse in New York City (Yair was also part of the University of Texas basketball team, which went to the second round of the NCAA Tournament in his junior year!). Yair, like his twin brother Ron, also graduated from the McCombs School of Business honors program.  Knowing that I had a very high GPA from a top business honors program as well, Yair encouraged me to go into investment banking, as it would pay significantly more, be better for my resume, and, most importantly, would be the best possible experience for my future entrepreneurial ambitions.

So, after speaking with him, I felt that getting a finance degree and getting a job in investment banking was best suited for me.  I was excited to understand how different types of businesses work, as all companies can be understood through their financial statements.  I also decided then that I would go into finance, and the perfect internship to have on my resume would be an investment banking summer analyst, which would be the top position out of school with a degree in finance.

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But, how could I get a job in investment banking when no investment banks recruited from Indiana University?  

Even though Indiana University was a top rated business school, most investment banks would just recruit out of ivy league schools (Indiana University’s Investment Banking Workshop later changed that, and I actually was part of Professor David Haeberle‘s inaugural Investment Banking Workshop class).

I was also thousands of miles away from Indiana University and I knew I didn’t have much time to find an internship in investment banking, as I was on a semester-long internship at Sun Microsystems.  It was also the Fall semester, and I knew employers were recruiting now for summer internships.  I had to make the right moves quickly.

Thinking creatively and exploring all options, I discovered that Stanford University, only a 20 minute drive from my office at Sun Microsystems, was having their annual career fair in a couple weeks, and eight of the top investment banks were scheduled to be there: Citigroup, Credit Suisse, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, and UBS.  So, I decided I would take a chance and go to the Stanford career fair.

A couple weeks later, on the day of the career fair, I put a suit and tie in my car, and drove to work (I actually officially made the change of my major from Computer Information Systems to Finance they day before the career fair, to delay the change as much as possible, as I was concerned it may disqualify me from my current internship at Sun Microsystems).

Since no one at Sun Microsystems wore a suit or tie, so I couldn’t really wear it to work that day.  Frankly, no one in the entire San Francisco bay area wears a suit and tie to work.  The culture is tech focused and climate is much warmer and brighter, so most people literally go to work in a t-shirt and jeans and some would even wear shorts.  The maximum you could go would be a tucked-in collared shirt and khakis, and when you did that you appeared to be very dressed up.

During my lunch break that day, I sneaked out of work and drove to Stanford University.

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When I got to the Stanford University parking lot, I put on my suit and tie and I was determined to get inside.  I came armed with just 8 copies of my resume on card stock paper (eight is a lucky number, and just had one copy to hand to each investment bank).

This is what I actually looked like.

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I didn’t know how I would get inside Stanford University, I just knew I had to get in.

So, with full confidence, I just walked right in.  No one checked me for a student ID, and it was much easier than I expected.

I was excited to be inside, but was anxious.  I had to move quickly as to not be detected or let someone tell me that I am not allowed to be there.  I quickly asked someone where the auditorium was where the career fair was taking place, and walked there as fast as I could.  I was on a mission.

Once inside the career fair, I quickly located where all the investment banks were.  They were all right next to each other.  Each investment bank had a booth and together they made a horse shoe formation.  Getting a quick lay of the land, I decided to walk up to every booth and introduced myself to every person from every bank.  As I was going to be upfront that I was not a student at Stanford University, I would have to work quickly as I felt I had a limited amount of time before someone would find out I infiltrated the career fair and kick me out.

As I was looking around, I also notice I was the only person wearing a proper suit and tie.

Even though the climate and culture of the San Francisco bay area was against wearing a suit and tie, I couldn’t believe they still didn’t wear them to the career fair (a couple actually did but they didn’t fit or look right).

One of the first things they taught us at Indiana University was that you had to be dressed up whenever you would meet with a potential employer.  Further, some of the Stanford University students were completely unprepared to be meeting with the world’s top investment banks.  Some of them to me seemed lame and weird, as they looked like they were dressed to attend a Grateful Dead concert wearing tiedie t-shirts, jeans, and flip-flops, and others seemed entitled and annoying, wearing a bow-ties and having resumes that were literally 5 pages long that listed in detail single accomplishment they’ve ever had.  It was a hodge-podge of students, and it was at this time, and even though they all went to a school that had better name recognition and branding than I did, I knew I had a unique, competitive advantage over all these unprepared Stanford University students.

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So, I walked up to each bank, introduced myself, and handed them my resume.  I only had a few seconds to catch their attention and to impress them enough to distinguish that I was someone worthy of interviewing.  Each resume would either go into a bin to follow-up to schedule an interview, or the trash bin.  A majority of resumes would end up in the trash.

Since I had to communicate myself effectively and efficiently, and since I thought these Stanford University kids weren’t as impressive as I was expecting, I quickly crafted my 30-second sales pitch.  I would highlight three key areas:

  1. I wanted to get an summer analyst internship at their bank.
  2. I’m currently interning at Sun Microsystems, and
  3. I’m a finance major at Indiana University’s business honors program with one of the highest GPA’s in my class.

I thought this tactic would serve me well.  I would immediately differentiate myself from the other students at Stanford University, as well as giving an impression that I was a candidate worthy to interview even though I’m someone they might not have been expecting.

But, as I went from bank to bank, the members of the recruiting teams didn’t seem to quite understand why I was there, as they were confused that I wasn’t a student at Stanford University.  They also didn’t seem to value my high GPA from Indiana University’s business honors program or my experience having an internship at Sun Microsystems.

Even though no one seemed to be interested in my sales pitch, I still thought my tactic was solid, and frankly, if they didn’t want me then I didn’t want them.  Even though I felt like I wasn’t connecting with these recruiters, I still had other banks to go.  I would just need to score one out of eight to win.

Then, I made my way to Lehman Brothers.

The greatness of the Lehman Brothers booth was that it was not comprised of members of the recruiting team like all the other banks.  The Lehman Brothers booth was attended by actual investment banking analysts looking to hire directly their next batch of interns.  It was the only bank out of the eight that did not have their recruiting team there, but rather the actual employees making the decision for who they wanted to work with and interview directly.

As I approached the Lehman Brothers booth, I walk up to a guy who looked to be just slightly over my age, and his name was Collin “CJ” Karthauser.  I felt comfortable meeting him and as I hand him my resume I started giving him my sales pitch, highlighting all three key areas (I want to intern at Lehman Brothers, I was interning at Sun Microsystems, and I was a top student at Indiana University’s business honors program).

I executed it perfectly, here’s what he basically said…

“Great resume, it’s also on nice thick paper. I can’t tell you how many of these students put their entire life story in multiple-page resumes when all they need to be is concise 1 pagers.  You, unlike many of the other student here, know what you’re doing.”

“Hey, you’re working at Sun Microsystems but you’re still in school, that’s cool!”

“Wait, you go to Indiana University, but you’re here, did you sneak into the Stanford career fair?”

When he asked me if I sneaked in, I told him that I did so because Lehman Brothers was my #1 choice, but didn’t recruit at Indiana University (making that instant connection with him truly made Lehman Brothers my #1 choice).  If you make someone feel special, they will make you feel special.

He gave me his cell phone number and told me to call him, he still had hundreds of other students to meet with but wanted to make sure I followed up directly with him.

I was super excited, but still felt unsure.  Was he doing this just to be nice?  I also felt a little awkward calling someone I just met (at this point in my life I felt this way, today I certainly don’t).  But you know what, he told me to do it, and there was nothing to lose.

So, the next day I call him on his cell phone around 7pm, knowing I would reach him just after work.  He remembered me and thanked him that I called.

He told me that he didn’t graduate from or attend Stanford University, but still had to recruit from there.  He also said that Lehman Brothers’ investment banking group in Menlo Park, CA was only going to hire five interns, and they were planning to have all five of them be from Stanford University, like they do every year.  He told me he loves my background and wanted to make sure I would do as best as I could for the interviews, and offered to coach me.

I would still need to make a strong, positive impression on all the people I would be interviewing with and I would still need to successfully compete with all other candidates, but he said he would help me along the way.

For the next couple weeks, I would call him and he would mock interview me, in preparation for my interview.  He was very insightful in how to best craft my messaging.  Getting ahead in everything in life is all about how you communicate.  It was amazing to get coaching from someone who is directly in the organization, as they can really help with understanding how people communicate within the company.

A couple weeks after that, I got called into my first interview.  Over the course of a couple weeks I went through eleven rounds of interviews, including some awesome people I would eventually work with: Matt Young, Phieu Phun, Quan Vu, Tran Nguyen, Geoffrey Doempke, and more.  I also made some great friends that would last for many, many years: Johnny Chen, Chris Lau, Andrew Solomon, and more.

Just before leaving my internship at Sun Microsystems in Santa Clara, CA, I had successfully secured an investment banking summer analyst internship at Lehman Brothers the following summer in Menlo Park, CA.  I was the only intern that summer to not have been a student at Stanford University.

Here’s what the Lehman Brothers office in Menlo Park, CA looked like.

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I did very well in my internship at Lehman Brothers that summer, and got offered a full-time position as an investment banking analyst.  I transferred my full-time offer to their headquarters in NYC, which is where I ultimately wanted to be (thank you Lauren Golden).  Here’s my original Lehman Brothers offer letter from 2004.

It was also at Lehman Brothers in New York City where we smuggled beer inside duffel bags to bring people together, and met Mike Niemtzow, President & Co-Founder at WindowsWear.  In my analyst class was also an amazing group of people, including an analyst that has a very similar name to me, Sean Ferrari. I also left Lehman Brothers three months before it went bankrupt, but that will be for another story.

I learned through this experience that if I wasn’t prepared with my resume, my sales pitch, my suit and tie, while taking a chance to sneak into another school’s career fair, I would have never inspired someone to help get me where I wanted to be.

It just takes one person and one connection to make everything fall into place, and open an entire new world to you.  I realized I always have to make big sacrifices and seek big challenges – the bigger the sacrifice and the bigger the challenge the more others will be inspired to help get you where you want to be.

On January 17, 2017, legendary Indiana University entrepreneur, billionaire, and all-around awesome guy Mark Cuban Liked this article. That one Like by a person who has almost 2 million followers caused this article to go viral, generating over 20,000+ views within 24 hours on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/i-sneaked-stanford-university-scored-job-lehman-brothers-jon-harari.

This completely underscores the point of this article, how one small thing can completely transform your life. You have to put yourself out there, take a risk, write an article about an interesting personal story about something you did fourteen years ago that helped change your life, do it in the right way and give credit to those that helped make it happen, then all it takes is one small Like by a well-know awesome celebrity businessman that can help make everything else fall into place.

I see there are many comments praising this article, and even some people who chose to focus on the negative. My parents immigrated from Israel to the U.S., and since they didn’t have the best English growing up, I didn’t either. I might have some grammatical mistakes, but I was never trained as a journalist. I started my blog about a year ago to express the truth in my life on the Internet. Most of what I see on the Internet is content that is unrelated to me that I have no control over. I teach marketing, business communications, and public relations as an Adjunct Professor at Baruch College, and I find that sharing true stories like this is the best way to learn about what is possible in life. Many people don’t succeed just because of their test scores or their GPA, but they succeed because they know how to make things work for them. So, my blog is my personal textbook.

And if all of us took upon ourselves to share our personal stories online, we would be much more connected to each other and more close as a community. The only difference between someone you know and someone who is a stranger is how much do you know about them. So the more you share about yourself, the more you allow for less strangers to exist in our society. Also, it only takes a couple key moments and a couple people in life like CJ Karthauser and Mark Cuban in this story to change everything, but that can only happen if you put yourself out there.

My High School Was the Best, But Our Football Team Was the Worst

I graduated from  Wootton High School in Rockville, MD (a suburb of Washington, D.C.), which is one of the best high schools in the U.S.  I was very lucky that my parents made sure my sister and I grew up and lived in a great community and public school system like the one in Montgomery County, MD, so that we could have an excellent education (Montgomery County, MD actually has the highest population of residents with post-graduate degrees in the U.S.).

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For almost all other high school students at every other high school across the U.S., having a great high school football team predicates what makes for a great high school experience.  Students that start on the high school varsity football team get big perks, as the starters are idolized by the school and the community.  Many of them are interviewed on local television, they are the celebrities of their communities worthy of praise and admiration.

But, at Wootton High School, this never happened, as our football team was the worst. More students would make fun of us than were fans of us (especially our soccer team, which at a normal school in the U.S., you would be more likely to be made fun of if you’re on the school’s soccer team vs. being on the school’s football team, but as you can see, Wootton High School was not normal and our soccer team was actually one of the best in the State of Maryland). For all my four years of high school, I played on that football team.  

Here’s a team photo of Wootton High School’s Varsity football team during our 1999/2000 season.

Washington, D.C. is a city that attracts people from around the world, and Wootton High School is intellectual and diverse.  I had friends from all different religions, cultural backgrounds and ethnic groups.  Suburban Washington, D.C. was a terrific place to grow up – the climate had all four seasons, and the layout had a mix of the big city with lots of nature and surrounding public parks.

Wootton High School had a great reputation, and its proximity to Washington D.C. provided students with amazing opportunities.  Students that were interested in medicine got internships at the National Institutes of Health, those that were interested in politics got internships at U.S. government agencies, and those that were interested in banking and international affairs got internships at The World Bank, all while they were students in high school.

At Wootton High School, it seemed like every student and every team and club was a winner. Our physics club won international honors, our cheerleaders and dance teams went to national competitions, our theater and chorus was known around the country, and our soccer team frequently went to the state championships.  In my freshman year of high school, the Wootton High School baseball team won the Maryland State championship).

I was part of the Class of 2000, and many of my classmates went on to doing big things, including entrepreneurs Aaron Silverman of Rose’s Luxury and Dave Posin of Soliderfit, and actors Kate Siegel and Christian Mortensen (actor Utkarsh Ambudkar and poker player Phil Galfond were in classes below me).  In high school, classmate Sebastian Zimmer was a member of the U.S. kayak team, and classmate Saskia Miller modeled for Abercrome & Fitch.  Even my high school prom date, Jennifer Tabach Gerst, went on to work directly for President Barak Obama in The White House (and my sister met President George W. Bush when he came to visit Wootton High School in 2001).  Even O.A.R. band members Marc Roberge, Benj Gershman, Chris Culos and Richard On met while they were students at Wootton High School.  These are just a few of the many incredible students I went to high school with.

But, for all of this that is truly awesome, there was one thing at Wootton High School that was truly awful… our football team.

In my senior year of high school, our football team went 1-9.  Yes, that’s right, we only won one game.  We only beat Blair High School by one point, 6-7, because they failed to score on what would have been a game winning an 2-point conversion after scoring a game-tying touchdown.  Blair High School went 0-10 that year, so beating them was not something to brag about, as we were just 1 point from going 0-10 (that being said, our senior year football team actually did do better than our football team the following year, that team actually went 0-10).

Wootton High School’s mascot is the Patriot, and the record we had in 2000 resembled the one that the NFL New England Patriots had in 1990 when they went 1-15 (actually, in 1990, Wootton’s High School football team won the Division II Championship).

I was certainly a part to blame for our losing record.  I was a starter on the football team, and my position was Center.  My height was 5’10” and my weight was 170 lbs.  For those of you that don’t know football, I was very undersized to play that position.  Most Centers in high school should be at least 6’ and weigh at least 200 lbs (or even more), and that extra height and weight makes a big difference.  Most of the other players on our team were undersized as well.  We had a couple really good football players, but like any team, you are only as strong as your weakest link.

As an example, here is a photo of Darnell Dockett who played for Paint Branch High School, which was one of the teams we played against.  This is what a real high school football player should look like (Dockett eventually went on to play in the NFL).

And this is what would happen to you pretty much on every play if you were undersized.

Obviously Darnell Dockett was an exception, as most high school players don’t eventually play in the NFL, but I will tell you every since person I would go against on the football field was much bigger than me.

But, even though our record showed us as losers, were we actually winners?

As I think back on my time being a high school football player, we actually had a lot of wins that our record did not capture.  When you work so hard and sacrifice yourself and put yourself out there every week, all of us as teammates, friends, and football players were actually the real winners.  Even though we lost nearly every game, there were many things we did that made us winners.

We practiced and trained very hard.

We started football training a few weeks before school started every Fall, and had football practice everyday after school throughout the season. We ran up steep hills (i.e. the Robert Frost Middle School hill), we practiced in the rain, in the snow, in the heat, and in the cold. We even drank water out of garden hoses.  We ate together and went to the gym together, and when we saw a teammate fall we picked them up.  We were a family.

Here’s an image of a group of our football teammates at one of our football banquet dinners with our amazing group of student volunteers that would assist the football team every season.

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We never let anyone tell us we couldn’t achieve what we wanted.

We wanted to play high school football, a game we all loved.  We knew we weren’t that good, and we would likely lose every game that we played.  Every team was bigger and stronger than us, but we still played each game like it was our last.

This is a photo of me in 1999, my senior year of high school (don’t ask me about my haircut).

Most importantly, we created long-lasting friendships and memories.

Every game was like war, and we gave our opponent everything that we had on the field. We were tough and fearless, and it took me days to recover from the physical strain inflicted on my body after every game.  It was through all this that created strong bonds between our teammates.

Here’s a group image of many of us a couple years ago, morning the funeral of one of our senior year team’s best football players and friends, Karl Heiser.

Even though my high school football team was the worst, it was through my experiences being on that football team where I developed the true understanding and sense for what real teamwork and winning is all about.

Introducing the WindowsWear Museum at Berkeley College!

The world’s first museum celebrating one-of-a-kind, influential fashion window and in-store displays

New York City is the world’s fashion capital and is where brands come to life in the most exciting retail environments. Brands invest billions of dollars and thousands of hours designing and producing one-of-a-kind, artistic, and compelling visual displays every year. Season after season, these important displays of fashion and art attract millions of tourists, celebrities, fashion-elite, and influencers from around the world.

The WindowsWear Museum brings renewed attention to the most creative elements of fashion, recognize the professionals who create them, and work with brands to leverage this content in the digital era.

“The mission of the WindowsWear Museum at Berkeley College is to preserve and showcase one-of-a-kind, influential window displays from the world’s best fashion brands,” says Jon Harari, CEO & Co-Founder, WindowsWear.

“Given the importance of visual communication in this era of Instagram and other visual-focused digital and social media platforms, window displays are experiencing a significant renaissance. Their unique combination of fashion and art are now leveraged by brands across the omni-channel because they help bring brands to life. We are thrilled to celebrate these displays and the community behind them,” says Mike Niemtzow, President & Co-Founder, WindowsWear.

Celebrating its 75th anniversary, Coach sought to pay homage to its ties to New York with an in-store display. As a result, Coach’s designers and production teams replicated the iconic New York subway car injected with Coach’s signature flare. Amid detailed textures and visuals associated with a subway car, the display is scattered with specially crafted signage and replications of the luxury brand’s vintage advertisements.

“There is so much inspiration and heritage behind every element inside of a window display, we want people to look at those amazing things in the same way you go to any other museum and appreciate a piece of art, because I think this is art,” believes Raul Tovar, Director of Photography & Co-Founder, WindowsWear.

Pictured above, from left to right: Guy Adamo, Ph.D. (Chair, Fashion Department, Berkeley College), Will Moya (Campus Operating Officer, Berkeley College in Midtown Manhattan), Dr. Elana Zolfo (Dean, Larry L. Luing School of Business), Mike Niemtzow (President & Co-Founder, WindowsWear), Raul Tovar (Head of Photography & Co-Founder, WindowsWear), Joshua Williams (Chair, Fashion, Berkeley College Larry L. Luing School of Business), Jon Harari (CEO & Co-Founder, WindowsWear), Eva Mai (DVP, Visual Artistic Director, Coach), and Pedro Motta (Creative Design Manager, Coach).

At Berkeley College, we encourage our students to go beyond the walls of their classrooms and extend their experience and learning by engaging with fashion industry professionals,” said Joshua Williams, Chair, Fashion, Berkeley College Larry L. Luing School of Business®. “WindowsWear has supported our students by providing internships, volunteer opportunities, store visits and master classes. And now, by bringing the work of visual merchandisers to our campus in New York City, WindowsWear is providing additional learning opportunities for our students.”

Berkeley College has envisioned establishing a world-class destination for displaying the visual artistry of the fashion industry,” said Will Moya, Campus Operating Officer, Berkeley College in Midtown Manhattan. “We are proud to achieve this through our collaboration with WindowsWear.”

More than 100 people attended the unveiling of the WindowsWear Museum at Berkeley College’s first installation from Coach, held during a reception at the Berkeley College campus in Midtown Manhattan on December 6, 2016. Along with members of the fashion merchandise industry, the evening was attended by students and faculty members of the Berkeley College Fashion Merchandising and Management program.

Among those in attended was Berkeley College fashion instructor Mark Friedberg, Berkeley College Larry L. Luing School of Business. The display’s use of vintage advertisements resonated with Mr. Friedberg. In the 1970s and onward, Mr. Friedberg worked closely with Coach during his time as a handbag buyer for Saks Fifth Avenue. “I hope this exhibit shows students the long history that exists between fashion manufacturers and consumers, and that it continues to evolve,” he said.

WindowsWear also has the world’s largest digital archive of fashion window displays, that will periodically be featured in the museum. WindowsWear’s archive dates back to 1931, the same year Berkeley College was founded.

The installation will be open to the public from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily on the first floor of the Berkeley College campus at 12 East 41st Street in Midtown Manhattan.

ABOUT

WindowsWear is the ‘Google Earth’ of stores, featuring online in real-time, the largest and most comprehensive database of the world’s fashion window displays, interiors, and e-commerce packaging. The best visual creative teams and schools use WindowsWear for inspiration, trends, competitive analysis, and more. Our clients include Ralph Lauren, DVF, Calvin Klein, Marc Jacobs, Kate Spade, Tory Burch, Nordstrom, and more, including 100+ different colleges and universities worldwide. WindowsWear has been featured in Vogue, ELLE, WWD, Glamour, Redbook, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and more.

Berkeley College is an institution of higher education, accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education with approximately 8,000 students spread out over nine locations in New York, New Jersey and online, with approximately 2,700 students currently enrolled in New York City. The Fashion Merchandising and Management degree programs at Berkeley College integrate the creative and business aspects of the fashion industry. Incorporating current technologies, courses provide students with training in consumer behavior, product development, merchandising, retail distribution, marketing, and sales, covering the complete fashion global supply chain.

For more information, please contact museum@windowswear.com.

The Behind-the-Scenes Story of the Donald Trump Piñata Video

Read the below untold, behind-the-scenes story of the Donald Trump Piñata video.

A few weeks ago I was on a WindowsWear business trip with Mike Niemtzow & Raul Tovar in Los Angeles, and before heading to the airport Raul and I passed a vendor selling a Donald Trump piñata. I knew I had to buy it, it looked amazing and hilarious, and I had never seen a Donald Trump piñata before. I also knew I had to take it back with me to NYC, where Donald Trump is from and lives. The piñata was huge, it is about 3.5 feet tall and it only cost $18. I had to buy it quickly, as I only had a couple hours before our flight was taking off.

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As I walked through LAX airport, it was getting a lot of attention. I would have to get it screened through security and on board a Delta flight. The Donald Trump piñata actually made it through the TSA screening process and I was able to actually take it on the plane with me. The crew helped me stow it in closet of the first class cabin. Both the TSA and Delta crew all loved it.

The night I got back to NYC, the 3rd Presidential debate was on TV, and I noticed the piñata had an uncanny resemblance to Donald Trump.

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Donald Trump is a very controversial figure, you either love him or hate him, and I was pondering what to do with my spontaneous purchase and cross-country journey of my Donald Trump piñata. Many people wanted me or asked me to smash the piñata, but I said to myself I need to figure out a way to use it for universal good, and wanted to do something with it that everyone would agree with.

I then had the idea to use it for charity, and would take it around the streets of NYC asking people to donate. Since Donald Trump is a billionaire, I thought to use him as a symbol for helping make rich the least fortunate of our society (i.e. the homeless). Also, since Donald Trump made some outrageous comments about Mexicans, I thought eventually when we would have to break and shake the piñata, that would be the perfect symbol for getting the money out of Donald Trump. Regardless of what your political views are, I thought everyone can take part and enjoy different aspects of the video (I wanted to make a video everyone can value and enjoy, even Donald Trump himself or even Hillary Clinton).

Last week we taped this video in crowded areas like Macy’s in Herald Square, Times Square, 5th Avenue, and Trump Tower. I thought it would be a fun way to interact with New Yorkers, and wanted to get different people’s reactions as I asked them to donate. I got many interesting and hilarious reactions. Halfway through the video you will see I took it to Trump Tower, and there was a huge protest there with many Donald Trump supporters. Half of the supporters loved the piñata and the other half hated it, and as people were either clapping at me or yelling at me, I just kept my mouth quiet (none of the Donald Trump supporters at Trump Tower donated).

The video was filmed primarily in the streets of NYC but the part when I’m taking the money out was filmed inside at at my office on 34th Street and 5th Avenue. I was able to raise about $75 within 3 hours, and then divided the money into three plastic cups and then handed it three different homeless people on the street. To me, the most important aspect of doing this was getting others engaged and inspired to give and participate in the act of charity in a fun and creative way.

Thank you to Ipek Civicakan for helping film the video.