Brent Martini, GABELLI ’86, has no shortage of stories to tell.
And these days, Martini, the Gabelli School of Business’ executive-in-residence, shares them every five weeks with students at the Social Innovation Collaboratory’s Lincoln Center and Rose Hill offices.
The meetings aren’t always easy to arrange, as he flies in from California for them. But Martini, who made a $1 million gift last year to the Collaboratory, said the trek is well worth the time.
“Students here are great listeners. They want to hear from people who’ve run big companies and done startups,” he said during a visit in December.
“I love to share knowledge because really, that’s how I did what I did. I asked a lot of questions, and I had a lot of great mentors.”
Martini has a deep well of experience to tap into, as his business career has been long and varied. In 1998, he succeeded his father as president of Bergen Brunswig Corporation, a pharmaceutical distribution company that his grandfather Emil Martini founded in 1947.
Learning From Mistakes
When Bergen Brunswig merged with Amerisource Health Corporation in 2001, the company was worth $2.5 billion. Martini said he was proud to have overseen a successful merger (last year AmerisourceBergen, as the new company is known, employed 20,000 people), even though he only stayed on with the new company for about a year.
“We ran the business from the bottom up. We really believed that empowering associates closest to the work was the smartest thing we could do as leaders.,” he said.
After he left AmerisourceBergen in 2003, Martini raced cars for a few years. But the 2008 housing crisis inspired him to throw his hat back into the ring with TAAC, LLC (Troubled Asset Acquisitions Company), which he co-founded in 2009, and COVE Financial Group, which he founded in 2011. The firms acquired foreclosed homes in California and helped homeowners secure credit to buy them. Neither ultimately survived, but Martini said students can learn from their demise.
“I love to talk about the mistakes we made that we thought were great ideas at the time,” said Martini, who is now a private investor and the president of Martini Vintage, LLC, which restores vintage cars.
Social Innovation: A Reset Button
“I also get to see what students are up to, and that gives me some insight as an angel investor. I don’t need to run these companies, and I don’t need to make a zillion dollars. I want these students to be empowered to do things because I’m pretty sure they’re on the right track for pushing the reset button for business.”
Martini credits his interest in hitting the “reset button” for social innovation in business to his Fordham mentor, Gabelli School professor James A.F. Stoner, Ph.D., who introduced him to the concept of an Ashoka Changemaker Campus.When Fordham earned the designation in 2014, it joined 25 other universities and colleges around the nation dedicated to change through social innovation.
It’s led Martini to support student efforts like those of Gabelli senior Olivia Greenspan, the co-founder of TILL, a community-based real estate development company that aims to transform the old brownfield sites into viable properties.
During Martini’s visit in December, a team of students working under the auspices of the collaboratory was discussing ideas on how to promote financial literacy to Bronx residents. Max Lynch, a senior majoring in finance at the Gabelli School, said he had a savings account opened for him when he was in the first grade, so it was something he took for granted.
“In my junior year, I learned that there were people who didn’t even have access to bank accounts. Building savings since I was so young has helped me, and I’d like that for other people as well,” Lynch said.
Lynch credits the Social Innovation Collaboratory with convincing him that upon graduation, he will eschew a traditional Wall Street career.
“I want to do something that will have an impact on the world… I think I’m going to find my way into my own thing,” he said.
“Brent has allowed me to realize that that’s feasible.”
For Arlinda Berdynaj, GABELLI ’18, who was recently hired as the collaboratory’s innovation project manager, financial literacy resonates deeply. Her parents sometimes relied on pawn shops to get by when she was growing up in the Bronx neighborhood of Norwood; she said she wants to help others avoid that kind of situation.
Martini’s contributions have made it possible for the collaboratory to send Berdynaj to two conferences: Opportunity Collaboration Global, a summit focused on global poverty and injustice, and Social Capital Markets, which brings together impact investors, social entrepreneurs, and organizations aiming to create global change.
“Those were incredible opportunities, given that I just graduated and I’m looking to get into the field. I got to meet tons of people, I felt really inspired, and I still keep those connections,” she said.
Martini sees himself as the Social Innovation Collaboratory’s biggest cheerleader. In addition to meeting with students, he meets with the deans of Fordham’s other colleges to see how the collaboratory can support them. He’s also in regular contact with Z. George Hong, Ph.D., who, as Fordham’s chief research officer, is supervising the collaboratory’s dispersal of $100,000 for faculty-driven research.
Listening and Changing Together
But it’s the students who fire Martini up most, and he said he’s learned as much from them as he thinks they’ve learned from him. In fact, a conversation with three female students last spring led Martini to experience a profound change of opinion of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“My natural reaction was, they all matter. Why is it that black lives matter? I resisted,” he said.
To get him to understand, the young women told him a story about a man and a woman who worked for the same company, were the same age, and lived in similar neighborhoods. One had a white daughter, the other had a black daughter. When the black woman asked the white man whether he ever thought about his daughter when she left for school, he said he thought about what she might be learning, but otherwise he didn’t give her much thought. But the black woman experienced things differently.
“She said, ‘I don’t rest easy in my mind again, all day long, until my daughter comes back in the door, because I just don’t know that she’s coming back in the door,’” Martini recalled.
“And in that moment here, I had tears in my eyes. These kids changed how I related to that world.
“I said to them, ‘Thank you, I get it. I’ll never be the same.’ Those kids wrote me the next day, and they said, ‘You know what inspires us? When we see a 50-plus-year-old successful man listen to us and change.’”
Top photo by Michael Dames: Gabelli School of Business students Domenico Pietromonaco and Rosie McCormack chat with Brent Martini at the Social Innovation Collaboratory’s Rose Hill campus office.