Carl Icahn ’57: Wall Street guru
Icahn, who now has a net worth of $14.8 billion, is 21st on Forbes’ list of wealthiest Americans. He founded his own firm only 11 years after graduating from the University and went on to become a giant in American finance.
Throughout his time at Princeton and his career on Wall Street, Icahn has been somewhat of an outsider. Born in Brooklyn, Icahn was raised in Far Rockaway, Queens, by his father, a cantor, and his mother, a schoolteacher. After attending Far Rockaway High School, Icahn came to Princeton as a philosophy major, though his mother wanted him to go to medical school.
He followed his mother’s wishes — for two years. After he graduated from Princeton, he attended New York University School of Medicine before dropping out, later enlisting in the army and ending up on Wall Street. Icahn said in an interview that he never liked medical school and always felt more interested in the market.
“When I was [at Princeton], all of the successful students wanted to go into the professional schools,” Icahn said, explaining that at the time they were seen as the most secure and financially lucrative jobs. But they were never something he felt personally passionate about, he said.
He explained that his decision to enter finance was based in part on his personality, which he described as “obsessive,” as well as his ability to work well with numbers and logic.
While he was involved with different organizations on campus, including the business department of The Daily Princetonian, Icahn said the most rewarding part of his time at Princeton was by far his thesis. Titled “The Problem of Formulating an Adequate Explication of the Empiricist Criterion of Meaning,” his thesis won the McCosh prize for best thesis in the philosophy department.
“I found it to be exhilarating,” Icahn said, fondly recalling the process of writing his thesis, and said he still keeps a copy of it with him to this day.
Even with all his success on Wall Street, Icahn is still seen by some as an outsider in the business world. He’s quick to dismiss his critics who often complain that his style is overly aggressive. As part of some of his company’s acquisitions and takeover attempts, he’s led numerous shareholders revolts and pushed for the removal of many CEOs and board members.
Icahn explained that he’s not afraid to ruffle feathers if it means improving the company’s competitiveness and, as a result, the bottom line.
“There’s no accountability in some of these companies,” Icahn said. “If the management isn’t doing their job, you remove them.”
He said that too often the companies become uncompetitive when the corporate boards are simply handpicked people who are close to the management. Nevertheless, Icahn stressed that there are many exceptions to this strategy, and it’s not always necessary to shake up management in the companies he takes control of.
Even in his philanthropic work, Icahn finds ways to improve inefficiencies in the system. His charity Foundation For A Greater Opportunity has opened several charter schools in New York, with the first one opened in 2001.
Icahn explained that the process of opening charter schools is tough but that ultimately it would better serve the students if education was more privatized.
“That’s not true of everything, but it’s true of education,” he said.
Julie Goodyear, executive director of Icahn’s foundation, said that enabling children to get a good education is their foremost goal and what motivates them.
“I think he believes that an education can train the mind to work efficiently,” Goodyear said. “I’ve always known him as someone who’s always interested in evening the playing field.”
The University has also been a large recipient of Icahn’s generosity. In 1999, a $20 million gift from him enabled the construction of the Carl Icahn Laboratory.
Former University president Harold Shapiro GS ’64, now a Wilson School professor, said he first remembers meeting Icahn at a Reunions event about 15 or 20 years ago. He explained that they kept in touch over the years and Icahn was very interested in the genomics lab project when Shapiro approached him about it.
“I think genomics will be the future of medical science,” said Icahn, who has personally visited the lab since it opened.
Shapiro declined to comment on Icahn’s specific business practices, saying, “Some views I share, some I don’t.”
When Icahn attempted to take control of Lions Gate Entertainment in 2010, Shapiro was one of five nominees Icahn submitted to serve on the company’s board of directors. Lions Gate urged shareholders to oppose Shapiro and Icahn’s other nominees, resisting his attempted takeover. In August of 2011, Icahn ended his long-running battle to take over the company and sold his over 30-percent stake in the company.
With plenty of triumph and controversy, 76-year-old Icahn isn’t planning on quitting anytime soon. “What else would I do?” Icahn asked, saying he still enjoys what he does and doesn’t really think about retirement.
In spite of all his personal successes, Icahn acknowledged that there’s still a lot of luck involved in the process.
“You have to be willing to work,” he said. “[Success] doesn’t mean you’re a genius — you have your luck which comes and goes — and you have to, as much as you can, put your ego out of it.”