Last January 150 Northwestern alumni and family members gathered in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, high above New York City's Columbus Circle and just outside of Central Park, for Salon 2010, an evening of conversation, entertainment and laughter with comedian Stephen Colbert.
It was the fifth in a series of salons hosted by David Kabiller (WCAS85, KSM87) to explore topics of interest and relevance with a select group of alumni who are invited by the University trustee. Kabiller began organizing the salons in 2005 to strengthen Northwestern's philanthropic community in New York and to encourage graduates to contribute time and resources to the University.
Before founding the hedge fund AQR Capital Management in 1998, Kabiller had spent a decade at Goldman Sachs, where he saw strong bonds among alumni of other schools. But at the time he felt that Northwestern wasn't competing on the same scale.
Jonathan A. Rosen (WCAS81), co-chair of the New York Regional Council of the Northwestern University Leadership Circle, says the salon events have done a great deal to build community in New York. "In the beginning," he says, "the room was full of new faces, but now it's a room full of friends."
Kabiller underwrites the salons, while Northwestern's Office of Alumni Relations and Development helps organize them. The 2010 event was the largest so far, in part because of the night's special guest: Colbert (C86), host of The Colbert Report on Comedy Central (see "A Funny Man of Good Report," winter 2005). (Guest speakers at past events have included artist Jeff Koons, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, the late Tim Russert of NBC's Meet the Press and Northwestern professor Chad Mirkin.)
After the guests finished their drinks and headed to their dinner tables, Kabiller took the stage briefly. He thanked everyone for coming before ceding the stage to his co-host for the evening, University President Morton Schapiro, and to Colbert, who warned Schapiro that as the 16th University president he's "Northwestern's Abraham Lincoln" and should stay away from the theater.
While Colbert's TV character boasts of a Dartmouth College undergraduate degree, the real Colbert lauded his Northwestern education. In an hour-long talk, he gave the audience the inside story on his show and career and credited the University's theater program in the School of Communication for his successes. "I was able to go to the best theater school in the U.S. and still get a fantastic liberal arts education," he said.
Colbert's point served to underscore another aspect of these salons. As Kabiller raises greater awareness for Northwestern University in the New York metropolitan region, he's also helping current students. He has created awards for an undergraduate student and a graduate student who have demonstrated academic excellence and are planning careers in finance. This year the salon honored Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences senior Harrison Shih, of Austin, Texas, and second-year Kellogg School of Management student Jason Stulberg of Bloomfield Hills, Mich.
Today, Kabiller's AQR Capital, which specializes in alternative investment strategies, manages almost $25 billion in assets. When Kabiller came to Northwestern, he considered a career in medicine but soon discovered he had a head for business.
From 1985 to 1994, Kabiller's parents ran the Sports Source, a Northwestern apparel store on Orrington Avenue. Those were bleak years for the Northwestern football team, but in 1985 David Kabiller heard a rumor that a major publication was going to rank Kellogg the No. 1 business school in the United States. Overnight he commissioned a T-shirt called "A Step Above," which featured a student climbing a staircase emblazoned with the names of other prestigious business schools. Kellogg was the top step.
The next day Business Week named Kellogg the country's No. 1 business school. Irving Kabiller, David's father, says the store opened at 6:30 a.m. and sold all 700 shirts in 90 minutes.
To this day David Kabiller is trying to tap into a deeper wellspring of support for Northwestern.
Marley Jay (J04), a reporter for the Associated Press, lives in New York City.