At 42, I had achieved my American Dream: financial independence, exciting job, healthy family, good friends, golf memberships at 4 magnificent private clubs, and a couple wonderful homes in sunny California. So it came as shock to me when a close friend spoke in the softest and most caring voice – “Your life has no purpose, you have no peace, and everything is all about you”. In an instance, like a light going on in a dark room, thoughts that had never occurred to me, were suddenly as clear as day. A year later, in 2002, I stepped down from my position as a Managing Partner at Delphi Ventures, a Silicon Valley venture capital fund. I had no plan – just a yearning to find peace, purpose and be the best Dad I could be.
My Romanian journey began at a Saturday evening dinner party in a San Francisco restaurant. There were no Romanians at the event, but I heard a story that captured my intrigue. It involved a Romanian prison guard that was dying of kidney cancer and made the effort to locate and apologize to a pastor that he had repeatedly beaten in jail 15 years earlier. The storyteller’s connection to Romania was Corina Caba, a young Romanian with an orphanage in Oradea.
In December 2003, three months after hearing the story, I made the first of my 52 transatlantic flights to Romania. Prior to my first trip, I sent money to Corina’s orphanage and read a couple short stories on the 1989 revolution. Beyond my charity, was the old “it’s all about me” selfish desire to recreate the evil images of Communism inculcated in my Cold War childhood. I did not want to hear about the present or the future, I wanted to be entertained by Romania’s wretched past. I visited a state orphanage, heard firsthand accounts of pastors being beaten on unlit streets, and met a man whose leg was blown off during the revolution in Timisoara. When Romanians said things are much better now, I quickly asked if there was any place where things had not gotten better since Communism. They said ‘yes’, go to the villages.
On December 31, 2003 I spent my first day in a Romanian village. What I found was exactly the opposite of Communism. Independent, self sufficient people that knew how to take care of themselves and provide for one another. Nature had provided the villagers everything they needed to live. I felt an overwhelming sense of peace observing the simple routines of this life. In the months after I returned back to the USA, my persistent memory of Romania was of the natural beauty, people, and smells of the villages. There is a saying in Romanian that “wisdom begins in the village.” It seems every Romanian has a village they call home to escape the chaos and grab hold of simple truths. I felt the same desire.
I spent most of my first visit with Corina Caba. She had worked in England and America for a year to save enough money to start her own orphanage in Oradea. Over the past eight years, she had cared for over 300 children, a dozen prostitutes, and adopted 4 children of her own. Never married, she worked from 6 am to 11pm, and in winter stepped outside into the cold at 3 AM to place wood into the furnaces that heated her orphanage. As our friendship grew over the years, I observed that we had read many of the same books and shared many common spiritual beliefs. The difference is that Corina had the courage to live by her faith while I was mired in hypocrisy.
Upon returning to California after my first trip, I emailed Corina a quote (from Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy) that described Romania; “Romania is like a foolish person who has inherited a great fortune and wasted it in vulgar nonsense. You know the story we tell about ourselves: that God, when He had given gifts to the nations, found He had given to Romania everything – forests, rivers, mountains, minerals, oil, and a fertile soil that yielded many crops. ‘Hah,’ said God, ‘This is too much,’ and so, to strike a balance, he put here the worst people he could find”. A couple years later I told Corina that Romanians are the most hospitable, friendly, entrepreneurial, and resilient people I have ever met. Corina quietly replied “It hurt me when you emailed that quote after your first trip. Romanians are very good people who have survived very hard times. I am glad you discovered this on your own.” I was humbled by her patience and my ignorance.
In 2004, I met Florian Balota for the first time. He was the 50 year old father of Lavinia Dreana, one of my partners in the Targu Jui medical clinic and school. Recently laid off after 30 years at the local Dacia factory, Florian travelled from Oradea to Targu Jui to renovate our school and build an artificial turf soccer field. He slept outside on the soccer field to make sure no own stole the supplies during construction. He had the amazing ability to make people feel important by his smile and attentive eyes. He reminded me of the character in Brothers Karamosov that “walked quietly, with a gentle smile and eyes of infinite compassion.” We spent many evenings together sharing our lives, while his daughter translated. Florian actually hired a professor to teach him English so we could talk alone. In 2005, he was diagnosed with a tumor in his bladder. Despite repeated biopsies and blood tests, he was told he did not need chemotherapy and that his cancer had been cured. As I hugged him good-bye after a visit in July 2006, he threw his arms around me like as if his life was in my hands. He knew his medical condition was much worse than the doctors in Cluj were telling him.
I flew Florian to Vanderbilt hospital in Nashville to get an accurate diagnosis. The news was very bad – he had metastatic bladder cancer which had been untreated for years. He stayed in Nashville for four months of aggressive chemotherapy. On the days I would drive to visit him, he would stand by the window for hours waiting to greet me. The first English words I ever heard from him were “I love you, Don”. Florian returned to Romania in January 2007 and told me this as he was dying in his bed. “The 4 months in Nashville were the best of my life. The doctors and nurses treated me like a king. I felt like a real human. It was the first time I truly felt God’s love for me.” Florian lit a fire within me that grows stronger every year.
Well over a hundred Americans, mostly business leaders and their families have joined me in Romania since my first trip in 2003. Together we have built a medical clinic, school, church, parks and soccer fields. We support orphanages and foster care programs. We have started many businesses and bought over $10m of land – all directly from peasants. Our most significant project is still in front of us. We have also experienced trials: a terrorism incident on my first flight home, corrupt government officials accusing us in newspapers of supporting orphanages so we can export kidneys to America, death threats from illegal loggers, and emergency medical surgery in a state hospital.
We have been guided by one simple principle – “Obey the law”. As Romanian’s know, this principle is not so easy. It is this principle that has drawn us so deeply into the real Romania. It is hard to figure out what the laws are, let alone find people to follow them and enforce them. It requires empathy and understanding to learn how a culture of “good” people has evolved so that laws seem so irrelevant. It requires Americans to learn that most world citizens associate “rule of law” with exploitation and manipulation, not the principles of individual rights or greater good. It requires that we live in each others’ homes, not hotels, so we get a sense for the daily struggles and joys in our respective cultures. Above all, it requires that love always supersedes judgment. All of this and more has transpired for me in Romania.
After my first 20 trips to Romania, I stopped trying to explain the experiences of being so deeply drawn into another culture. Rather, I began to write down thoughts in a Black n’ Red notebook that is now over an inch thick. This notebook is a compilation of the things Romania has taught me. It reminds me that whatever I give to Romania, it is far less than Romanians have given me.
Romania continues to inspire me, teach me how to love, reveal unique purposes for my life, and is the fertile soil for a faith that continues to transform me
From 2004 – 2007, I met a number of young Romanians that came home from Western Europe and America. It is an enormously hard struggle. They had tasted the comfort of stable, law-abiding economies and were thrust back into a “system that was rotten to the core”. Yet, they were determined to start innovative, honest, tax-paying businesses. They were too young to carry favor with politicians, had no friends to mentor them in business, and relied on the internet for training. New businesses have high failure rates in the best economies — the risks were 10 times as high in a country where government officials harass you for bribes, your competition doesn’t pay taxes, and the economy is burdened with high interest rates and limited capital.
Yet these young Romanians had something I never had – a purpose, a real true north. They came home to bring quality to a country they loved and to demonstrate an alternative to a system they hated. In 2005, I shipped a mammography machine from San Francisco to our private medical clinic in Targi Jui. Despite the desperate medical need, it took 19 months to get the unit permitted – all because my Romanian partners refused to pay bribes that many government officials were demanding. They were not doing this to impress me, they did it because they hated the old system and believed change started with them. I was inspired, not disappointed.
I recognized that these young Romanians had accomplished more at 30 than I had in my entire life. They motivated me. There is a line in the Bible that says “Why do you boast. What do you have that you have not been given?” Being in Romania helped me see what I had been given. If Americans of the Depression and World War 2 era were our Greatest Generation, then I was a child of our most Spoiled Generation. I was born into a world where my country had the only economy left standing after the war. I never had to serve in the military. The stock market grew by a multiple of twenty from the time I graduated college until I was able to retire at 42. I had loving parents, the best schools, a choice of jobs, and many mentors. I had not earned any of these things, they were part of the world I was born into.
It was humbling to see Romanians born into a much more challenging world than me, living with so much more purpose. I was inspired by their challenges. It was an opportunity to finally be a giver of the gifts I had been given.
There is much to love about Romania’s remarkable natural beauty. I love the rolling green hills sprinkled with round haystacks throughout Transylvania. The peace I felt on my first visit to a Romanian village always returns as I drive through the countryside and slowly pass through the villages.
I love the timeless wisdom that governs village life. I will never forget asking a peasant how the financial crisis was affecting her. She smiled brightly, grabbed my arm and led me outdoors to her pantry filled with potatoes, apples, meat, and canned vegetables. Glowing with pride she said, “There is no crisis in my pantry”. At that moment my Harvard MBA seemed useless. I had none of the skills this woman had to provide for herself.
Above all, I was in love with the Romanian people as they ventured into the unknown of yet another form of government. The setbacks vastly outnumbered the successes, but yet they managed to smile and persevere. I look at the transition from Communism to a Market-based Democracy like the birth of a butterfly. In the early stage of development, the butterfly looks nothing at all like a colorful, graceful creature that flies effortlessly. In fact, it starts out as an ugly, long, hairy creature with many legs and no ability to fly. Politically and economically, Romania still feels like a caterpillar that no one likes. Very few people have a vision for what the butterfly might look like.
To help create that vision I took five Bihor County government leaders to Transylvania County, North Carolina to see firsthand the potential for mountain tourism in Romania. At a reception hosted by community leaders in Brevard, North Carolina, I was asked to say a few words after each of the Romanians had introduced themselves. Unexpectedly, tears poured down my cheeks as I told the American audience that the stereotypes of “Dracula, Gypsies, and Communists” are all lies. I described Romanian’s as the most entrepreneurial people in Europe (there were less than 1000 members of the Romanian Communist party in 1948) and predicted that when government policy empowers this entrepreneurship, instead of crushing it, we would one day read about “The surprising rise of the Romanian nation.” Before I could finish wiping the tears from my face, the Bihor Prefect stood before me pounding his heart saying “I can tell you love my country.”
The Prefect was right. I no longer thought about Romania as a history project. I felt the pain and humiliation of the ugly stereotypes that face Romanians every time they leave the country. I felt the trauma that every Romanian family had endured over the past 60 years. Their struggles were now my struggles. Their dreams were now my dreams. I was fully alive.
In the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Ephesians he says “May the eyes of your heart be enlightened to the hope God has in store for you.” In my search for peace, I recognized that in my work life, I was always led by my pragmatic brain, rather than my heart. I was beginning to experience joy by applying my energy and intellect to a cause I was in love with.
In 2006, as Romania was approaching EU membership, Romanians kept presenting business opportunities to me. Up to this point, all my focus was on charitable work. The nice thing about charity is that you can walk away from it at anytime – there really is no long-term commitment. In business, you stay committed until you realize a good return on your investment – which usually takes a long time. I wasn’t ready to make an unconditional time commitment to Romania …. until I wandered into a Sunday lamb roast in an apple orchard outside the Transylvanian village of Trestia. An American buddy and I spent a marvelous afternoon enjoying the scenery, smells, smiles, homemade food, tuica, and conversation with local villagers. As we left, we thanked the group of 30 villagers and told them we love them. Quickly, an elderly woman murmured, “We will know you love us if you come back”.
Those words “We will know you love us if you come back” are as fresh today as five years ago. Because they are true. Real love perseveres, it doesn’t quit. Romania didn’t need anyone else to quit on it. I recognized my Romanian friends needed the support of partners that would never quit. So I followed my heart and began to invest my money in Romania.
A friend once advised me to “Focus on things that won’t get done unless you do them”. Romania had many people that could build apartments better than me. With money now in my Romanian investment fund, I had to find opportunities that were uniquely suited for me. I wanted to build something that Romanian’s would be proud of and be the best in Europe. What I had not expected is that my work in Romania would fit perfectly into all idiosyncrasies of my life’s experience.
I grew up in Frankfurt in the 1970’s. I remember an ugly city, filled with Army barracks, and crowds of old widowed women. Today, Frankfurt looks completely different. The same applies to Italy. In the 1970’s, I remember bad roads, garbage, and stray cats. Today it is one of the most beautiful places in the world. Recovering from a disaster, takes more than generation. I am stunned by the progress in Romania since I arrived in 2003 – it is tremendous. I also understand the recovery from Communism, much like World War 2, is measured in decades, not years. I have always been able to look beyond the short term struggles and see Romania in 2020 and beyond.
Winston Churchill said, “The further backward you look into history, the further forward you can see”. I never imagined the hundreds of history books in my library would ever have any use —- until I starting investing in Romania. Almost every challenge Romania is facing, America has also faced. America had to rely on loans from foreign governments, fought a Civil War to define it’s democracy, had politicians involved in massive corruption as we built infrastructure projects like the Transcontinental Railroad, scandals on New York Stock Exchange because companies were not transparent, and struggled to break up the monopolies owned by Oligarchs. Interestingly, John Rockefeller’s wealth doubled in the two years after Anti-Trust laws broke up his monopoly.
Self-interest and corruption is not unique to Romania, it is a basic human condition. It did not surprise me to learn that many Romanians are hospitalized without serious illness because physicians are paid by hospitals to admit patients. This was common practice in the US until the Stark self-referral law was implemented in 1992. Romanian’s seem shocked to learn that America has experienced the same forms of widespread corruption. For 240 years America has been constantly adapting it’s systems of capitalism to strike a balance between human nature, economic growth and social stability. While each country has unique challenges, there are even more common solutions.
In Romania, our investing is about much more than money. We want our investments to be a model for businesses that compete on innovative solutions, low cost and better customer service. We want to participate in thoughtful democratic dialogue and market-based capitalism, not insider deals with political party leadership that robs the state of resources for development and social welfare. We want to demonstrate a model that brings Romanian’s home, not lined up in the streets or leaving the country.
The Hope House orphanage in Oradea has a couple of small guest rooms in the basement that offer a quiet night of sleep and the chance to meet other travelers. In 2007, I met Maria, a beautiful elderly woman from Bistrita that owned nothing but a guitar and a single suitcase of belongings. She invited me to join her as she sang some Psalms. She encouraged me to reflect on the words of Psalms 127 to 134. The words “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builder’s labor in vain” stuck like glue. Despite having accomplished all my career goals, I wondered if I had done nothing of lasting value. I began to ask Christ to show me the houses He is building, so I can join His work. He showed me a new Romania. I sensed the winds of change bringing freedom, prosperity, and security to Romania over the next 20 years. God did not need my help, but offered me the joy of being part of His work. This was a freedom I had never known.
Americans suffer from the disease of thinking we control things that we do not. The systems in America are so predictable and transparent, we are led to believe the only thing keeping us from prosperity, peace and happiness is our own intellect and work ethic. Our banks, schools, courts, laws, and public information create a very reliable system for business. For years, I lived with the illusion that I was the master of my own destiny. In reality, the most satisfying things in my life I never planned and the things I planned never turned out too satisfying. For most Americans the struggle for existence is so remote, our faith is handicapped by an arms-length relationship with our Creator. We’ll shake His hand, but not receive His hug.
In Romania, there are no illusions of control and the struggles are mountainous. Romania does not shape geopolitical events, it has been pillaged by them. It is impossible to rely on the system and good public information. Yet, I have seen Romanians move mountains with their faith. They taught me that “faith that does not cost us much, is not much faith at all”. Over the past 8 years, slowly, following the path of some extraordinary Romanians, I have released control over my own life from selfish ambitions and placed it in the hands of Christ the Lord. My time and money are His. I have found relief in searching out God’s will as opposed to frantically fulfilling my plans. The Proverbs state, “Many are the plans of a man’s heart, but it is the Lord’s will that shall prevail”. Tolstoy came to the same conclusion in the last paragraph of War and Peace. “Just as in Copernicus discovery, the difficulty in recognizing the earth’s motion lay in our reluctance to abandon the immediate, human sensation of the earth’s fixation. So it is in our spiritual life, where we must renounce a freedom that does not exist and recognize a dependence on God of which we are not conscious.”
Faith is not a passive lifestyle. It just focuses on the means of how we live, more than the end. Looking to serve other people, rather than to be served. Listening more, talking less. Focusing on what is good, rather than complaining about what is wrong. Being thankful for what we have, rather than wanting more. Finding your identity in Christ, not in another person’s eyes.
I picked up the Bible for the first time in my life at 42. For years I prayed for peace and a vision that I could fall in love with. Never in my wildest imagination could I have imagined my prayer would be answered in a place so far from home – Romania.
I am grateful to every Romanian that has allowed me to be a small part of this magnificent country.
This is our time.
Sunt mindru ca sunt Roman !