Robert Reffkin

By The Editors
March 11, 2013 9:00 am

As a Berkeley kid raised by a single mom, Robert Reffkin was known as DJ Zahav, the Golden Hebrew. Now he’s one of New York’s leading philanthropists and hottest startup players, angling to change the real estate market forever. Introducing InsideHook’s inaugural Man of the Month.

Robert Reffkin stands tall in a black suit at Morandi.

With $8 million in seed funding from an impressive crew of financiers — including Founders Fund, the CEO of AmEx, and more — you could say he’s flush.

The former White House Fellow, Goldman exec and charity marathoner (he’s run 49 in 49 states, we’ll come back to that) is weeks away from launching Urban Compass — a startup, he says, that will help New Yorkers make decisions in one of their city’s ugliest, no good, very bad markets. 

Yes, that would be real estate.

And lately he’s taken an intense interest in waitresses – but not for the reason you may think.

“It’s hard to find people who like to make people happy,” he says, referring to the real estate industry, and business in general. “That’s what they do at the great restaurants. It’s that simple.”

Is it? Are Keith McNally’s waitresses going to help you find an apartment? Lower your rent? Help you find the right school district?

Reffkin smiles — it’s a wide, disarming, could-be-mayor smile — but he won’t say, not exactly. Urban Compass is under wraps until April. But the company has attracted some very high profile talent from two very different industries.

Like his co-founder Ori Allon, the engineer who sold his first two companies to Google and Twitter, and Gordon Golub, former executive vice president and director of rentals at brokerage firm Citi Habitats.

You could say it’s Reffkin’s sense of purpose that unites those disparate careers.

“If there’s a theme to everything I’ve done,” he says, “it’s been helping New Yorkers.”

From someone less dedicated, that would come off as vain and boastful. 

But Reffkin, 32, a man who was raised by a single mom in Berkeley and graduated from Columbia in two years, has nurtured a lifelong devotion to New York City and philanthropy.

He serves on the Board of the Citizens Committee for NYC. He serves on the board of Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx. He was appointed by Mayor Bloomberg to serve on the Panel for Educational Policy.

He also founded New York Needs You, the most time-intensive career mentoring program in NYC. And he founded Bronx Success Academy 1 elementary school.

Then there’s the small fact that he’s about to complete 50 marathons in 50 states to raise $1 million for youth education programs. 

Reffkin started Running to Support Young Dreams in 2007. 

“I was running one per month,” he says. “The only thing that prevented me from doing number 50 was Sandy.”

Reffkin will finish this November. For now, he has a few commitments to keep him busy.

Seven months ago he founded Urban Compass. Six months ago he was married (and yes, they’re expecting). And with the backing of an all-star team, he’s out to change the face of New York real estate.

To hear him tell it, the secret to that success will be customer service.

As he’s saying this, a runner retrieves Reffkin’s napkin from the floor and drops a fresh, crisp one in his lap.

“See that? That attention to detail?” he says. “That’s how you make people happy. That’s what we want.”

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