Walking away from it
Netta Korin gave up a high-paying, high-pressure life in the financial markets and relocated from New York to Tel Aviv, where she opened a cafe-restaurant, all of whose profits will go to charity.
The Tel Aviv sun gently warms the patrons sitting on the little patio of the Bakery 29 cafe, which looks out onto the intersection of Ahad Ha'am and Yavneh streets. A long line has formed at the entrance to the place, and the interior space is filled with shoppers rapidly snapping up the supply of pastries and sweets, which get packed into white paper bags with gold stickers bearing the store's logo. The coffee shop only opened in February, but it is teeming with customers as though it were some established culinary institution with a loyal clientele.
Amidst the large crowd Netta Korin stands out. She's the proprietor of Bakery 29, who opened the place after lengthy preparations that included meticulous selection of a chef, creation of the menu, and extensive and expensive renovation work. The site operates as a bakery and coffee shop in the morning and afternoon, and in the evening turns into a restaurant for private dinner parties of up to 20 people.
Korin does not make a single shekel from her business: Customers who read the small black postcards scattered on the tables discover that all of the profits go to an organization called Impact!, which funds higher education for former Israeli combat soldiers who lack financial means.
Korin, 37, built a successful career and earned more money than most people earn in their lifetimes - before she was even 25. "My parents were always really positive," she says in Hebrew with a heavy American accent, "they told me from a young age that I could do anything." Though born here, Korin moved to the United States with her parents when she was 5; by the age of 20, in 1994 she had already received her master's degree in economics and international economics, and immediately landed a job at an investment bank. "My mother read an article that said that investment bankers make a lot of money. So I said, fine, that's what I'll do," Korin says with a laugh. "When we arrived in the U.S. we had a very hard time, and we worked a lot to survive," she says. "Even as a child I decided that when I grew up I would make a lot of money."
She managed to remain anonymous for a long time. "My father once told me, 'Netta, make a lot of money, and don't let anyone know who you are,'" she says. Korin's first job out of school was at the investment bank Lehman Brothers, which collapsed with the start of the financial crisis in 2008. She worked in the Israel group, and her first boss was Ron Lubash, a founder of the Markstone Capital Group and the man who opened Lehman Brothers' Tel Aviv branch. "It was at the height of the peace process, and the whole world wanted to do business with Israel," Korin says. "We were a small group of eight people, and we worked around the clock. I was given a lot of responsibility and I learned a ton, but I had no life. When you work in a total manner, you don't have such a thing as 'a life.'"
"Netta is an extraordinary person with personal abilities that found expression early on," Lubash recalls. But Korin, when she examined the internal hierarchy of the system she worked in, noticed that at every one of the companies that made up the bank there were few female executives. "One was divorced and the other had no kids. I said to myself that this was not what I wanted to be," she recalls.Coming to crash
After three years, Korin left Lehman Brothers. She packed a small bag, called up friends who lived in London and informed them that she was coming to crash on their couch - until she could find work. That took her only two weeks after she landed, marketing funds to Israeli investors at the hedge fund GLG Partners, among whose founders is Noam Gottesman. "After a few weeks at GLG I realized that I really don't have a clue about the market," she says. "When you work at an investment bank, you work on the flotation, and the day it's on the market the deal is done, as far as you're concerned. I was so young and busy with work that I wouldn't even look at the share later. I couldn't grasp the big picture."
Korin went to her boss and asked to be allowed to work for six months with the fund managers so she could learn the market, before going back to marketing funds to clients. In the end she did not return to marketing, but rather began investing and managing long-term assets for clients. At 24 she was tapped by an investor to manage his new fund, Sigma Capital, in London. "The work at Sigma is what gave me my success," she says.
Later on the same investor asked her to open Sigma's New York branch, and so she found herself back in Manhattan - this time as an executive. A few months after the New York branch was established, in offices located in Midtown Manhattan, the World Trade Center was attacked. Korin was in charge of a team of 15 employees, mostly men who were older than her. "We were at the office when it happened. A few of our guys were on the phone with guys from Cantor and suddenly the call was cut off," she recalls sadly. The investment bank Cantor Fitzgerald lost 658 employees in the 9/11 attacks. "The market closed down for three days, and people had to go to more and more funerals. There was intense pressure," she says. "I was managing hundreds of millions of dollars, and I was responsible for a team of employees who were dependent on me.
"After that period I realized that I couldn't live in that world anymore, that I had to do something with more soul. I couldn't go on holding back feeling," she says.
Though she left Sigma the next year, Korin's contract with the firm required that she wait a year before resuming work in her field. "I remember sitting on a couch in a furniture store because I had just bought an apartment, and I called up a former colleague of mine and told him, 'I don't know what to do when you don't work,'" she says. "From a young age I had worked without a break. You can't achieve major success if you don't put your all into work. I was living in New York, the most amazing city in the world, and I had no idea what to do with my free time."
Instead of taking a vacation, Korin started calling up charities and leaving messages. "I said that I'm an experienced businesswoman, that I have free time, and that I would be delighted to help," she says. The first to get back to her were the people from Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, an American organization that provides services for the benefit of men and women in the Israeli military. FIDF offered to give her a tour of bases and outposts the next time she visited Israel.
"All of the officers I met in Israel told me that some of their soldiers didn't go home on the weekends because they don't have food. They have to give them money out of their own pockets," she says sadly. "This was not the Israel I knew. I thought, it can't be that guys who enlist in combat service, and also protect my life as a Jew in the U.S., are in such a plight." That visit prompted Korin to begin donating regularly to the organization, and in time she became its treasurer. Later on she also became involved in Impact!, which grants scholarships that cover the cost of tuition for combat soldiers at accredited academic institutions. To date, Korin has sponsored seven students, some of whom had six years of study. "I felt that this was a project that helped not only individual people, but the state. When there are thousands of people who don't have to work in a garage but can instead go to the Technion and get themselves a degree, you open up a world of possibilities," she says.
Korin's philanthropy is not limited to IDF soldiers. An article that appeared in the British newspaper The Independent in June 2005 reveals that Netta Korin was among the 10 founder members who donated $100,000 to the SoHo Synagogue project. In 2002, she set up her own fund, named Amgis. After a lengthy period of activity, she decided to return the investors' money and leave only her own in the fund. "I was a few months shy of 30 and it scared me. Wall Street is a cold place. I felt that I had to change direction. After giving the money back to the investors, I spent four months traveling in India, Nepal and Thailand."
While she was out of the rat race, Korin did not deal with her investment portfolio. "The higher I climbed the mountain in Nepal, the lower the market fell. When I got back I had a lot less money than when I'd left," she says with a grin, but refuses to divulge the percentage by which her worth was cut, nor what she is worth today - though it is clearly enough to enable her to walk away from it all.
Korin's path back to Israel was forged when she came for a visit during the Second Lebanon War, in 2006, to promote a project for aiding wounded soldiers. She met an Israeli man and moved in with him. After eight months they separated, but Korin decided to remain as a new immigrant. "Everyone was shocked that I wasn't going back to New York," she laughs, "but I was happier here. I care a lot more here. Friendship is something much more important and real for Israelis. My life has changed. I no longer work 24 hours a day."Michelin chef
In the spacious kitchen of Bakery 29, which is significantly larger than the rest of the coffee shop, a young pastry chef from Belgium is wielding a long ruler to measure a cake that combines layers of brownies and cheesecake. Behind her stands the restaurant's chef, Yaron Azoulay, who heard about Korin's project when it was still in its infancy and asked to join. He brought with him years of experience at elite restaurants, including Michelin-star restaurants in Europe and the U.S.
The original idea was to open a small cookie shop with all of the profits going to fund academic studies for discharged combat soldiers. Later on Korin decided on a cafe and high-end kosher dairy restaurant. "I guess I don't know how to do things on a small scale," she quips.
From a young age she loved spending time in the kitchen: "After a crazy day, if I lost money, I would cook at home for two or three hours and that would set me straight."
Azoulay had had no sleep the night before our interview because he was busy preparing a lavish five-course feast, which was served to a family that paid NIS 400 a head for the privilege, not including wine. The private dinners were conceived as a solution to the need of visitors to Tel Aviv for a high-caliber kosher restaurant. "We usually get delegations here of donors who are largely traditional and very well off. I've eaten at the best restaurants in the world, I know what's good," she says with a wink.
The family is already seated around a large elliptical table in the interior space as Azoulay completes his labors over the first course, which tonight is a selection of dim sum fish dishes, including European sea bass with a mayonnaise-lemongrass-wasabi sauce. The meals never repeat themselves, and Azoulay lets his creativity take over the cooking anew each time. Korin peeks at the diners through the kitchen door, making sure that they are satisfied.
Korin took scrupulous care with every detail of the business she built. The architects Eyal and Alona Ratner were in charge of the design. An Italian display fridge stands in the restaurant; the building's original windows were treated by the wood artist Yaakov Sasson; and the pattern decorating the bathroom sink corresponds to the pattern of the original floor tiles in the 90-year-old building.
"It is important to me that everything operate to perfection," she says. "In New York, for example, there are so many restaurants that if you're disappointed once, you will never go back to that restaurant. It's the same here: It is important to me that every customer receives the best possible service and experience. If someone places a take-out order at 11:00 it can't be ready at 11:03."
The investment in this project was larger than Korin had intended, but she won't divulge sums: "There were expenses that I thought would come only next year, like a bigger stove and more kitchen equipment, that I was forced to invest in to meet demand. I also had to employ more staff. There are expenditures I hadn't planned on, but these have gone for things that are ultimately meant to help.
"However much the place makes won't really affect my way of life," says Korin. "Even if it brings in $200,000 a month, I'll still live the same way. On the other hand, it can change the lives of a lot of young people."
How soon do you predict Bakery 29 will become profitable?
"I don't know how long it will take. I'm very new to this industry, so I'm not experienced enough yet to give you an answer, but my gut tells me that we'll break even in our second year . If we're very successful, I believe that within a year and a half."
Don't you like making money anymore? Don't you miss it?
"I think that money is something very positive, and a group of donors who have made a lot of money are helpful to Israel. Sometimes I feel like the attitude in Israel is that making money is a bad thing. I don't think that. It's not that I don't like making money anymore, it's just that my career was really intense and stressful. I didn't have a life for a very long time and I was exhausted from that. Wall Street is a man's place and really lacks emotion. I felt empty and fake and I wanted a chance for myself."
Are you still interested in economics? Do you read the financial pages?
"Sometimes I read articles that friends e-mail me on interesting topics, some of them related to the markets."
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
"I hope to be the mother of a 9-year-old. I don't really know where life will take me, but I'm open to anything that I think will make me happy."
The day before Bakery 29 opened, a meeting was held for Impact! students enrolled at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya. Korin, who sits on the Friends of IDC board, addressed the students: "I want you to know that I had to work the whole time to finance my university studies. I had no money," she told them. "Ten years from now you will be able to stand here and donate to others. You can do anything. I believe in you and love you. Tomorrow I am opening a place, and it's for you."
In the few months since it opened, the place has managed to accumulate a crowd of regulars. Every day at lunchtime, the bakery is full of customers, many of whom come directly from the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange nearby.
Ahead of Passover the bakery closed for the first time, and Korin took advantage of the break to go on a "honeymoon" to South Africa. Just a few weeks earlier she became engaged to an executive at a high-tech firm, and even though the wedding is scheduled for June, the couple decided to take an early honeymoon during Passover.