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A Lawyer's Testimony of Power and Perseverance

Yuri Vanetik – how this lawyer navigated his career into a powerful position in today's global market is must-read story of personal attainment
Entrepreneur Staff
9 min read

“Risk is a major part of self-realization…” Yuri Vanetik.

American entrepreneur, lawyer and political strategist, Yuri Vanetik, is often hard to characterize partly because of his unconventional path to success in diverse fields where he has gained expertise often through trial and error.  Across the board the game is tough: often he is challenged by opportunities, opponents and competitors. Many of them play by non-western rules or no rules at all.  Often international business parallels Hobbesian “state of nature” explains Vanetik, referring to British philosopher Thomas Hobbes who describes the state of nature as “nasty, brutish and short,” devoid of laws or any common power to restrain man’s desires. 

Dealing with scientists, ministers, presidents, corporate bigwigs and everyday people, he is a key player on advisory committees and board of directors at many non-profit and corporate organizations, including the Board of Trustees of his alma matter, University of CaliforniaSan Francisco Hastings School of Law. Appointed by the Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger to the California Criminal Justice Council, Vanetik was also California Lottery Commissioner. He also held key leadership roles on powerful Republican committees on the state and national levels, and continued to play a key role in political finance and GOP strategy. Clearly, he is a dynamic and enigmatic global force.How has he achieved this daunting level of expertise in business and politics? Our team had a chance to get some answers, as well as some closely guarded business philosophy secrets from Mr. Yuri Vanetik.

Who is Yuri Vanetik - a business and political strategist or just a gritty deal-minded lawyer who fell into the realm of politics because it helped him make money?

“As you probably know I’m a lawyer by training” says Yuri Vanetik during our initial video interview. “I started out with a big law firm on the east coast, originally called Kirkpatrick & Lockhart, which ultimately expanded globally and became K&L Gates. In terms of my career, the time I was affiliated with K&L, a national firm with a strong east coast presence, was a rite of passage….Then, I shifted my focus to private equity deals. I’ve pulled off deals in the mighty oil and gas industry, mostly international projects involving exploration - high risk ventures.  Also, I’ve done some stuff domestically, joint ventures, some exploration and production deals, later becoming involved in technology, investing in startup companies dealing with technology in the insurance space. Some of these projects have done well. Of course, a few deals fell through, but I think that’s part for the course.”

Navigating your universe of businesses, what is your guiding principle?

“I’ve always looked at life as a journey where you can either choose the road less traveled or stick to a well-trodden path,” posits Vanetik.  A student of poetry and literature, he cited Robert Frost (referencing the famous Frost poem, The Road Not Taken) and Emily Dickinson as his favorite American poets. “This perspective has been an important instrument in my proverbial tool chest. I think the reason I succeed at what I do is because I’m very opportunity driven. So, I don’t look at things in a linear way, I look at cultural aspects of the deals, I look at arbitrage opportunities, and I often test the frontiers and take a contrarian path.” There is risk to that obviously - he points out.

As a political and business strategist, where do you anticipate the next opportunities to emerge?

Yuri Vanetik suggests to closely look at Africa, which offers astonishing opportunitiesbecause of its abundant natural resources and the arbitrage you have in almost every industry. “When you look at Asian or former Soviet Republics, the Caucasus also have amazing appeal” notes Vanetik.

Some of those countries have made significant strides in becoming free market economies; for example, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan and many others” Mr. Vanetik continues. In terms of investment, Latin America is also attractive. Mr. Vanetik is a big fan of Brazil, however, although it is a developed country, it is still developing and much needs to be accomplished from an infrastructure standpoint in that part of the world. Having visited Indonesia several times and made friends with several influential business leaders there, Mr. Vanetik believe it also avails the courageous business visionary of opportunities to explore for minerals and advance technology that has been well received in the west, but remains a goal for the future in most of Indonesia. Natural resources are abundant as there are over 17 thousand islands, and the US has barely scratched the surface in doing business there. So to recap, “I’d keep an eye on the Caucasus, Brazil, Indonesia all of which stand out along with the entire continent of Africa and especially DRC - Democratic Republic of Congo and, of course, China” says Yuri. Incidentally, based on the experience of good friends doing business there, it’s not as dangerous as is commonly believed. International business is not for the squeamish!

What sector of the economy do you think will grow in these emerging markets?

Yuri bets on technology. And of course, natural resources which is obviously considered old economy unless it’s coupled with innovation. “I think technology that includes telecom and biotech has a big opportunity in those regions and natural resources everywhere, including Azerbaijan which has incredible oil reserves, Georgia which has an abundance of natural recourses and improving business climate” he points out. Africa of course, Indonesia, Brazil also can offer opportunities in both of those sectors.Yuri, how did you manage to get to know powerful people in these far away countries? What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs or lawyers who are launching their careers?“For young lawyers I would say go and work for your clients in house. This would be my first advice. Take that lead and go and join startups or join in house counsel teams. That would be my advice for young attorneys” says Mr. Vanetik.As for his advice for business people, Mr. Vanetik suggests to “plan your future but also understand the importance of changing your plan” Be flexible but have a plan.  “I’m very opportunity driven and sometimes the best things come unexpectedly. Be ready to embrace the unexpected. I would say be flexible, be adventurous. Instead of going to New York, go to Africa. Embark on an adventure,” that would be his advice. “That’s how I built most of my relationships, and some of them led to success in business. Success is in part a function of strong interpersonal relations; the rest in my view is meticulous planning, and taking calculated risks, and not ignoring your intuition - that quasi-intangible that Malcolm Gladwell describes in his book, Blink. I didn’t take people for granted, and I look for opportunities where most other people never look. I think that’s the right approach for me.’

Define your major challenge and how you overcame it.

One of the biggest challenges is appreciating different cultures when it comes to business. Yuri speak Russian fluently, with American accent though.  But even when people are speaking the same language, we are often like foreigners relying on “google translate” tools. “I do not mean to knock google,” he chuckles.  Often, we walk away from a meeting or a phone call thinking we have understood each other, when in fact we haven’t.

Although we might use the same words, we are speaking about different concepts; for example, “a contract for us is virtually sacrosanct, but for many business people I have encountered in Eastern Europe or some parts of Asia it is just one aspect of your relationship and if a relationship is no longer profitable, the written agreement becomes virtually meaningless” notes Yuri Vanetik. In some cultures, people don’t sue each other to resolve a dispute. There rule of law is a shallow concept not a systemic tool for resolution of disputes. We are back to the default law of nature in Hobbes’ Leviathan. I think people may be aware of this, but to actually bridge this gap can be a challenge. Ergo, cultural awareness is a big obstacle. How do you overcome that?  You must listen carefully to what your potential business partner is saying, focusing on a win-win scenario that will last and understanding what it means to the people you are going to work with. A corollary, of course, is picking intelligent, experienced partners and knowing how to create a sustained commonality of interest - not just an appealing model at the inception of the relationship.

In conclusion what do you want to emphasize or highlight?

“Let’s highlight venture philanthropy” concludes Yuri. “I think at the end of the day, you want to be proud of the money you have made, and of the value that you have built. I have been on the board of a nonprofit called the GenNextFoundation from its very inception. At GenNext people embraced this concept of purposeful giving for projects that business-minded individuals can be proud of.  In simple terms it is a matter of doing well by doing good! “I don’t like the term giving back—for me it’s a defeatist perspective, as if you are regretful of the money that you’ve made—as if it was borrowed or stolen and has to be returned. I prefer this more dynamic idea of venture philanthropy as a guiding principle in business” concludes Mr.Vanetik. Because it involves innovation, creativity, and value, it is the stronger approach to being a good global citizen who champions social progress through profitable business ventures.

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