Before George Roberts became one of the founders of global investment company KKR, he was a student at UC Law San Francisco, Class of 1969. In a talk to current law students, the financial investment expert explained why a legal education is a useful thing to have.
“It turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made in my life,” he said. “You train your mind differently … You have to be able to write, to think on your feet, to put yourself in a position to understand the other side of the argument.”
Roberts, who is also a Bay Area resident and philanthropist, spoke with Chancellor & Dean David Faigman in a fireside chat at the law school on Feb. 15.
He preached optimism to the group of students, pointing out that the Gross National Product of the U.S. increases every year and that 80% of the world’s wealth is owned by democracies around the globe. Roberts said, “I’ve never been more optimistic about America.”
As a newlywed during law school, Roberts said he believed working in business would offer better hours for a young family than a law firm, so he joined Bear Stearns and became a partner at the age of 29.
Before leaving Bear Stearns to create KKR with two partners – his mentor Jerome Kohlberg and cousin Henry Kravis, he recalled traveling from New York City to Boston soliciting banks for business and having one banker fall asleep during his pitch. “By 1976, we had done enough to feel we could actually do this ourselves, so we left,” he said. Roberts contrasted his early career to the success of KKR, which manages billions of dollars in assets.
He explained to students that he wanted a company with a shared culture and values. Those values – which include teamwork, integrity, and accountability – are shared on the firm’s website. He added that KKR has introduced broad-based ownership opportunities to the companies they’ve purchased, which allows employees a share of the profits, incentivizing them to come up with ideas for improvements.
In 1997, Roberts started a non-profit called the Roberts Enterprise Development Fund (REDF), which supports several non-profit organizations in San Francisco, including Urban Alchemy, Larkin Street Youth Services, and other businesses – which he estimated have helped more than 25,000 people over the years.
One of REDF’s goals is to give financial capital to help realize a business idea – such as providing work for people in printing, apparel, or bike repair. He commented on the Urban Alchemy program, “It’s a chance to get back on their feet. They are formerly incarcerated who want to work. I hope to expand it beyond what is happening today.” In evaluating people, Roberts said it’s about who they are on the inside, “I’m interested in how somebody grew up and what kind of person they are, how did they deal with difficulties, what is their motivation.”
He added that he enjoys meeting with young employees at KKR and says it’s okay for people to make mistakes as they learn, “It’s not just the numbers, that’s not all there is, it comes down to the people. The culture of the place is really what matters.”
“I care more about who somebody is than what they know,” he said. “Because if it’s the right person, they’re going to figure it out.”
Roberts also touched on the topics of cryptocurrency, inflation, the market’s recovery after the pandemic, China’s economic power, and the lure of living in California. He suggested that the U.S. could entice major industries to come back through private/public partnerships. He advised future lawyers: “There’s a lot to be done.”