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One Investment Leads to Another

Rochel Burstyn

Venture capitalist Jonathan Triest funds start-up companies to the tune of millions of dollars a year. But his growth in Torah is his biggest investment yet

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

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MAN OF ACTION “Ideas are exciting, but everyone has good ideas,” says venture capitalist Jonathan Triest. “There’s actually very little value in ideas — but there’s lots of value in execution.” Jonathan’s own dynamic journey to Torah observance modeled this principle in action (Photos: Aaron Pergament Photography)

Any aspiring entrepreneur would happily take a meeting with Ludlow Ventures, a venture capital firm located in downtown Detroit.

On a typical day, hundreds of unsolicited e-mails arrive in company inboxes, and Ludlow’s schedulers are busy setting up meetings with eager entrepreneurs who hope Ludlow will fund their dreams.

And if they make it through the doors, one of the first faces they’ll see is that of Jonathan Triest, a 34-year-old venture capitalist who runs the company with partners Brett deMarrais and Blake Robbins.

“I have the attention span of a gnat, which gave me trouble growing up, but this line of work, with the vastly different businesses and personalities I meet, lends itself well to my personality,” says Triest.

These days, Triest is funding entrepreneurs to the tune of millions of dollars annually. From his post-modern offices in Detroit, he’s bet on more than 100 companies already, among them in-car heads-up-display device Navdy; Honey, an app that scours the Internet for coupons and discounts; and Notarize.com, an application that allows consumers to connect with a notary public by live video or via their mobile device.

But it’s his newfound love — Torah — that keeps him grounded and his priorities in order. And he knows that success in business could never come without blessings from Above. “It’s now abundantly clear to me that everything in my life, both personally and professionally, both good and bad, comes from Hashem.”

What I Learned in Yeshivah

The Ludlow office in downtown Detroit is hip and inviting, with funky art on the walls and half-painted, half-exposed brick décor. Out-of-the-box thinking is encouraged — part of the reason there are orb-shaped swings hanging from the ceiling and a ping-pong table set up for an afternoon game. The temptation for constant fun can have its downsides, though; Triest admits he sometimes leaves the office to find a quiet space to work.

Triest, who started Ludlow in 2009 after receiving a generous start-up loan from his father Brent Triest and great-uncle Warren Coville, has set his firm apart from the others by emphasizing personal relationships with his clients. Ludlow has even passed up tempting investment opportunities because the personal fit didn’t work. “We always say, it’s like going on a road trip with someone. Here, it’s going to be a long journey — some as long as ten years or so — and we want to like the people in the front seat.”

“I wanted to marry a frum woman and have a frum family. I, however, did not want to be frum myself, so I figured I’d just have to hack the system somehow”

Triest likes to push the envelope. At a technology conference in San Francisco in October, 2016, he spoke to a packed audience of business executives on the subject of “Everything I’ve Learned about Building a Strong Company Culture, I Learned in Yeshivah.”

Despite initial skepticism (“What’s yeshivah?”) the attendees — some of whom were Jewish, but most of whom were not — listened as Triest described the importance of taking a weekly break from the daily grind and avoiding the number one destroyer of any company culture — gossip. 

He also told his audience that great leaders admit their mistakes, and provided examples from the great Torah sages of the Sanhedrin, who encouraged the most inexperienced members to share their opinions first, before their viewpoints could be swayed by senior opinions.

As a kid, Triest was kicked out of Hebrew school — more than once. But to hear how this young successful venture capitalist became who he is today, perhaps we should start from the very beginning.

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