27 Jan FINDING A CURE FOR CANCER: EXCLUSIVE Q & A WITH ENTREPRENEUR & CHAIRMAN OF THE BOARD, HOWARD JONAS
Name: Howard Jonas
Born: June 2, 1956 (64)
Family: Wife Debbie, nine children, and twenty four grandchildren (one on the way)
Currently Lives In: Riverdale, Bronx
Currently Davens at: Kingsway Center of Israel
Education: Bronx High School of Science and Harvard
Yeshivas: After college, one year at Yeshiva University, and Rabbi Leib Tropper’s Yeshiva Kol Yaakov in Monsey.
Current Title: I chair a number of public companies, including IDT, a telecommunications corporation, Genie Energy, a power and oil-related company and Rafael Pharma, a drug developer that is testing treatments targeting pancreatic cancer, Zedge, a ring-tone company and IDW Media Holdings, a publishing/entertainment business.
Book Publisher: Koren Publishers/Toby Press
Serial entrepreneur Howard Jonas has been creating successful enterprises since the age of fourteen, when he opened a hot dog stand near a local hospital. He went on to develop lucrative and prosperous businesses, the most successful being IDT, a multibillion-dollar telecommunications corporation that is publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange. Howard made a splash in 2000 by selling a stake in the Internet calling company Net2Phone to AT&T for more than $1 billion. In 2017, he sold Straight Path Communication to Verizon for $3.1 billion. His newly re-released edition of the 2006 book, In “I’m Not the Boss, I Just Work Here”, Howard Jonas shares his reflections – deeply personal and incredibly inspiring – about how faith and his relationship with G-d helped him and his family face their deepest fears and rise from life’s challenges. Last week, Ari Hirsch/Jewish Vues had the privilege to interview Howard.
Howard, you just recently re-released the edition of your 2006 book, “I’m Not the Boss: I Just Work Here.” What do you want readers to get out of this particular book?
Many people have approached me who are clinically depressed and I want to help them; I want them to be lifted up. AIso, religiously if somebody is having a problem with how G-d runs the universe, I want them to feel better about it after they read the book.
What’s the difference between this book and the original?
The introduction has been changed to reflect what’s happened from between now and then. When I wrote the book initially, I had a small depressive episode, but after that I suffered from a major bout of depression and that is reflected in the new introduction.
Do you think that people are overmedicated in this country?
Absolutely. We looked into buying a drug that is anti-suicidal and when we talked to the scientists about it, the drugs basically work the same. You will feel better for a little bit, but eventually it doesn’t work anymore and you become dependent on it. There’s a huge brain-body connection also. I would guess that if they would treat the underlying physical problem, it would cure the psychological issue, as well.
So what do you attribute your recovery to?
At some point, I hit bottom and I started to take better care of myself. I started running and I got rid of the medications. I don’t think psychiatry is always the answer.
You weren’t raised Orthodox? What intrigued you about Yiddishkeit?
I had a Bubby, one grandmother, who was religious; I think that had an effect on me. When I was a little boy, I’d spend almost every weekend on an overnight at Bubby’s. When I was seventeen or so, a Rabbi gave me a Chumash and I read it and I was blown away. The specific thing that blew me away was the Yovel year. I couldn’t imagine how all poor people could wait fifty years or that the rich people would agree to give up all their farmland; I just didn’t think that this was something that could be written by people.
What was your first job?
I worked at a hotdog stand. I had little jobs at the Bronx Zoo and I also worked at a butcher shop, but my first real “business” was selling hotdogs. You clearly have been very successful in many of your business endeavors over the years.
What is one example of something that drives you?
(Laughs) I don’t know, fear of failure? Each one of them has a purpose, I believe. I think it’s critical to give people jobs or to let people communicate. I always think what we’re doing is very important; it’s helping somebody.
How did you handle all of your business endeavors and raise a large family consisting of nine children?
I always felt like the kids came first. I always took them away on a trip by themselves. My secretary would schedule the trips and at some point, I was going on a lot of business trips but I wasn’t going on trips with the kids so I asked my secretary why and she said, “Well things come up.” I said to her, “You should know that the kids always come first. We could always reschedule to see a person another week, but the kids are only going to be this young once.” So it wasn’t even a challenge. Also, I don’t know where I’d be without my wife, Debbie, who’s been at my side over all these years. She used to help out in the office. Then, when we had our first baby, she brought the baby to play. By the time we had four kids, though, she needed to be home with them all the time. I suffered from depression, but Debbie got me through it. It happened twice in my life, and it was like she had another kid to take care of. She’d be strong with me, which was what saved me — she’s the one who convinced me to cross the bridge without jumping off.
Let’s speak about IDT for a little while. I read that it is estimated that 25%-40% of the 5,000 employees at IDT are Orthodox. Is that true and if so, why is that?
Yes, we have a very large percentage of Orthodox employees and we also have a very large percentage of Hispanic employees. That is because one of the main markets that we serve is the Latino market. We all get along very well.
Do you specifically want the Orthodox employees or did it just work out that way?
Well, I hire people that I know and most of them are Orthodox. We let them out early for Shabbos and we have a Yeshiva in the building and kosher food and so it’s just a very accommodating place. You don’t have to worry that people aren’t going to give you a fair chance because you’re religious.
Can you discuss a little bit about the Yeshiva on IDT campus?
We have about twenty guys; I wish we can have more. We give them a secular education; they get a college degree and they learn when they’re there. Now we’re trying to buy a training school, and we’re hoping that everybody will be trained in all sorts of things having to do things like air conditioning (HVAC). It’ll be a two year training program and hopefully at the end of it they’ll be able to get a good job. There are a lot of Yeshivas now that are offering a college education, but there are a lot of people out there who aren’t cut out for college.
In May 2017, you agreed to sell one of your companies, “Straight Path Communications,” a long-struggling wireless venture, to Verizon Communications Inc. for $3.1 billion. What does it feel like to sell a business for $3.1 billion dollars?
It feels good! It gives you a little bit of cushion. I took a reasonable share of the money and put it into this pharma company and it would’ve been hard to do that if we didn’t have this payout.
Rafael Pharma, is a drug developer that you chair that is testing treatments targeting pancreatic cancer. Where do you stand with finding the cure for pancreatic cancer?
I think we’re on the precipice. I believe the drug will work for a lot of people. We have a lot of complete remissions where it completely goes away. We think we have a pathway to make sure that happens more of the time. We have a good handle of what’s going on and we’re trying to improve it.
Can this help with other types of cancers?
We’ve had a lot of success with many of the other cancers, but we don’t know and haven’t tried with the bigger cancers yet.
What’s the time frame?
We are planning on bringing it to the FDA. We have over 500 people in this randomized test so it’s about how much time we need until the people in the control group die and we can show overall survival. It’s really up to the statisticians but I think it’ll be a little past the midpoint of the year. It will be huge.
Where do you think telecommunications is headed as far a business goes?
It’s all going mobile and into the cloud. I mean, obviously Corona has pushed that to happen faster. One of our fastest growing businesses is Net- 2Phone where we allow people to run their pvx without having to be in the office. They could all be on their cellphones and stuff and do all the same stuff when the office is closed. That business is growing like crazy!
What do you think is going to be the next big splash in telecommunications?
The “next big splash…” It’s hard to imagine what hasn’t been done; it’s just going to be faster and better. Everyone has picture phones, everyone has teleconferencing, everybody can reach around the world. I don’t think people will actually be transported from one place to another because we’re going to have to travel. Maybe bodycams…I mean every person is already carrying around a phone. I just think it’s going to be faster, better, cheaper; I don’t think we’ll be cooking food over the phone.
What’s your take on bitcoin?
It’s a speculation, it’ll probably go further and it’ll probably crash a couple of times. People put aside a small amount and hold it and sell it when it’s down; they’ll probably make a lot of money on it. Currency is really divided. Every time they lend another trillion dollars they’re never going to pay back it makes the dollar worth that much less.
What’s next? What does Howard Jonas want to do that he hasn’t yet done?
I really want to build up the pharma company, I want it to be here and in Israel and if I could cure 20% of cancer that would be a good goal. That’s what I’d like to do.
1) If you can have 3 dinner guests for your Friday night Shabbos meal, anyone from the beginning of time, who would you invite?
Moshe or Yosef, Menachem Begin, and Winston Churchill
2) Name someone alive that you would tell your children is a role model.
Steve Boyarsky who does the advocacy for the Jewish prisoners.
3) What is your favorite mitzvah בין†אדם†לחברו?
Giving people jobs.
4) One middah you think all of Klal Yisrael needs to work on:
To learn how to vote more sensibly.
5) Name someone alive that you never met that has influenced or impacted your life.
Some of these unsung heroes that won the wars for Israel. Like the Golani brigade.
6) What is the best compliment you ever received?
“I want to be a father, just like you.”
7) If you could be a fly on the wall at any point in history, when would it be?
When Menachem Begin had to make the decision not to attack Ben Gurion. I would need another little fly to translate, but I think that would have been an interesting thing.
8) What Mitzva gets you in a good mood?
Is it a mitzvah to play with your kids? otherwise I’d say Tzedakah.
9) Outside of your parents, name someone dead or alive that you would tell your children is a role model.
I don’t believe that much in role models. I believe that you need to be the role model for your kids.