Why you should care

Because Gates, Buffett and others have shown how one person really can make a difference.

Robert “Bobby” Jain is one of the most powerful bankers in the world, but what he might ultimately become better known for is his quirky approach to tackling social issues. One philanthropic fantasy: reimagining the way student loans get repaid. Another? Publishing sci-fi novels to raise awareness of income inequalities and other pet causes.

If anyone else had suggested these ideas, he or she might be brushed aside. But Jain, 44, doesn’t have to listen to anyone else. As head of asset management at Credit Suisse, the Swiss financial services firm, Jain oversees around $420 billion in client assets — and he’s just bought himself a seat at the philanthropic table. Over his years, Jain has been on numerous boards and has helped start a charter school in the Bronx. He has also been around enough charitable shindigs to know that he wants to make an impact in a different way.

His twist? Overhauling the traditional idea of a “family office,” something normally reserved for wealthy families to explore investment ideas while becoming richer. Last year, he created a new nonprofit think tank — dubbed the Intellectual Family Office — to do more than just think of research or raise money for do-good causes and, rather, to launch capitalist solutions and business plans to solve social problems. “In America, it’s life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — suggesting that you’re not supposed to attain it,” says Jain, who, of course, wants to change that.

Other philanthropic heavyweights from the finance world have already made a mark in this field. John Arnold, a young billionaire and former hedge fund manager, launched a foundation with his wife, Laura, with which they now take a Moneyball-like approach to solving social challenges. Meanwhile, billionaire investor Warren Buffett teamed up with Bill and Melinda Gates to create the Giving Pledge, where the world’s richest have dedicated at least half of their wealth to charitable causes.

A portrait of Bob Jain.

Jain oversees around $420 billion in client assets.

Source Steffen Thaleman

Of course, they’re the exceptions — not the rule — and while they’ve donated billions of dollars over the years, Jain has given, well, he won’t say exactly how much, except that he is personally investing a “substantial” amount toward staffing and running his enterprise. Turning progressive ideas into actual ventures to benefit those in need isn’t as easy as Jain sometimes makes it sound. “There’s a surplus of organizations that want to do good,” says Lester Salamon, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies, which researches nonprofits. Indeed, ambitious philanthropic concepts often fail to materialize for many reasons. “The devil’s in the details,” says Michael Nilson, spokesman for the Association of Fundraising Professionals.

But Jain, who has spent 20 years moving his way up Credit Suisse — though you can’t tell by his navy sweater and slacks today — has a track record for growth. He was part of a team that built the firm’s electronic trading business, transforming it from an old-fashioned trading floor run by men on the phone to a leader in high-speed trading. Some of those practices have come under scrutiny from regulators and law-enforcement bodies because of allegations that speedy traders conspired to rig the stock market against everyday investors. (Jain says the controversy is overblown.)

If you gave someone money … would they become lazy or use it as a way to get rich?

- Robert Jain

Raised in Queens by Indian immigrant “numbers people” (mom, an accountant, and dad, an engineer), Jain eventually studied at Cornell, where he also ran an advertising agency on campus. A career in banking may have seemed strange for a guy who’d never even heard of Goldman Sachs back then, but “all the smart kids were going into finance,” says the dapper financier. “This was where the jobs were.” Now bouncing between the Upper East Side and the Hamptons, with three kids under the age of six, Jain has a certain intellectual impatience about him. He’s a voracious reader — one book a week — and he has carved out time to take classes in philosophy, English literature and art as well as mentor three high school and college students.

From his Midtown Manhattan office, which overlooks Madison Square Park, he shares his vision in a tone that fluctuates from frenetic to philosophical. He emphasizes that throwing money at social problems isn’t the solution and that the key is answering, “If you gave someone money, if you gave them a safety net, would they become lazy or use it as a way to get rich?” (He thinks it’s the latter.)

So far, he is making inroads into temporarily off-loading debt onto an investor who funds students through college. The investor would then get a portion of a grad’s salary, if he or she got a job, but there’d be no student loans. Sounds interesting, but the program is eerily similar to those from the startups Upstart and Pave, which stopped issuing new plans because not enough people joined. It’ll be a hard sell, but Jain has at least one believer: Michael Stynes, a philosophy graduate of Harvard and the Intellectual Family Office’s first employee. Stynes says he’s constantly ping-ponging ideas with his “incredibly intense” boss, though he gets “an enormous number of emails. I’m considering getting a different account just for him.”

Photography by Steffen Thaleman

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