Here is my recent interview on Fox Business News on my run-in with Muammar Qadaffi and how it helped us launch Rubicon Property. After the interview I wrote about the experience in full so you can learn more about my encounter and how it ultimately lead to our social entrepreneurial endeavor.
As we recently learned from the WikiLeaks documents, Qaddafi was furious when his agents were unable to find housing for him in the fall of 2009, ahead of his now famous UN speech.
I suppose I was part of the reason Qaddafi was upset.
In September 2009 I was a real estate agent at a large firm in NYC. As such, this meant I got paid when I did a deal – a sale or a rental. That’s the only way I get paid. 2008 and 2009 were probably the worst years on record to be in real estate sales. Prices had plummeted. Deals were hard to come by.
In the summer of 2009 I was happy to get an exclusive listing, an exquisite townhouse at 5 East 78th Street, where the new owner was giving me two apartments to rent out (and keeping the third for himself). I rented out one unit fast, but the other, the larger unit was proving to be difficult. I was very eager to find a tenant for it. Yet, after a few weeks I was nowhere.
The first email began simply enough: “looking to rent a townhouse in Manhattan 9/21-9/25 for visiting Dutch delegation-do you have anything? how much per day if furnished? how many sq. ft.? how many rooms?”
It was Labor Day weekend, but I was still delighted to respond right away. This was good news. My listing at 5 East 78th that would be perfect for a visiting delegation. In fact, for years this very apartment served as the Brazilian consulate. Nestled inside an elegant townhouse, there were only two other units in the building.
I quickly replied to this email and we engaged in a back and forth on the apartment. The person who contacted me wanted to know about the size of each room, the views, and the ceiling height. So far, so good, I thought. I was asked about the rear yard and roof deck and whether it would be suitable for a tent. A rather unusual request, but yes, I told my contact, a tent could be installed in either location. We started getting into specifics. The delegation wanted each room furnished, and they wanted the owner to pay for it. I was told someone else would be calling me with more instructions but I was given orders not to say anything and to only listen. I began to get suspicious.
At first we talked about one apartment, but now it was clear they wanted the entire townhouse. I explained it would be impossible to secure the entire townhouse – the other two apartments had tenants. They seemed to not care. The original email identified the apartment as for the Dutch delegation, but the accents on the phone clearly weren’t Dutch. Why would they pretend to be Dutch? And why do they need a tent?
On the next call I was told to email the listing information to an address they provided to me. But looking over the email address I was rather stunned. It made very clear it was not for the Dutch, but rather was for the Libyan government.
Midway through the phone call I asked, “Who specifically will be residing in the townhouse?” There was a pause on the other end of the line. Then I was told the truth. This was for Muammar Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi, the leader of Libya.
I am probably somewhat unique among real estate agents in that my background is in policy and politics. When not selling apartments I can be found lecturing at John Jay College. Before getting into real estate, I obtained my masters degree from the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. While I’m content discussing Manhattan apartment prices, I’m just as happy to discuss US foreign policy.
The Libyans had called the wrong person. And now they were about to find out why.
“There must be someway we could get the entire townhouse,” the caller, a female with the Libyan government, said to me. I told them there was not. Ignoring my response, she continued. I refused to yield. One more time, defiantly, they pressed me.
And then I said it.
“If you send Megrahi (the terrorist convicted of planting the bomb on Pam Am flight 103) back to Scotland, perhaps we can work something out,” I told them. They hung up the phone.
And that was the end of it. Or so I thought.
The news media picked up on the story a few weeks later, and for a few dizzying days, I found myself doing interview after interview.
But once the media requests died down, I was left thinking about my experience. Thousands of people had emailed me to thank me for what I did. I realized that I had made an impact on people’s lives. It was the first time I thought that real estate brokerage could have a larger meaning and purpose.
I started to think about ways to make a difference. A few months later, my brother Cory and I were hard at work on a new project.
We decided we would create a new kind of real estate firm. One that would not only serve the clients but also work to make the world a better place.
We started to work on Rubicon Property and decided this would be a purposeful company. Cory and I wanted to dedicate the company to an issue that met three criteria:
1. It has to have universial political appeal.
2. It had to be a fixable problem.
3. The success in curing the problem needed to be measurable.
When you scan the many issues we could have chosen, one stood out: clean water. Each year 42,000 people die from lack of access to clean water. That’s means more die from lack of access to clean water than from HIV/AIDS, Malaria and war – combined. Connecting with charity: water was the easy part. This nonprofit is doing remarkable work in the developing world. They’ve brought clean water to over 1,000,000 without access to it. They are making a difference. So we decided that from each deal we broker we would donate a portion of our proceeds to this worthy organization. You can read about our latest campaign – or make a tax free donation to it here. We also hold events on the clean water crisis. On February 15th, we brought together over 100 people who heard a presentation by charity: water. You can see images from that event here.
Since our launch 5 months ago, we found out we aren’t the only ones who care about the clean water crisis. Turns out our clients do as well. That’s why we’ve grown 32x since our launch. We’ve moved our offices 4 times to keep up with our expansion. Our clients get the satisfaction of not only getting the best in customer service but they also get to make a difference in the world, all at no cost to them. It’s a powerful message, and one that makes our firm stand out among the cacophony of NYC brokerage firms.
We’ll continue to make a difference and to help our clients to the very best of our abilities.
Oddly, we have Qadaffi to thank for getting us started. Now, if only his people could have what we have – Qadaffi in our rear view mirror.
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