Paul Soros: A Life Not Hindered by “What If?”
Long before NYU-Poly coined the concept of i2e—the interplay of invention, innovation and entrepreneurship—a 23-year-old immigrant and former Olympic skier enrolled in the university. It was 1949, and the name Paul Soros was not yet synonymous with engineering ingenuity and entrepreneurial genius. In fewer than eight years, Soros’ world—and the global shipping and transportation industry—would be transformed forever.
Soros came to the United States from Hungary, following a childhood and early adult life that was the stuff of both dreams and nightmares. During World War II, Soros and his family—father Tivador, mother Bozsi and brother George—left behind a comfortable life of privilege, dodging Nazi deportation by living separately in Budapest under false identities. While their strategy kept the family safe until the Russian siege of the city in 1945, it did not help Paul escape capture by the Russian military police. As a military-aged young man he became a prisoner of war. While in transit to Russia he escaped, risking his life.
When the university reopened he became a student in mechanical engineering. As a member of the Hungarian national ski team he spent the winters on the international ski racing circuit throughout Europe. But political developments again forced Paul to consider a major – and risky – life change. He described his decision to leave Hungary following the Communist takeover in 1947 as a crucial one saying ‘I hated the totalitarian set up so much, I had to get out’.
Given a passport to participate in the 1948 Winter Olympic Games in Switzerland gave him the opportunity to defect. He moved to Salzburg in the American occupied zone of Austria, applied for graduate study and was accepted by Stanford, Harvard, Columbia, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He came to the US on a student visa at Christmas 1948 and he arrived in Manhattan with $17 and a Leica camera that he sold. “I simply had no time to think about what would happen next, I just knew it would be alright,” he remembers.
He spent the winter of 1949 on a skiing scholarship at St. Lawrence University and the summer as a tennis-pro in the Adirondacks and eventually saved $1,500 to further his engineering education. A family friend, Tamas Bardos, encouraged Soros to consider applying to Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, where he was an adjunct faculty member in the chemistry department.
Soros followed Bardos’ advice and ultimately chose to attend Poly, attracted both by its long history of innovation in engineering and by the chance to get a high-quality education affordably. During his time at Poly, he was introduced to a professor whose words would soon motivate and embolden him to become an entrepreneur. Soros recalls Professor Arias, who taught Engineering Economics, telling his students “if you didn’t have a clear career path by age 30, you would never be successful.” Soros was 23 at the time.
After receiving a Master of Mechanical Engineering degree in 1950 he worked for a year for a heavy construction company and then became a sales engineer for Hewitt-Robins, an international manufacturer of bulk material-handling equipment, at a salary of $400 a month. He married Daisy – a fellow Hungarian whom he met at International House – and traveled the world on business, on track to become a senior executive.
On a business trip to Chile Soros had met a group of Hungarians who owned an iron ore mining company that needed a loading port but couldn’t afford the estimated $2 million price tag. They joked with Soros that if he could build a port for $1 million they would be interested. Paul spent the summers of his childhood at the Soros' summerhouse on an island in the Danube next to the passenger terminal. He watched hundreds of ships dock and un-dock and used to sit with other kids on the mooring lines. Seeing who got lifted, when and how high and how fast gave him an insight on the behavior of mooring systems. He came up with the idea that holding the ships with mooring buoys, rather than tying it to fixed marine structures, would work and require less initial investment. He remembered the words of Professor Arias and he took the plunge, tendering his resignation from Hewitt-Robins at exactly age 30.
Soros Associates was founded as a one-man operation with one client – with the potential to become a global business if the project was successful.
Years later, when asked about the courage needed to strike out on his own, leave a comfortable salary and start his own business, Soros seemed unfazed. “The most serious challenges were behind me by the time I was 22,” he said.
The same principle, mooring buoys instead of fixed structures, made it possible to load and unload ships in rough seas where it was not feasible to tie the ships to fixed structures. The first port of this type was at Port Latta, Tasmania, one mile offshore. This project won the American Consulting Engineering Council’s Annual Engineering Excellence Competition in 1968, as did other Soros projects in 17 following years.
The unique combination of his engineering background, knowledge of the materials handling industry, and maritime know-how had guided Soros in a new engineering specialty. Before the first project was even completed in Chile word had spread that Soros Associates had cracked the code and could build bulk ports for less and received orders for two new ports in Chile. The business grew quickly, and continued to expand as Soros introduced technological innovations that produced significant reductions in the capital and operating costs of very high capacity installations. Eventually Soros Associates worked in 90 countries and was responsible for engineering the highest capacity ports in the world for iron ore, coal, bauxite, and aluminum. He received the Outstanding Engineering Achievement Award from the National Society of Professional Engineers in 1999, the Grant Medal from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in 2000 and honorary doctorates from Bates College, City College, and NYU-Poly.
More than 60 years after his graduation from Poly, Soros was honored at the Inaugural i2e Gala, celebrating the spirit of entrepreneurship and the promising work of student innovators. In a video address to a crowd of more than 300, Soros shared a piece of wisdom that, not unlike the advice he received at a young age, will stay with students for a lifetime.
He recalled being at a crossroads while at Hewitt-Robins, faced with the decision of whether to stay or start his own business. "I felt, if I didn’t try to do something as an entrepreneur, I’d be stuck as an executive and I would always be bothered by 'what if'," Soros said. "My advice to students who have a desire to do something as an entrepreneur is to do it. Otherwise you will never find out.”
Paul Soros has described his life as "riches to rags to riches again," and remains passionate about the role of a quality education in helping young people create opportunities and achieve success.
In addition to the family’s generous gifts to NYU-Poly, including major gifts in support of the Department of Chemical Engineering and seed funding to start a novel graduate program in financial engineering, the family established the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans in 1997. Now a $75-million program, the Fellowship awards 30 annual fellowships to immigrants or children of immigrants with grants of $90,000 toward tuition and living expenses for two years of graduate study.
“The idea of having a building with our name on it didn’t appeal to us,” said Soros, remarking on his interest in placing a philanthropic emphasis on education. “ I was hoping these Fellows would make a real contribution to American culture and economy.”
The diverse successes of former Soros Fellows speaks to a dream fulfilled. They have become entrepreneurs, acclaimed music composers, White House lawyers, teachers and medical researchers.
This year, NYU-Poly established the Soros Prize for Creative Engineering, honoring up to three undergraduate or graduate mechanical or civil engineering students who devise a standout, innovative design idea or invention.
In his closing comments to NYU-Poly students at the i2e Gala earlier this spring, the visionary engineer, entrepreneur and philanthropist issued a reassuring promise. “If you’re able to spend your working hours on something that is stimulating or interesting,” he said, “you will have a great life, regardless of money or anything else.”