Passionate to promote education, social development and civic engagement, Mihai Lehene mobilizes the Romanian community in Chicago to support strategic partnerships between US and Romania. He lately changed his hat from a serial investor into a Romanian Ambassador for community development. So far, about $20,000 has been raised for the Romanian United Fund for charitable projects in Romania.
Natalia Ghilașcu: Dear Mihai Lehene, tell us more about yourself and about your ups and downs in the US. Did you manage to have your American dream come true?
Mihai Lehene: I think it has become a pretty much universal dream these days, but if we don’t get philosophical about it, then I guess my dream has been achieved. It was 1998 when I arrived in the US for the first time at 19 as an exchange student. I had only $82 in my pocket. In 2002, I moved here permanently after starting my Master in Computer Science at UIC, and I started working in the financial industry in 2005.
I worked hard, made some good friends, struggled at times, took a few lucky shots and avoided a few bad ones, and yes, today, my dream has come true. My greatest accomplishment is my most-wonderful family. I’m also extremely fortunate to have a large circle of friends, mostly Romanian, that I care about and who care about me.
N.G: Lately, you initiated some community development projects. How did you come up with the Romanian United Fund initiative and what do you aspire to do?
M.L: I’ve always enjoyed building communities of sorts: online and offline. But I am not alone. We have an amazing team of people at Romanian United Fund, some of the brightest minds in our community. We are shooting for a much bigger target. We’ve noticed and it hurts us that Romanian communities all over the world suffer from a lack of coordination and leadership, as well as a lack of grand ideals.
Together with my team, I have spent a lot of time trying to understand why that is, and how we can address it. I dream about getting communities together, building bridges, inspiring people to start their own projects, and telling people that they’re not alone: we’re here to help out and support their dreams and initiatives.
We created Romanian United Fund as a platform to make tax deductible donations to verified non-profit initiatives in Romania or in the diaspora. All donations are 100% transferred to our partner organizations, our operational costs being supported from personal and sponsorship funds.
N.G: As a founder of Romanian United Fund, you were invited at Alianta Cultural Award ceremony in Washington DC to talk about your civic awakening of Romanian Community in the US. What were the reactions of the Romanian officials and attendees?
M.L: The Alianța Gala was an amazing event, and Alianța itself is an inspiration, it’s efforts to promote other organizations and network Romanian Americans is extremely appreciated. At Alianța, I spoke about the need to unite different organizations and efforts, to strategize and start working together towards larger goals. The presentation was extremely well received, a lot of people reached out afterwards. It definitely got people thinking about starting to work together.
N.G: What are the major projects you are trying to engage the Romanian diaspora and why is it important for them to participate in this initiative?
M.L: We have selected up to 10 projects to support next year. These are not just any non-profits, they are coming with extremely strong recommendations from other funders and their peers, and range from education, health and social issues to anti-corruption, transparency and investigative journalism.
After the Alianța event, several organizations have become interested and will join the Romanian United Fund in a first-of-its-kind nationwide fundraiser in May next year benefiting Magicamp. Magicamp is a magical place in Romania where children with cancer can still enjoy simple activities. The fundraiser will bring together several Romanian American communities in the United States.
N.G: What is your opinion about the Romanian-American potential investors to remake Romania by developing this fund in the future?
M.L: The Romanian United fund is a charitable organization. It’s purpose is to identify and support the most impactful nonprofit initiatives benefiting Romanians. A business-oriented fund is a different type of organization. As part of our research, we identified 10 different venues for the self-organization of the diaspora, business networks being one of them. I am personally inclined to open up discussions for the structuring of such an organization, but RUF is a not a business fund.
This being said, the top 3 Irish philanthropic funds invested more that 2B dollars in Ireland. Their business networks may have invested 100 times more. If we only manage to achieve 1% of that amount in the next decade, I will say that we are making a real impact.
N.G: About 15 years ago, you were a software analyst at Bank of America and later started your own investment firm, with a focus on real estate, IT and healthcare. How is this experience helping you manage the Romanian United Fund?
M.L: Our business is structured as a family office, we invest in real estate, venture capital and private equity deals. I bring a business oriented approach to selecting the most impactful non-profit projects. We look at dollars invested to dollar “return” ratios, and some of these projects are delivering eye popping returns. For example, every $100 invested in ViaTransilvanica (the project we are currently fundraising for) will create revenues of $2,000 to $5,000 yearly for the communities living along the trail. Such returns are unimaginable in the business world.
N.G: Tell us more about your experience of investing in Real Estate Business in the US and how is this sector helping Romanian realtors become successful?
M.L: I’ve been extremely lucky with my timing, I started investing in real estate around 2009-2010. I am not an expert but I do have valuable experience, and I rely on very good partners who know what they’re doing. Together we own and we run the business from A to Z. A significant number of Romanian American business people have made their money in real estate and I still consider it to be one of the best investments out there, especially for the unsophisticated investor.
N.G: What are the gaps of the Romanian community in the USA that need to be addressed so that we become more united?
M.L: First, there is currently no “community” per se, there are many little communities, each with its own little fence around it. We need to start tearing down these little fences and reach out by helping out.
Second, the prominent members of the community, the opinion leaders, the religious leaders, intellectuals, and business people need to stand up and realize that it’s up to them to create and support the institutions that represent us here, in the United States.
Third, I believe we need to copy what others have done well. We need to create an entire ecosystem of institutions addressing the needs of the community: philanthropic organizations like RUF, and perhaps more importantly, knowledge, information and business networks.
Ideally, all of these are strategically coordinated at international level, and with a great deal of support from friendly and long-term oriented Romanian institutions and counterparties, following the Irish model.
N.G: Do you have any message for the National day of Romania?
M.L: “Desteapta-te romane” wherever you are!
A whole new generation of Romanians has developed outside the country and a large amount of goodwill has built up. It’s our responsibility to harness it and use it. The largest mass migration in the history of Romania has the potential to change the course of history.
N.G: What are you getting ready for December 5th and why should Romanians join this event?
M.L: The first project we are fundraising for on December 5th is Via Transilvanica, a 1,000 hiking trail that will place Romania firmly on the tourism map of the world and will draw 20 to 50 thousand visitors to Romania yearly.
The project’s extreme success has exceeded any previous expectations, and has shown Romania how much can be achieved with so little, if you just dare to dream big. Almost half a million dollars were raised in a matter of months for Via Transilvanica, and we hope to raise close to $100,000 in the United States.
The reactions to our calls have been amazing. Romanian American communities from New York, San Francisco, Washington, Boston, Key West, Atlanta, Seattle and even Toronto and Montreal fundraising for Via Transilvanica through RUF, small groups of friends raising at least $1,100 to build a kilometer and get their names written in stone for a hundred years.
Anyone can “build” or “buy” a milestone for themselves, for their children, or in memoriam of a dear friend. Donations can be made online at ruf.nationbuilder.com/donations and we’re also one click away on Facebook, just “Like” our Romanian United Fund page.
We also hope to do a lot more than fundraise for Via Transilvanica. We are setting up groups of Romanians and Americans to go visit Via Transilvanica and learn about our country. And this is just the beginning.