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From Caracas to Cologne, Childhood Friends Reunite to Pursue Business Dreams at Yeshiva

Daniel Simkin and Leon Franco have come a long way together. As children in Caracas, Venezuela, they attended the same grade school.  In March, as students at Yeshiva University, they attended the 15th World Business Dialogue in Cologne, Germany—winning two of only 300 coveted slots available to students across the globe in a rigorous selection process.

Childhood friends in Venezuela, Daniel Simkin and Leon Franco have reunited at Yeshiva University.

The conference is the world’s largest student-run business convention. Featuring 60 high-profile personalities and executives from top companies such as British Petroleum, General Electric Europe and North Asia, and Ford of Europe, it engaged students and speakers in conversation about topics that will have economic and social impact on the future.

“We met students from all around the world who want to do something in life, change something,” said Simkin, a sophomore majoring in mathematics at Yeshiva College. “They run profit or nonprofit organizations around the world. We all had this ambition and desire to share ideas and concerns.”

Simkin and Franco have always been ambitious. In Venezuela and over his time at YU, Simkin has tried his hand at a variety of industries—“entertainment, manufacturing, social media, iTunes and politics,” he says, to name a few—and Franco, a junior majoring in marketing and finance at Syms School of Business, has interned for New York Senator Charles Schumer and UBS Wealth Management.  The two applied to the World Business Dialogue because they were convinced it could give them valuable insight and connections to further their careers.

“I want to create or participate in a multinational company and to do that, I have to understand people and different economies,” said Simkin. “I’m hoping to apply what I learned about general business practice at the conference in the future.”

At the conference, Franco and Simkin had the opportunity to hear from industry leaders about everything from business strategies to ethical dilemmas and future forecasts. They also benefited from the juxtaposition of opposing worldviews in conversation.

“The CEO of British Petroleum Europe was advocating a slower introduction of eco-friendly alternatives to oil consumption, while the German Transport Authority explained that it is developing strategic ways to be more efficient with their use on a day-to-day basis,” said Franco. The conference helped crystallize his feelings about sustainability.

Franco (left) and Simkin (right) networked with students from around the world and heard from captains of industry at the World Business Dialogue in Germany.

“Individuals have to change their consumption habits, but someone has to educate them,” said Franco. “Whether I make a green company or just a company with green aspects, I understand that anything I do is going to have a social component. There has to be more than just profit-generation—you have to be giving back because that’s the only way we’re going to maintain a healthy world.”

Though Franco and Simkin knew each other as children, they only recently reunited. Franco, who had moved to the United States with his family in search of greater religious freedom in 2000, had already begun his studies at YU when he encountered Simkin at a dinner with mutual friends in New York City. Simkin was shocked. He had come to the U.S. for a summer course in English between semesters at the Universidad Metropolitana of Caracas.

There, things had been rough: a hostile atmosphere toward Jews on campus led him to downplay his religious identity and as more and more of his friends left the country for Israel or the U.S., he found his own grasp on Judaism slipping.

When Franco told him about YU, Simkin had to see it for himself. The two headed back uptown together and Simkin was amazed by what he found. “I saw a small campus where everyone has a Jewish environment,” he said. “People walking around in the streets with kippas on and tzitzit out, eating kosher food, inviting each other for Shabbat. It was exactly what I lacked in Venezuela, and I thought, ‘This is where I need to be.’ ”

The road wasn’t easy. Simkin spoke very little English. But three courses and six sittings for the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) later, he arrived at YU. “I’m pursuing my university education as a businessman while studying who I am in the morning,” Simkin said. “Everyone knows Hebrew, so I use it more than I did in Venezuela. And when my kids ask me in the future, ‘How do you make Kiddush?’ I’ll know because I learned about it with a rabbi in class.”

For Franco, the school held a similar appeal. “Here, we are always surrounded by people who share our values, respect us, lead morally correct lives and have a vision for the future,” he said. “I have friends here from Spain, France and Thailand and everywhere around the world that there is a Jewish community. Somehow, we all ended up here and we’re all united, and I think that’s amazing.”

YU’s New York City location is also critical for Franco as he develops his professional career. “Every business has a headquarters in New York,” he said. “The fact that we’re here and able to connect with potential employers and an international community of Jews while receiving a good education and exploring our religious identities as individuals is important.”

“We have a great group of international students here at YU and I have the fortune in my role as the entrepreneur-in-residence to meet them on a one-to-one basis and discuss with them everything from how to start a business and how to raise money to what career they should pursue if and when they plan to go back to their home country,” said Michael Strauss, associate dean at Syms.

When Franco and Simkin were accepted to the World Business Dialogue, Strauss worked with the students to find a way for them to attend despite the cost of airfare, which they couldn’t afford. “I have spent 40 years in business and we’re no longer in a cocoon,” said Strauss. “Any day that a businessman is involved in business, he is exposed to the international world via importing, exporting, sales, purchasing, supplies—it’s an international global environment.” He added: “Having exposure to that environment, which the conference gave them, is extremely invaluable and therefore I felt that it was critical that they, as YU students, were able to attend.”

Simkin and Franco are especially appreciative of their professors at Syms and Yeshiva College, including Strauss, Professor Steven Nissenfeld in management and Professor Brian Maruffi in entrepreneurship, whose mentorship and guidance have helped them flesh out big plans for their futures.

For Simkin, Professor Norma Silbermintz’s English as a Second Language course had particularly meaningful results.

“At the World Business Dialogue, Leon [Franco] looked at me and said, ‘Six months ago, all you knew how to say in English was ‘Hi, my name is Daniel,’ ” Simkin recalled, laughing. “ ‘Now you’re speaking in front of 300 international students as a delegate from YU!’ ”