Jonathan Greenblatt, Anti-Defamation League (ADL) CEO and National Director in Washington, D.C., on Sunday, May 6, 2018.
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Behind the Desk

ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt on ending hate: You have to 'change hearts and minds'


This story is part of the Behind the Desk series, where CNBC Make It gets personal with successful business executives to find out everything from how they got to where they are to what makes them get out of bed in the morning to their daily routines.

At 50, Jonathan Greenblatt has been an entrepreneur, worked as a corporate executive for Starbucks and and served twice in the White House.

But nothing has been more rewarding than the job he does now, he says. "We're helping victims of hate crimes," Greenblatt tells CNBC Make It.

Greenblatt is the CEO and National Director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the oldest anti-hate non-profit organization in the world and one of the longest-standing civil rights groups in the U.S.

Before taking the helm at ADL in 2015, Greenblatt served two stints at the White House as director of social innovation under President Obama and as an aide to President Clinton. He also co-founded Ethos Brands, a premium bottled water business that helps children around the world access clean water.

In 2005, when Ethos was acquired by Starbucks Coffee, Greenblatt was appointed VP of global consumer products at the company.

But Greenblatt left Starbucks after a year to continue his mission to change the world.

"One of the great things about being at ADL is everyone is mission-driven. Nobody joins the nonprofit sector because they are looking to make a buck," he says.

Greenblatt says over the last four years in the U.S., hate crimes have skyrocketed. Right now, the ADL is dealing with the recent surge of anti-Asian hate crimes, he says.

In a recent report released by ADL's Center on Extremism (COE), white supremacist propaganda, which includes racist, antisemitic and anti-LGBTQ fliers, have almost doubled from last year, averaging more than 14 incidents per day in 2020.

"You can't legislate or you can't arrest people to fight hate, you have to change hearts and minds. So we have found at ADL, the best way to stop the hate is education," Greenblatt says.

ADL teaches its anti-bias education in schools and law enforcement training programs throughout the country. Greenblatt says his passion for helping others came from his grandfather, who was a Holocaust survivor.

"Staying close to your roots is really important for your long-term success," he says.

Here, Greenblatt talks to CNBC Make It about his finding his passion thanks to his grandfather, what Starbucks' Howard Schultz taught him and ending hate.

On his Holocaust survivor grandfather: He 'lived through the worst of the worst' and still had 'hope'

I grew up in Trumbull, Connecticut, which is sort of a nice little town. It's about 90 minutes outside of New York City. I was the first in my family to graduate from college. I went to Tufts University and lived a kind of a very middle class life. My dad was a salesman and my mom was a secretary.

The one thing that was very formative for me was my grandfather was a Holocaust survivor from Germany. He lost almost all of his family to the Holocaust. He came to this country with nothing, no language, no money, no contacts and kind of carved out a middle class life in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

His experience of having lived through the worst of the worst and yet having hope really formed my point of view.

On finding his passion: 'A real validating moment for me that I could change the world'

When I was a little kid, my grandfather took me to this movement to free the Jews in the Soviet Union.

When there was a Soviet Union, they were very repressive to Jewish people. They wouldn't let them practice their religion. They wouldn't let them work in many jobs. And they wouldn't let them leave the country. So there was this movement to free the Soviet Jews and my grandfather took me to the marches.

Then something happened, which was [the Jewish people] were actually freed. Even before the Soviet Union fell, they started to let them [emigrate].

It left an impression on me. We wanted to change the world and we did. Being a part of that stayed with me my entire life. If you were to ask me about my personal philosophy about changing the world, in part, it came from that experience.

The other thing that happened to me when I was in college during my senior year, I volunteered for the Clinton for President campaign. Most people didn't think he was going to win the nomination.

I was a work study student and I worked in the dining halls to pay for school. Bill Clinton had this idea of young people serving their communities after college to pay their student loans, and I was like that's a much better deal than I have now mopping the floors and working a dishwasher.

So I started volunteering and then one thing led to another. When I graduated from Tufts, I moved down to Arkansas and I worked for [then] Governor Clinton at the campaign headquarters in Little Rock, [Arkansas]. Then, wouldn't you know it, he actually got the [presidential] nomination and we won.

That was a real validating moment for me that I could change the world.

Those two experiences left an indelible imprint on me and it's been my true north since.

On mistakes: 'Sometimes I rolled into organizations like a tornado'

I think sometimes I rolled into organizations like a tornado. Early in my career, I was so excited to bring about positive changes on day one that I quickly instituted the ideas I believed would be best.

But over time, I have really come to appreciate that leadership is not about your product or service. It's actually about supporting your people. Some of this I learned from [former Starbucks CEO] Howard Schultz. He was in many ways a mentor and a role model.

Howard believes in the ethos of servant leadership, [a leadership philosophy that focuses on individuals' "growth and well-being," according to, rather than power]. I've learned the hard way when you don't employ that, you often lose in the long run.

So I try to emulate that model of servant leadership and that was something that I really appreciate today that I didn't necessarily understand when I started.

On his routine: 'Meditation helps me center myself'

I do meditate. I just turned 50 last year and it's one of those moments where you kind of stop and pause and start to reflect. I found that meditation really helps me center myself and bring some degree of equilibrium.

At ADL, we deal with the hardest issues. We're dealing with extremism and hate. In the last four years in this country, hate crimes have skyrocketed. Right now, we're dealing with the surge of anti-Asian hate crimes. We track all the kind of worst elements like white supremacists and the armed militia groups who stormed the Capitol.

We deal with this stuff every day. So it can be very disturbing and very upsetting. I found that on a daily basis as far as my routine, meditation really helps. It calms you, it centers you and it gives you a kind of focus.

On how the best way to stop hate crimes: 'Humanize other people'

I believe that the best way to fight hate is to humanize other people.

Education is an excellent antidote to that kind of ignorance. Oftentimes prejudice is the product of ignorance. People who don't understand that we actually have more in common than the things that keep us apart. Whether it's harassment, vandalism or violence, it's often rooted in ignorance about other people and where they're from or how they pray or who they love.

The more we can do to break down barriers to help see other people as human beings, first and foremost, it makes a huge difference.

The strategy that I've used and it's a learned didn't come to me naturally... is reaching out. We try very hard to reach out to people, even those with whom we disagree.

I do believe that dialog is literally the most effective approach to overcoming ignorance. It requires you to take a risk. It requires you to be open about the person you don't agree with or maybe didn't understand.

It can be humbling at times. It can be a little bit scary. But I have learned at ADL, to reach out to people with whom I may have vehement disagreements and try to see if we can find some common ground.

Jonathan Greenblatt, ADL CEO and National Director, at the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) National Leadership Summit in Washington, DC.
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On ADL: 'Preceding heads of ADL marched with Dr. King in Selma in the 1960s'

At ADL, we're 100-plus years old, and I often will remark how proud I am to be at this organization that literally fought for racial equality.

It all started fighting for racial equality in the 1940s. ADL started fighting for immigration reform in the 1950s. Preceding heads of ADL marched with Dr. King in Selma in the 1960s.

ADL is really not just an organization, it's an institution. It's sort of part of America's civic fabric. You get to own the highs and the victories but you also have to acknowledge the misses and the missteps.

At ADL, we do three things. We do advocacy. We try to change laws in the courts or Congress. We try to enforce norms in the court of public opinion around protecting minorities and pushing back against hate.

Secondly, we work with law enforcement. We track anti-Semitic incidents and hate crimes. We investigate extremists. We have a whole research unit that literally investigates the bad guys.

Then we educate law enforcement. We educate about 15,000 officers every year. We teach more law enforcement officials than any other group in the United States on extremism and hate.

On his best advice: 'It's never too late to take risks'

I've been willing to take risks. Not necessarily the ones that would generate the most financial ROI [return on investment] but would drive the most impact.

It's never too late to take risks.

In many ways, entrepreneurship is actually about mitigating risk. It's not about jumping into a lake and you don't know how deep it is. It's about being smart about the risks that you take — but it ultimately involves some degree of risk.

I think the most exciting and energizing opportunities avail themselves only when you're willing to take some degree of risk.

I would encourage people to get out of their comfort zones. Also, don't get too caught up in yourself. It doesn't matter if your a CEO or your the president or this or that. Ultimately, everybody is just a person.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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