From beer to Barclays, Azriel Chelst is strategizing behind the scenes and netting partnerships with a Torah mindset
Azriel Chelst started his business training before he even hit first grade.
In his role as vice president of innovation partnerships at Barclays, he works on strategy, which is ultimately about how to better engage various audiences — whether they are employees, clients, investors, or startups — to drive innovation. “My love for the role centers around my ability to work on large-scale, complex problems while supporting a multinational corporation,” Chelst says.
He explains that there are three stages to a good partnership — figuring out what you want to do, negotiating with someone to do it, and finally, delivering the product and/or service. “My day is divided between those three core activities,” he shares.
After spending time speaking with Chelst, it’s apparent that his humble demeanor, willingness to learn, and ability to be forward-thinking have made him a valuable player within the tech space; he’s one who understands that there is often more out there than meets the eye. He carefully considers every detail and takes the initiative to make things happen.
The skills he’s honed over his years in the corporate world, Chelst says, were originally cultivated by his parents. His father, Rabbi Dr. Ken Chelst, a musmach of Yeshiva University, is a professor of applied mathematics, and his mother, Dr. Tamy Chelst, is an audiologist who works with the elderly. Chelst was impacted by his mother’s kindness and guidance, and his father’s creativity and problem-solving abilities.
As a child, he traveled around the world with his parents. “Whenever my father was on sabbatical or had a business conference, he took us with him,” Chelst explains. When his father taught at Yale, MIT, and Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, the family moved with him, giving them the opportunity to explore different communities and lifestyles.
“He let us tag along on trips to Greece, Scotland, South Korea, and Japan, and sent my brother and me on a backpacking trip through Switzerland when I was just 13 years old,” Chelst says. Hearing about these childhood experiences, it’s easy to see how he developed his aptitude to facilitate complex solutions across the world.
Chelst remembers the deep impact left on him when his mother told him the story of Moshe Rabbeinu seeing an Egyptian assaulting a Jewish slave. “Moshe looked everywhere but didn’t see anyone stepping in to protect the slave. I learned from that that I should look for opportunities to help where other people aren’t.”
This is a practice Chelst has been applying since his early days studying at Yeshiva University. Back in 2003, building an eiruv was a sensitive topic in the Washington Heights area. Chelst was determined to take on the challenge and include the entire neighborhood across Amsterdam Avenue. He worked with YU’s rosh yeshivah and other members of the YU team, as well as departments in New York City to rectify the problem. “Through creating the YU eiruv” — which follows the halachic guidance of Rav Hershel Schachter — “I learned how to maneuver within an organization quietly to get things done,” he shares. “Sometimes people like to make a big splash, yet the hard things often need fewer people and less noise.”
OUTDASH AND HALACHIC ZEMANIM
While building the eiruv may have showcased his aptitude for orchestrating change behind the scenes, Chelst acknowledges that great change often comes from seemingly subtle, small moments. For him, one of those moments occurred even before his time at YU. In 12th grade, he dropped out of high school and attended Wayne University instead. There, his computer science professor introduced him to HTML for the first time. By the time the two-hour session ended, Chelst was planning his first web-development business.
After high school, he studied in Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh (KBY) in Israel for a year and then started Yeshiva University in the fall of 1997. After graduating in January 2000 and beginning the YU semichah program, Chelst partnered with his friends from KBY to create the web business OutDash (formerly QuIC Solutions), which worked to provide solutions for businesses and nonprofits looking to advertise and commercialize their organizations on the Internet.
Eventually, OutDash partnered with the Orthodox Union to build the first halachic zemanim website. “I still remember writing the code with my friends and fighting through the bugs associated with the days when we change the clock,” he says. Then they landed a $250,000 project to redesign the YU website. While working on the redesign, Chelst says, “I managed to convince YU President Dr. Richard Joel to fund YU Torah, which is still my proudest accomplishment to date.”
YU Torah is a site with now nearly 150,000 shiurim that are shared via webcast in audio, video, and text formats by the YU community. For Chelst, this is how he utilizes his gift for technology for a higher purpose. “I started off my career obsessed with bringing tech to the Jewish world,” he shares.
VENTURING INTO CORPORATE SOCIETY
After receiving semichah, Chelst went on to earn an MBA from NYU Stern School of Business, with a focus on entrepreneurship and innovation. In 2010, he joined American Express, working in a research and development lab experimenting with new technologies. Eventually he moved to another team to launch the Plenti Rewards Program, in which customers were awarded points at retail stores affiliated with the program and could then use them at other retailers. The program ran successfully for three years.
Next Chelst moved to beer giant Anheuser-Busch. “I often joke that I worked in credit cards for five years, then took a year off to drink, then went back to credit cards,” he says. “And I’m not even a beer drinker!”
He spent much of his time at Anheuser-Busch studying on-premise innovation, which means researching technologies for stadiums, restaurants, bars, and off-premise innovation — technologies for groceries and convenience stores. He also managed a large industry data project to provide detailed market-share insights for specific geographic locations.
A year later, he landed a position at Mastercard as the company’s Global Director of Startup Engagement. His position entailed reviewing hundreds of startups every quarter and collaborating across the organization to determine the top 10 that would work with the company.
After Mastercard, he took a break from corporate innovation to develop his own startup called It’s Broke. The startup was going to launch an app designed to report everyday problems, from broken Slurpee machines at 7-Eleven to fallen stop signs in random locations. “Our goal was to be a hub for complaints, a planet-wide 311,” he says.
But developing a startup takes a good team, and when his chief technology officer left to take a paying job, he paused to regroup. He wasn’t sure what he would do next, but that same day, by a stroke of Divine Providence, he received a call from Barclays inviting him to an interview.
“I got very, very lucky with my new position at Barclays,” he says. “It says in the Mishnah that one should ‘make for himself a rabbi.’ Recently, I heard a shiur from Rabbi Shay Schachter where this mishnah was used to suggest that one should look for people — even within the workplace — to whom you can constantly turn for guidance and good advice. What I love most about my new role at Barclays is that my boss is a great mentor and role model.”
AN OPPORTUNITY TO LEARN
Chelst often applies his background in Torah learning to his corporate life. He’s always amazed, for example, when he opens a Gemara and learns something that applies to his life in 2019. He feels that, as Jews, we constantly view life with an element of skepticism, always making sure every question has an answer. This is a trait he utilizes often in the workplace. “I try to figure out what won’t fit in advance or hasn’t been done before, and then look at the bigger picture to see which ideas have the greatest chance for success. My favorite part is pressure-testing ideas with friends and colleagues to create an even better solution,” he says.
A self-proclaimed “puzzle person,” Chelst says he constantly tries to create better solutions by asking questions. “I’m always afraid to come across as the guy who asks too many questions. At the same time, I think it’s important to understand all aspects surrounding an issue to create clarity, avoid confusion, and ultimately bring everyone together.”
For many people with big ideas, the questions or fears can often become overwhelming. When asked if he has any tips for someone who finds it hard to take the next step to drive his or her own project, he says, “It depends on where you are in the process. If you are in education mode, you need to seek unbiased feedback. I reach out to strangers and friends to pressure test the concept. I start by telling people I have a ‘wacky idea.’ Pretty soon, people are not only providing constructive feedback, they also feel an urge to join you in the brainstorming effort. Everyone wants to be part of a creative process.
“If you’re in execution mode, the best idea is to walk before you run. You need to find a way to validate your ideas with a ‘test and learn’ scenario. I was doing this myself a few weeks ago. I had a simple product that I wanted to test with a client. As I was working through the details, I kept seeing how my first test case was too complicated. Instead of pushing it through, I called up the client, discussed the challenges, and killed the test.
“I think the biggest way to get over your fears is to try, fail, and try again. It’s a lot like the concept of ‘Sheva yipol tzaddik v’kam — The righteous one falls seven times, yet gets up.’ You could replace tzaddik with ‘entrepreneur.’ It’s okay to fail because we all do. The key is to learn, to get up again, to adjust your assumptions, and to try a new test case.”
While every person is bound to face challenges on the road to success, Chelst likes to view every conversation as another opportunity to learn. Some conversations may seem more valuable than others, but ultimately if you maintain focus you’ll end up at the right destination. “There are only three things you should focus on in a business conversation: branding your identity [making people understand who you are and what you’re trying to do], sourcing opportunities [finding opportunities with that person or getting introductions to others], and/or execution [creating value for both parties]. Ideas alone have no value if they aren’t brought to life.”
Another Torah approach that Chelst uses regularly in his work interactions is the concept of dan l’chaf zechus. “I get into negotiations all the time where it’s best to try to understand the other side, rather than think the worst of them,” he says. He values listening and understands that not everyone will always like what you have to say, although he admits it’s taken him awhile to get there.
“I used to be the kid who thought that he knew everything and could just force people to see things his way,” he shares. He recalls a time when he was working on a website with a large institution and tried to get a second team within the organization to help deliver an interactive and engaging portion of the website. “After a frustrating session, my client called me aside and said, ‘I know you’re right, but you aren’t helping,’” he says.
At that moment, he realized how important it is to pick your battles, and that sometimes it’s okay to settle for the greater good.
“The greater good” seems to be a theme in Azriel Chelst’s life. He currently has another startup percolating. “My next Jewish project will be to launch a free cryptocurrency called Mitzvah Coin. These coins will allow users to show their hakaras hatov to someone who has helped them. It’s going to be the first cryptocurrency that can buy access to Olam Haba,” he says, adding, “It’s far more lucrative to be selfless than selfish.”
As a father of four, aged thirteen to six years old, Chelst is most concerned with teaching his children that there’s a sense of pride in applying business skills to Jewish life. “It’s important to use your talents to create an impact for the Jewish community,” he explains. In addition to his early projects in his college and semichah program days, he’s used his successes in the corporate world to give back to others as well. In fact, he sets aside time each week to advise others, sharing his business acumen and other life experiences. For Chelst, it isn’t only about succeeding as an individual, but about knowing that he’s helping others succeed as well.
After speaking with Chelst, it’s clear that being happy, for him, is something that transcends personal accomplishments. His happiness stems from serving other people and empowering them to find their own way to contribute to the world.
“Originally I wanted to go into the rabbinate. Even though my career went in a different direction, I’ve lucked out. I was once pitching a few of my favorite startups to the CEO of a US bank. During the conversation, I whispered to him, ‘I probably have the best job in the room. They pay me to help others.’”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha 2.0, Issue 3)
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