The son of a Holocaust survivor, Daniel Lubetzky was born in Mexico City in 1968. When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, Daniel’s father, who was nine at the time, was sent to live in a Jewish ghetto. Two years later, he and his family were sent to the concentration camp, Dachau. He remained there with his father until he was nearly 16 and the camp was liberated by American soldiers. Daniel’s father and grandfather then immigrated to Mexico City, arriving with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
“My father’s war experience,” says Daniel, “is a true story of survival and triumph over adversity. He was deeply affected by the suffering he was forced to endure, but the miracle of his story is that while he never forgot what happened to him, he also never allowed it to embitter him. He lived a life that was fulfilled, optimistic, and positive because he felt so lucky to be alive. This had a great effect on the way in which he raised his four children. Of all the many things he taught us, I think the most important was to be a kind person. He celebrated life every day and brought kindness to all he met. It was a lesson I learned well.”
Daniel’s mother is the daughter of European Jewish immigrants who had a working ranch in Mexico. After she met and married Daniel’s father, they lived in a small apartment in the city. In his early days in Mexico, Daniel’s father worked triple shifts in factories. He had only a third-grade education, but he was ambitious. He taught himself to speak English and Spanish and through a job in a jewelry store he learned the trade. Then he and Daniel’s grandfather opened a small jewelry shop, and later they began representing watch brands in the duty-free channel. Many years later, his dad partnered with four other Holo¬caust survivors to build one of the most successful chains of duty-free stores along the U.S.-Mexican border.
A budding entrepreneur, at the age of 12 Daniel wanted to learn more about business. He asked his parents if he could get a summer job working for a textile wholesaler in downtown Mexico City. He took a bus and the subway each day to his job, which involved carrying large rolls of cloth on delivery runs to different locations in the city. He also measured and cut cloth for customers and worked the cash register.
As Daniel’s father’s business began to grow, he made frequent trips to the U.S. “My father didn’t like being away from the family so much with his business travels, and he was also getting concerned about the anti-Semitism that was taking place in Mexico City in those days. He decided we should move to San Antonio, Texas, when I was nearly 16 years old.”
Daniel immediately loved the United States, but the move was not without challenges. In Mexico, his family had lived in a small, tight-knit Jewish community. In San Antonio, he lived in a nice community but was bussed to a school outside his neighborhood. The first difference he discovered about his American school was the cliques. “I didn’t understand it,” he says. “There were the jocks, the preppies, the debaters, the drama kids, the punks, and the cowboys. At lunchtime I would sit with one group and the next day I would sit with another group. One day a kid told me I had to choose a group because I couldn’t be friends with everybody. That never made sense to me, and I never chose a group.”
Daniel was most impressed with America’s freedom for all. “I remember watching late-night TV,” he says, “and I couldn’t believe the jokes that were being made of President Reagan. If you did that to the president in Mexico, you would go to jail. The thing I grew to love about this country and think is one of our greatest strengths is that our system allows for us to have differences—and even be proud of our differences. America is not brought together by one religion or ethnicity. It is a set of values that brings us together. The rule of law, the freedom and democracy, our civility and kindness, the way we listen to one another, and being able to agree to disagree when necessary—these are the special aspects of the American spirit and system that we should not take for granted.”
Daniel found his own ways of making money as a teenager. He used his talent as a magician to provide entertainment at parties, he mowed lawns, and he washed cars. When he was 16, he began selling watches at flea markets. His father introduced him to a few suppliers, and Daniel set up watch kiosks in shopping malls.
Daniel attended Trinity University in San Antonio, where he majored in economics and international relations. While he was in school, he developed a network of students to sell watches that helped him and the other students cover some of their educational costs. His watch venture became so successful that he considered not going to law school, but his father wanted his son to have the education he was unable to attain for himself. Following his graduation magna cum laude from Trinity in 1990, he attended Stanford Law School and earned his JD in 1993.
Daniel did a summer internship with the McKinsey & Company law firm in Mexico City, which offered him a permanent position. At this time, Daniel received the Haas Koshland Fellowship to research and write about fostering joint ventures between Arabs and Israelis. Now age 25, Daniel’s fellowship experience caused him to reach a crossroads. He could take the safe pathway of continuing his law career, or he could follow his heart with a concept he believed could change the world. “Building bridges between people was my passion,” he says. “I was raised to believe we have an obligation to be kind to one another. My idea was to build economic cooperation between conflict-torn peoples, which would incentivize them to build a shared future and peace.”
Daniel created PeaceWorks, Inc., whose first product was a sundried tomato paste that was produced in an Israeli factory, employed Palestinian workers, was packed in glass jars from Egypt, and used tomatoes from Turkey. “My purpose,” says Daniel, “was to start a business that both made money and served a social goal. When people work and trade with one another, three benefits emerge. On a personal level, they discover their shared humanity and shatter cultural stereotypes. On a business level, they gain a vested interest in preserving and cementing their relationships. On a regional level, success gives people a stake in the system.”
PeaceWorks did not succeed overnight. Daniel was living in a studio apartment in New York, where he housed his products in the building’s basement. Each day, he carried his heavy bags of samples for 12 hours of door-to-door selling. There were days when the gas he used to sell his wares cost more than he earned. On many occasions, he considered giving up and going back to work as an attorney. “The difference between those who keep going and those who give up is grit,” says Daniel. “Grit can best be fuel by purpose: when you have a higher reason for doing what you do, it is harder for anything to stop you. Some people have called me an optimist, but I consider myself an actionist: a person who does not accept things as they are and commits to change them—hopefully for the better. Making a difference requires not just ideas, but also the determination and mind-set to execute them.”
Developing PeaceWorks involved 10 years of challenges and lessons. In the meantime, unable to find healthy snack food, Daniel found a reason to start another business in 2003. He began selling nutritious snack bars he imported from a company in Australia. The bars were made with fruit, nuts, and yogurt. When the Australian company sold out to another company that began adding artificial ingredients, Daniel stopped selling the bars. Rather than compromise his commitment to selling a healthful product, he decided to create his own bars and founded KIND Snacks. Today, KIND is one of the most widely known and trusted healthy snack companies in the world. Part of the company’s mission is to encourage others to perform acts of kindness. Today, more than nine million kindness acts have been recorded. Daniel tells his story of how he came to start KIND in his book Do the KIND Thing, which became a New York Times best seller.
In 2002, Daniel founded the OneVoice Movement, an international grassroots movement to empower Israelis and Palestinians to encourage elected leaders toward a two-state solution. In 2010, Daniel co-founded Maiyet, a luxury fashion venture that focuses on creating partnerships with artisans in developing economies to promote self-sufficiency and entrepreneurship. Most recently, through The KIND Foundation, Daniel launched Empatico, an idea that he conceived more than a decade ago. It has the potential to help tens of millions of kids discover each other’s humanity through its free tool for teachers to connect their classrooms with other classrooms across the country and around the globe.
Daniel Lubetzky has received numerous awards and recognition for his humanitarian efforts and his business practices. BusinessWeek named him one America’s Most Promising Social Entrepreneurs, Time magazine named him one of 25 Pioneers of Social Innovation, and Advertising Age named him one of the Creativity 50. He has received Entrepreneur of the Year awards from both Entrepreneur magazine and Ernst & Young. And in 2018, the Hispanic Heritage Foundation presented Daniel with the Hispanic Heritage Award for Entrepreneurship at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
When asked about his role as a social entrepreneur, Daniel says, “The last two decades have been a series of ups and downs that alternately made me deliriously excited and desperately worried. Entrepreneurship isn’t for the faint of heart, and it’s impossible to tell how your story will turn out. All you have is your conviction, your ability to work hard, and your determination to never give up.”
Perseverance is a trait easily assigned to Daniel, but he knows that without his conviction that what he was trying to do was deeply meaningful to him personally, he would not have succeeded. “If you can find a purpose that defines you and imbues you with meaning, then channeling that passion and energy toward your business or vocation can be a source of near invincibility,” he explains. “Pursuing what you believe in already constitutes success regardless of the outcome.”
About his Horatio Alger Award, Daniel says, “If my life can serve as inspiration to others, then I am deeply honored. I am intrigued by the work the Association is doing by helping our most deserving youth with their higher education goals. I am convinced that the most essential thing we need to impart to our young people are the soft skills of emotional intelligence, courage, gravitas, and kindness. Our high-tech world seems to make these skills less important, but the human spirit, creativity, connecting with one another—these are the skills our younger generation will need to stand out. If we can accomplish that, then I think we can consider our society a success. It is exciting to think I will be a part of that.”