When Ron Cordes met his wife, Marty, in 1979, his college fraternity at the University of California, Berkeley, was raising money by selling flowers on campus to benefit a camp for underprivileged kids. Marty’s sorority was also helping to sell the flowers.
Thirty-five years later, the philanthropic duo, along with their 24-year-old daughter, Stephanie, are still working together to give back, but this time it’s primarily through their nonprofit family foundation, The Cordes Foundation. And the college campus has been replaced by a world stage.
As he explained in this recent story that appeared in The New York Times, “We’re not the Gates Foundation—several less zeros.”
Cordes, 55, started his foundation with $10 million of the proceeds he received from the sale of his firm in 2006 when he and his two partners sold their firm AssetMark Investment Services, to Genworth Financial for $230 million.
He has since become “a poster boy for this encore movement,” Marc Freedman, founder and chief executive of Encore.org, the nonprofit research center dedicated to second acts for the greater good, told him. “You’re right in the middle of it as a guide and inspiration to others.”
“I was suddenly a PIP, as Freedman calls us, said Cordes. “A previously important person.”
This week, Cordes and I sat down over a cup of coffee in the lobby of the Melrose Hotel in Washington, D.C. to discuss the impressive second act he’s weaving together at a time when he could be sitting back and reveling in his retirement and days of post-corporate leisure.
“Since my early 40s, I had an itch that there was something else out there that I could be accomplishing and a greater purpose out that I could be achieving than running a successful business,” he said. “The opportunity to sell the business gave me the resources so I could pursue that. I went from trying to build the best business in the world to building the best businesses for the world.”
In addition to his family foundation, in 2010, Cordes co-founded ImpactAssets, an independent nonprofit financial services donor-advised fund, with $150 million in assets, which connects deep-pocketed investors with social enterprise investments.
His co-founder was the Calvert Foundation. The fund is geared to social and environmental causes that allow investors to create a charitable account, and the fund handles the administration and management.
Highlights from my conversation with Cordes:
How confident were you that you were doing the right thing?
Cordes: When the business was sold, I hadn’t actually spent a lot of time planning what I was going to do next. I had a three-year contract after the business was sold, where I agreed to continue to run the business. It wasn’t as if on Friday, I sold the business, and, on Monday I had a new business card.
During those three years, I started the foundation and became increasingly involved in philanthropic efforts.
One early experience that I had in rural Uganda, in a village mostly inhabited by widows who had lost their husbands to a two-decade long civil war, was a real pivotal moment.
I had funded a small microfinance program there, and the women were now running successful small businesses and supporting their kids. One woman came up to me and said, ‘We appreciate it when you come to try to save our children, but we need to be able to save our own children. Thank you for investing in us so we can do that.’
That hit me hard. I started to think of ways I could tap my expertise as a financial manager to create similar opportunities on a greater scale.
I realized that was my passion. I recognized that I had figured out a path, and I knew what I wanted to do.
I like to quote Richard Leider (Leider is an executive coach and author of the new book Life Reimagined: Discovering Your New Life Possibilities):
“The two most important days in a person’s life. The day you are born. The day you discover the reason you were born.”
Is there anything you would have done differently?
Cordes: I’m glad that I had the three-year commitment to stay on at the company. I learned that a buffer period is important.
I realized, like other PIPS, that as a senior level executive and carrying an important business card when you leave, it all changes. You wake up and realize that 99 percent of the people who would have reached out to you the prior week were doing it because of the role that you had, or something that you had that they needed, or wanted to connect with you for.
I knew I needed to create a whole new set of connections and an identity.
How did you do that?
Cordes: I looked around and social entrepreneurship and impact investing were just getting some traction, so I decided that I was going to go to every conference and meeting that exists in this space. I would come home with a stack of business cards with little notes on the back.
Many of those people have become great friends. In the beginning, I was just going and attending, meeting people, and standing in the back of the rooms. Halfway through the year, I had started to make real connections. By the end of the year, I was speaking at the events.
My topic–the importance of impact investing and talking to your financial advisor about what your retirement is going to look like, and, if you want to get involved in this kind of giving back, and how to prepare for it.
How do you measure your success?
Cordes: It’s a lot harder than it is in a traditional business because success was pretty easily measured by the financial reward. Our business we judged based on the financial reports, so we knew every week, or month, how we were progressing toward our goals.
Here, the ultimate success is am I having an impact on the world, and is the foundation having an impact on things that are important to us? Marty and Stephanie, in particular are focused on issues related to empowering women and girls and social entrepreneurs. We want to inspire others to move in this direction.
What are some of the unexpected rewards?
Cordes: I have met the coolest people that I could ever imagine. I have made more life long deep friendships in the last five years than in the entire first 50 of my life. It’s that profound.
There are no longer any bad actors in my zone. My friends all share that common philosophy of the world. The objective is to make the world better in whatever way we’re doing it.
What books do you recommend for someone who is looking at a second act with social purpose?
Cordes: For me it started with a book called Halftime: Moving from Success to Significance by Bob P. Buford. It’s an analogy about envisioning your life as a football game. At half time, you realize what you’ve done in your first half and think about a new strategy for the second half.
Then I met Marc Freedman and read The Big Shift: Navigating the New Stage Beyond Midlife. I think I have read it about six times now. The first thing I do when I hear that a friend is retiring, is send them that book. It’s a great primer for just thinking about the second half of your life in a new way.
Finally, I love Marci Alboher’s new book The Encore Career Handbook: How to Make a Living and a Difference in the Second Half of Life because it’s kind of Part 2. You need something that propels you to want to move in that direction, and then Marci’s book is more of a how-to guide.
Cordes: Marty and I were completely aligned on on this journey together from the beginning all the way back to college. But this month, our daughter, Stephanie, joined us full-time working with the foundation and our related social enterprise investments.
Her passion and commitment to following the legacy of the work we have done is so energizing for all of us. It starts the next generation of leadership, and it’s brilliant.
That’s the real unexpected joy.
Follow me on Twitter, @KerryHannon I’m the author of Great Jobs for Everyone 50+: Finding Work That Keeps You Happy and Healthy … And Pays the Bills (John Wiley & Sons), available at www.kerryhannon.com.
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