Henry Cisneros has spent his life working to improve US cities, first as San Antonio’s City Councilor in the 1970’s, then as the city’s mayor for eight years and then as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Bill Clinton.
Today he is chairman of CityView, an urban real estate development company, and a partner at investment banking firm Siebert Cisneros & Shank. Recently he spoke with Reuters to offer the life lessons he has learned regarding his own aspirations, and the mix of family, business, and politics that resulted.
Q: What was your first experience working?
A: My first job was in the family business, my grandfather’s print shop in San Antonio. I worked summers there doing gopher work - moving paper off of trucks, helping clean up. I liked it.
In that era, all of the leadership of the city needed some kind of printing, so my grandfather and my uncles knew everybody - the mayor, the union leaders, the political leaders who needed printed signs.
When I ran for City Council in 1975, at 27 years of age, I knew a lot of people by virtue of working there. I owe that print shop for associations that served me well for the rest of my political life.
Q: What about hanging out in that environment inspired you to go into politics?
A: I always knew I wanted to do something in public service. There were moments when I wanted to be a military officer like my father, who served as a private in the Pacific in World War Two and rose to a colonel by the 1970s.
But I was in college in 1968, the year Dr. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated, when cities were burning all across America. I concluded I wanted to help the country domestically.
That year, I picked up a copy of Time magazine with Daniel Patrick Moynihan on the cover, who was then described as an “urban-ologist.” I knew at that moment that I wanted to serve the cities.
Q: As you began to pursue that career, how did you support yourself?
A: At 21, I went to Washington with my wife, and while finishing my doctoral program at Georgetown I worked for Health Secretary Eliot Richardson. I spent another year at Harvard and MIT, and taught as a graduate assistant, which was enough to cobble together compensation there.
Back in San Antonio, the City Council didn’t pay very much, so I accepted a position as an assistant professor at the University of Texas. When I got to be Mayor, I continued to teach.
I believe if you’re doing real work, necessary work, then there will be a way to be compensated for it.
Q: What lessons about money do you hope you have passed on to your three grown-up children?
A: Money has never been the primary driver for me. I put an equal or even superior emphasis on doing good work, making the world better.
I’ll say I’m very proud that my son-in-law is president of CityView, the company that we created in 2000. My son and one of my daughters are also in the firm as well. My other son-in-law is associated with one of the umbrella structures that manages my investments, Cisneros Miramontes.
Q: Is that important to you - keeping your family close to your business?
A: I think it gives us a better chance of creating businesses that will survive my time. I never wanted to work hard just to make an income or build a business that would disappear once I retire.
Recently, my grandfather’s print business finally closed, but the building remained intact. I ended up buying the building, paying the back taxes.
Now I am building a creative workspace where young professionals can come in and use it. I’m very, very proud that we’ve been able to save the building and my grandfathers’ legacy.
Work was his life. He literally worked until the Friday before he passed away. He got sick on a Saturday, went to the hospital, died on a Sunday. He felt useful. He had a purpose until the end of his life.