The Real TechStars of New York

Tisch Out of Water: David Tisch Navigates Startupland and Comes Out a TechStar

Overcoming the hurdles of privilege with the New York tech world's new crown prince.

“I TAUGHT MYSELF NOT HOW TO CODE, but how to talk code. So I could know if someone was bluffing,” Mr. Tisch says over iced coffee once we settle into Pop Up Burger, a restaurant he suggests for the virtue of being almost always empty. Mr. Tisch was discussing the last six months of his year-long stint at Vornado Realty Trust, his first job after graduating NYU. “I thought that I could get tricked into believing people could do stuff that they couldn’t, so I needed to be able to vet somebody I was going work with and to be able to call bullshit.”

For Mr. Tisch, attending law school a few blocks from Tisch School of the Arts was a different experience than the one he had growing up in Scarsdale where, he says, “I don’t think I quite understood how well it was known or anything.” The “it” in question being his family fortune.

Brooklyn-born brothers Larry and Bob Tisch, Mr. Tisch’s grandfather and great uncle, respectively, parlayed a string of hotels in the Catskills and Atlantic City into ownership of the Loews Corporation, which held $70 billion in assets by the time of Larry’s death in 2003. Larry’s takeover of CBS network, where he served as president and CEO until selling it to Westinghouse Electric for $5.4 billion is perhaps best told in his biography, The King of Cash, which compares him to his good friend Warren Buffet. For two decades, the noted philanthropist also headed the board of trustees at NYU, the school he graduated from at age 18.

“Yeah, were there moments when a professor would call on me and be like, ‘Is that the same Tisch?’ You sort of smile and move on,” Mr. Tisch explained. “I don’t take all that so seriously, because it’s not doing stuff for you on a minute-by-minute basis.”

Before graduating, Mr. Tisch completed summer associateships at Skadden Arps and Wachtell Lipton–white shoe firms where most law students would kill to work. But like most entrepreneurs, the-path-less-chosen is point of pride. “Wachtell said I was the first person and only person to turn them down within an hour. . .which was cool.”

So why go to law school at all? “My grandfather phrased it as ‘learning how to think,’ which I think is something you probably do in the first six months of law school and the next two and half years you realize you’re in a vocational school,” said Mr. Tisch.

That kind of candor should come as no surprise of fans of the “TechStars” reality show who watched Mr. Tisch welcome finalists to the program with the words, “Don’t blow this fucking opportunity.”

“His style is much more outgoing and aggressive, which is probably kind of a New York thing,” said David Cohen, one of TechStar’s four co-founders, who moved his family from Boulder to New York to help launch the first class. “My style is much more subtle and Socratic…I like to help entrepreneurs find the way and he likes to aggressively say: ‘Here’s what I think.’”

But before Mr. Tisch could trade barbed one-liners on screen with tech luminaries like Fred Wilson and Mark Suster–two of TechStars’ mentors with at least a decade of experience on him–there was another career path to avoid. “I’ve been pretty adamant my whole life about trying not to work for my family,” said Mr. Tisch. In fact, it’s something of a tradition. Mr. Tisch’s father, Daniel Tisch, was the only one his brothers not work for Loews. Of course in the Tisch household, paving your own way meant running the risk arbitrage team at Salomon Brothers. “I looked at what my father had done. He had worked at Salomon Brothers and worked his way up there and left to start his own thing and never really worked under the family umbrella. I thought that was really cool. And I think my grandfather respected my dad for that and I looked up to him,” Mr. Tisch added before trailing off. “And I don’t listen well.”

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