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Finance Visionary Joe Duran Shares 5 Ways to Find Success in Business

By Andrea Anderson | Photography by Photography by Paul L. Newby II

June 28, 2023

WSB Dean Sambamurthy listens as entrepreneur Joe Duran speaks during a WSB Weikel series event.
Joe Duran came to the United States with $200 in his pocket before college. Since then, he has started and sold multi-million-dollar companies to General Electric and Goldman Sachs. 

There are different definitions of success, and there are different ways to achieve it. But there are principles people should follow to avoid losing themself along the way and compromising their values.  

That’s according to Joe Duran, an entrepreneur who has started and sold multi-million-dollar companies to global financial giants General Electric and Goldman Sachs

Duran shared his insights in a conversation with Vallabh “Samba” Sambamurthy, Albert O. Nicholas Dean of the Wisconsin School of Business at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, for an audience of Wisconsin MBA students, faculty, staff, and alumni as part of the M. Keith Weikel MBA Leadership Speaker Series held at the school. 

Duran’s path to success was anything but paved. He encountered hurdle after hurdle. If you knew him as a teenager, he says, it’s “literally unimaginably impossible” for him to be where he is today. 

His childhood in Zimbabwe was riddled with chaos and uncertainty. By the time he was 11 years old, he was working to support his family; his mother had told him he was the man of the house because his father was largely out of the picture. 

In his early teenage years, Duran had what some may call an “ah-ha” moment. Disinterested in school and with little drive, he listened to a teacher share a famous quote by Albert Einstein about choosing to live in a friendly or hostile universe. It was in this class he realized he needed to start living by what would become the foundation of his success.

Entrepreneur Joe Duran addresses the audience during the WSB Weikel event.
Joe Duran shares his insights with Wisconsin MBA students and Wisconsin School of Business Dean Vallabh “Samba” Sambamurthy.

1. Believe the world is kind.

Duran says if you think you live in a kind universe, you’ll believe it’s fair and things will work out. You’ll be caring and optimistic, and do your best. When the universe throws you a curveball, take a moment to step back and ask yourself, “What do I learn from this?”

On the flipside, Duran says, if you think the world is hostile, you will spend your life in suspended animation waiting for something bad to occur. And if you’re wrong, you’ll have missed opportunities. 

“That simple idea changed everything,” Duran said. “So I started working. I started paying attention. When I hit a bump in the road, I’d say, ‘Well, the universe says I should do it. I’m doing it.'”

Ever since that class, Duran has made choices that bring him closer to his goals, including leaving Zimbabwe. 

“The choice to view the world optimistically or pessimistically is absolutely a choice. And that’s helped me a lot in my life.”

—Joe Duran

When he was 18, he left the South African country for London—only to be mugged the day he arrived. He intentionally chose to remain optimistic. The next day, he landed a job as a night manager at a youth hostel. 

“You don’t get to choose what happens to you. But you do get to choose at every given moment what [you’re] going to do with what’s just happened—that is absolutely a choice,” Duran said. “The choice to view the world optimistically or pessimistically is absolutely a choice. And that’s helped me a lot in my life.”

2. Give more than you take.

By saying “yes” to opportunities, Duran has found himself on an endless journey of growth. 

He says he barely knew anything when he started his first company with a business partner in the 1990s. But he learned. He took chances. He trusted the universe. He says when he sold each company, he gave the majority of the equity from the sales to his employees. 

And while he admits it may not be the best financial move, it’s what he does to pay it forward. 

Sharing millions of dollars isn’t the only way to give back. The companies Duran has built were meant to help people without finance or business degrees feel confident in making informed financial decisions. 

“If you’re going to be successful in business in any capacity as an entrepreneur or anything else, the first question I ask is: How do I serve? What can I give you that is of use and how do I do that every day? How do I, every day, go to sleep knowing that I have given more than I got? Take that as a badge of merit,” Duran said.

WSB Dean Vallabh "Samba" Sambamurthy and entrepreneur Joe Duran laugh during a WSB Weikel series event.
Wisconsin School of Business Dean Vallabh “Samba” Sambamurthy and entrepreneur Joe Duran share a laugh during a M. Keith Weikel MBA Leadership Speaker Series event.

3. Know who you are and what you stand for.

Living a life of service is a driving force for Duran.

From the start of his career in finance in the ’90s, Duran had an appetite to do good for the world through business. He made a point of speaking in layman’s terms when he was talking about finance and money management. The intent was to make this information accessible and understandable. 

There were times in his career where Duran was asked to do things that went against the mission of his companies and his morals. When he was confronted by these situations, he didn’t compromise his integrity because he knew what he stood for and what mattered to him. 

4. Have a vision of who you want to be.

Duran is a lot of things. He’s a dad, a husband, a friend. He builds companies and writes books. He says it’s important to remember you are human, and you’re more than your job. 

After building successful companies and making a name for himself in the finance world, Duran found himself in a position where he wasn’t satisfied with his work—and his family could tell.  

It was within the last year, after his daughter told him he seemed miserable, that Duran realized he wasn’t following another mantra he has: Be who you envision yourself being. 

After mulling over his options and feeling his role at Goldman Sachs wasn’t helping him fulfill his purpose, he decided to leave. The job didn’t match the vision of who he wanted to be. 

“If you’re going to be successful in business in any capacity as an entrepreneur or anything else, the first question I ask is: How do I serve?”

—Joe Duran

“There is no money to cover up the regrets you make when you compromise your integrity,” Duran said. “And I don’t mean [losing your] integrity [as in] stealing from people. Real integrity is living the life you say you want to live. That is integrity.”

Duran operates through five-year plans. If the move from Goldman Sachs takes him a little off course from reaching his goal by age 60, he says he will at least know he made the decision believing in the universe and with courage, discipline, and integrity. 

5. Ask yourself, ‘What if I’m wrong?’

One of the questions Duran is asked most often is what advice he’d give his younger self. He says it’s important to ask yourself, even when you’re certain you’re right: What if I’m wrong? 

With every success Duran has had, there have been failures along the way. Each failure, he says, has revolved around him not asking this question. When you ask yourself this question, you’re allowing yourself to grow and consider other possibilities. 

“If you just open yourself to that vulnerability, you will attract the most amazing people to your world,” Duran said. “If you don’t know how to be in a growth mindset, start with one simple question: What if I’m wrong? The minute you crack that door, you become a growing human being.”