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Personal Musings, November 2018 Edition

I’ve never been to a TED Talk, though I’ve watched plenty of them. This week I am going to attend the TEDx Talks in Hickory, NC, organized by my friend Chris Pavese. I am extra-excited because my friend Roben Farzad will be one of the speakers.

Roben and I met in an interesting way.

My wife was born in Tajikistan – a former Soviet republic, now an independent country, bordering Afghanistan and China. Any Jewish family leaving the Soviet Union in the ’80s or early ’90s was officially considered a “refugee” family by the US government. Though my own family encountered occasional anti-Semitism in Russia and experienced at times the feeling of being second-hand citizens, we never had to fear for our lives. My wife’s family, on the other hand, were true refugees. One day she came to school to find a tank blocking the gate – the country was engulfed in civil war. That war lasted half a decade, and tens of thousands of people died in it. Luckily, my wife’s family was able to escape to America.

I was just a kid when my family immigrated to the US – I was full of excitement (energized by the American movies I’d watched) and hadn’t a worry in the world. Today, after having kids of my own, I can only imagine the sleepless nights my wife’s and my own parents endured. Arriving in a new, unknown country, you quickly discover that Americans don’t speak the Queen’s English, the language that was drummed into you in school. You get off the plane, and then what? You need an apartment, furniture, kids need to go to school. You have enough money for one trip to the grocery store (which by the way has more food than you’ve ever seen in your life). God forbid your kids get sick –then what? 

My family arrived in Denver, where my father had a younger sister who took us under her wing. I was 18, my brother Alex 24, and my younger brother Igor 13 (my oldest brother, Leo, lived in Israel at the time). At least Alex and I were of working age. My wife’s family arrived in Richmond, Virginia, where they knew absolutely nobody, and she and her siblings were much younger – she was 12 and her sister and brother were 9 and 8.

Immigrating to the US was a huge leap of faith, for my parents but especially for hers. Fortunately, her family was smothered with love and support by the Richmond Jewish community –they were basically adopted by a few Jewish families, who helped them financially, furnished their apartments, drove their kids to school, took them shopping and taught them how to shop for groceries (yes, Soviet immigrants needed lessons in that). One of those helpful families were the Plotkins, Gail and Jim.

This brings me to Roben – he’s married to Karen Plotkin, Gail and Jim’s daughter. Roben told me the next part of the story. “Gail kept raving about investment articles she was reading by some Russian guy.” (Roben is a Harvard- and Princeton-educated journalist who had a great career at BusinessWeek). “I thought this Russian was pushing penny stocks on my dear mother-in-law. I started reading your articles just to make sure she wasn’t getting swindled into investing in the latest and greatest Cabbage Dolls or Beanie Babies.”

There are a few people with whom I have had an instant connection – as though we’ve known each other our whole lives. Roben is one of those rare people who, when he walks into a room, lights up everyone around him. He is both funny and thoughtful, and he puts his talent to work on his own show that he hosts on NPR One. I used to tell him that he is a funnier version of Charlie Rose (now if I used this analogy I’d need to add additional caveats to that statement).

So, when my friend Chris asked me if I knew any great speakers for the TED Talks he was organizing in Hickory, NC, I didn’t even have to think; I just told him that he had to call Roben. Oh, and I forgot to mention, Roben just published a book that he worked on for almost twenty years: Hotel Scarface, it is a story about drug trade in the ’80s in Miami. “Hotel Scarface” will be the topic of Roben’s talk.

Let’s bring this letter back to investing, at least a little. You might want to listen to some great interviews by Roben on investment topics (his shows cover a wide variety of themes).

An interview with an acquaintance of mine, Saurabh Madaan, who went from working for Google to Markel (which is often called the “Baby Berkshire Hathaway”).

Speaking of Markel, here Roben interviews Tom Gayner, Markel’s CIO. I have had the privilege of sharing a stage with Tom once a year for the last seven years in Omaha at the YPO event.

Here Roben interviews my friend Jim Chanos –brilliant short seller and incredible human being. 

I am just scratching the surface here. You can listen to hundreds of other shows with Roben here, or look for Full Disclosure with Roben Farzad on your podcast app – just be careful, they are very addicting. 

I know this letter could have been much shorter, but where is the fun in that?

P.S. There were two organizations that made our immigration journey much easier. HIAS provided incredible financial support (I think they even paid for our tickets to the US). They extended us an interest-free loan and gave us a long time to pay it back. Jewish Family Services shepherded us through our immigration journey.

Vitaliy Katsenelson

I am the CEO at Investment Management Associates, which is anything but your average investment firm. (Seriously, take a look.)

I wrote two books on investing, which were published by John Wiley & Sons and have been translated into eight languages. (Even in Polish!)

In a brief moment of senility, Forbes magazine called me “the new Benjamin Graham.” (They must have been impressed by the eloquence of the Polish translation.)

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