An Interview with Greg Rubin ’96: Traveling with Malala Yousafzai, Lessons from Fessenden, and the Importance of Philanthropy

Greg Rubin ’96 owns a popular wine shop in New York City. He is also involved in the Malala Fund, and he is committed to supporting important causes and organizations through donations and volunteer work. Throughout his adult life, it is his Fessenden education and the School’s core values that have informed his work and driven him to philanthropy.

What was your experience at Fessenden like?
I attended Fessenden from third through ninth grade, when the Lower School was just a single hallway that is now where the Ciongoli Center for Innovation and the Wheeler Library are located. The campus may have changed, but the heart of the School is still exactly the same.

To summarize my experience at Fessenden would be impossible, which is why I still think back so fondly on my time there. However, one thing that comes to mind is something that Fessenden offers which few schools can—the ability to get to know people from different cultures. As I watch the world become more connected across the globe, I realize how valuable it was for me to become friends with students from other countries, such as Japan, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, and Korea. Not many schools offer or encourage that opportunity at such a young age, and it’s something that no social studies class can teach. Not even Mr. Cincotta’s.

Fast forwarding to today, you are now the President of the Alumni Executive Committee at Fessenden. Why do you think you’ve remained involved in the School?
It’s pretty simple. As I think back on the schools I attended—from Fessenden through to business school—Fessenden is the school that I feel most connected to, and the place where I feel like I can make the biggest impact. It’s also the place that has continued to help me even after I graduated. It was my first job after college, my first landlord, and I even received my first corporate job in New York City from a fellow alumnus. Over the last 20-something years since my graduation, Fessenden has remained true to itself, and I am proud to remain close to the School.

How did you get to know Malala Yousafzai?
Back in 2014, I was working at a small marketing and brand strategy consultancy. My main client took on a pro bono project for the newly established Malala Fund, the mission of which is to help provide every girl in the world with access to an education. We were part of the team that designed the branding for the organization. I was impressed by Malala herself, and by the small group of people that she had brought on to help achieve her mission. My wife, Jenny Spyres, and I became donors to the Malala Fund in its earliest stages and have been loud and proud about supporting her mission ever since.

What was your experience like when you traveled to Iraq last summer?
Every year for Malala’s birthday, she travels to a place where girls do not have access to education. Last summer, Jenny and I were invited to travel with her to Kurdish Iraq for humanitarian and policy work, mostly with displaced people and refugees from ISIS-controlled Mosul.

We landed in the country the day that Mosul was liberated from ISIS. Conditions were dangerous, but not from a security standpoint. It was 140–150 degrees Fahrenheit in the middle of the day, and 90–100 degrees Fahrenheit at night—and no rain. At the United Nations refugee camp, children attended the camp’s school, comprised of four or five large tents centered around a stone courtyard and led by a “principal” whose professional background was as a house painter. By May, the school had cancelled the afternoon session because it was just too hot to congregate safely. There was no electricity, and the principal had to wait three months and file several requests just to receive a chalkboard.

Because Malala is both a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and a United Nations Messenger of Peace, we were fortunate to have security with us at all times and the invaluable resources of UNICEF to help arrange meetings, travel routes, and numerous other logistics. We spent some time at a large refugee camp just outside of Mosul, met a group of Yazidi girls who had recently been rescued from their imprisonment by ISIS, and visited a makeshift community of families displaced by ISIS in a half-constructed building outside the mountain city of Duhok.

We attended many meetings with political and business leaders, visited an amusement park with some of the residents of the refugee camp, and participated in a workshop with high school students. Despite the dire situation—and because of the resilience, compassion, and sense of community that I witnessed—I left Iraq with a sense of hope.

What have you learned from your travels or your time with the Malala Fund that has stuck with you?
I will never forget a visit we had with a group of girls around the age of Fessenden Middle School students. It was in an unfinished building made of cinder blocks, with no running water or electricity, tucked into the mountains outside of Mosul. There were about 500 people, mostly families, living in this structure after escaping ISIS-controlled areas in and around Mosul. One girl was particularly captivating. At 11 years old, she ran away from her pre-arranged wedding and lived on her own for a year in Mosul until ISIS came. She escaped ISIS in the trunk of a car and was shot multiple times as they drove off. She now walks an hour and a half each way just to get to school, and she wants to be a doctor.

Her story was incredible, but it was what she said—as a 13-year-old—about her experience that sticks with me the most: “Be undeniable. If you want something badly enough, surround yourself with people that are helpful and don’t let anyone get in your way.”

Are there any parallels between lessons that you learned at Fessenden and what you are doing today in your adult and professional life?
I own and operate a wine shop in New York. Taken at face value, my job is to sell wine. However, my job is really an exercise in hospitality. It is critical that everyone on the team treats each customer with honesty, compassion, and respect.

Most people don’t think they know “enough” about wine to talk to a salesperson or even walk into a wine shop. So, most customers come in with some amount of anxiety about the whole experience. It’s like being in a country where you don’t speak the language. Our job, as wine salespeople, is to make them feel comfortable and ensure they feel confident about their purchase. That is only possible if we treat them with respect, show compassion for their anxieties about the experience, and give them honest information.

Do you have any advice for Fessy boys today?
First, remember that decency, compassion, and community are what will make you a better man and a better global citizen. Fessenden does an amazing job at teaching the “soft skills” of life and turning good boys into great men.

Second, use your time at Fessenden to “be undeniable.” This school is equipped with everything a boy needs to find what he loves and master it. And, if you want to do something that isn’t already available, just ask. You are at one of the few places in the world that is filled with people who are on your team and will do everything they can to help you become undeniable.

Is there anything else you would like to share?
There is never a perfect time to give to a cause you care about. For most of us, giving money or time feels like a reach, as there is rarely a surplus of either of these. I would urge Fessenden alumni to prioritize philanthropy and volunteering. Set aside a manageable amount of money every month to go toward a cause you care about, or an hour per month to volunteer. There are so many great causes and places out there, and for those organizations, now is the time when they need whatever assistance and support you can provide.

This article originally appeared in the 2018 issue of Red & Gray Magazine. View the full issue here.

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