Christos Cotsakos stepped down as CEO of E*Trade (ET) more than two years ago. Now he has reemerged as the chairman of a $40 million fund-raising campaign to build an educational facility near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. The new Vietnam Veterans Memorial Center will provide a history lesson on the war for the wall's visitors. On Apr. 22, Cotsakos will travel to Vietnam as part of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund's project to remove land mines from the area.
BusinessWeek Staff Editor Jessi Hempel recently talked to Cotsakos about his charitable work, new business ventures, and his thoughts on the company he steered through the dot-com years. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:
Q: Why is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund important to you?
A: I have always been a big believer in the armed services. My godfather was in the U.S. 101st Airborne. I was in Vietnam in 1967-68 as a fire-team and squad leader with the 101st Airborne Division. That was a character-defining era for our nation.
Q: How did plans for the new educational center emerge?
A: The museum was a three-and-a-half year legislative struggle. In November, 2003, legislation (H.R. 1442) was signed authorizing construction of the Memorial Center near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It has to be built underground -- and at no cost to taxpayers.
Our goal is to raise $1.5 million for seed money immediately. We hope to raise $7.5 million through December, 2005. Then we go into the major gift-raising phase where we need to pull together $20 million. We'll break ground in June, 2007, and then launch the final phase. We believe if we use military precision and financial discipline, we'll be able to pull it together.
Q: Does this project take on increased significance in light of the war in Iraq?
A: Especially during times of unrest in the country, the veteran can be a great teacher. All wars are sacred, and all veterans are heroes. But Vietnam was such a character-defining moment for our nation. It stands out above all other wars in that it both galvanized and polarized us as a nation.
Q: What else have you been doing since you left E*Trade?
A: My wife, Tami, is my business partner. We spend about a third of our time on our philanthropic endeavors. We do three things: We work with William Patterson University where we are raising additional money for the business school, and we support a lot of faith-based charities. The third is our work with the Vietnam Veteran's Fund.
Q: And the rest of your time?
A: I work with Pennington Ventures, which does startup work. And in 2004, I formed Money & Living Holdings to fund the entrepreneurial phase of a product we hope to launch in 2006.
Q: Can you tell me about the product?
A: I've had a concept for financial media that has been around for about six years. It's a way to provide financial information through media and entertainment. It's very visual, incorporating both podcasting and blogs to tie into how we reach a larger group. We're focusing on the 18-32 demographic. We'll provide content and distribution. We have about 10 programs in the can. We will do original programming.
Q: So it's TV programming?
A: Think of it as HDTV for financial media. It's a way to make it really accessible, easy, simple. Too much of finance is medicine and prescriptive. Everything else is kind of left by the wayside.
Q: You're doing a lot!
A: When you're always hyperactive, you get involved a lot.
Q: What do you think of what has happened at E*Trade since you left?
A: When I was there, we built the category known as online investing. We built the brand, and we defined the space. We built the supermarket brand for banking and online brokerage, tying them together.
Today, the world has shifted dramatically. You shouldn't just have a me-too strategy. I'm looking for them to reinvent themselves again, and I haven't seen that yet.