Dec 18, 2023 - Business

Axios Finish Line: Talking leadership with Vlad Tenev

An illustration of Vlad Tenev of Robinhood surrounded by blue squares and quotation marks

Illustration: Axios Visuals. Photo: Robinhood

Vlad Tenev is the 36-year-old CEO, president and co-founder of Robinhood — the stock-trading app that vastly undercut Wall Street brokerage fees, and kick-started a new era of retail investing.

Why he matters: Tenev is determined to turn Robinhood into a global financial platform — reaching way beyond the 23 million customers (mainly in the U.S.) who have used the app since its 2013 start.

Born and raised in Bulgaria until age 5, Tenev grew up in a crumbling economy and during periods of hyperinflation. "I remember always thinking about finances, being aware of them — and recognizing that if you were in control of your finances, that's a superpower," he told Axios.

  • Hope talked with Tenev at Robinhood's office in Manhattan earlier this month:

1. What one sentence describes your leadership style?

  • "I like to get into the details."

2. What's an unorthodox dimension of your leadership style?

  • "I really care a lot about people being aware of their numbers … for how their business is operating."
  • "If I'm in a meeting, talking to business leaders, [details and numbers] are the things that I try to really, really emphasize."
  • Tenev added that he also likes to see that people on his team understand why and how their work ties into Robinhood's mission.

3. You grew up without a lot of money. Have any early financial habits stuck with you?

  • Tenev's mother had a ritual where she went through the monthly credit card bill line by line. Any mistakes, she "would call and get it reversed."
  • "For a while, I did that [before realizing] 'OK, wait a minute, I'm spending some amount of time … negotiating a $10 savings. Maybe that's inefficient.'"

4. Do you see the world through different eyes now that you've accumulated wealth?

  • "Yes, I think that the best kind of gift that you can get is being able to trade money for time."
  • While Tenev said that he spends the extra time he has gained on work, what he values is time with his family.
  • As a kid, Tenev thought he'd grow up to be some kind of collector: He loved Legos so much, and his family could only afford one "little toy Lego ambulance. I remember [thinking] if I have money, I would get every Lego."
  • But then when he could get every last Lego, he realized: "Having more stuff, there's just more things to worry about. … That drains me of energy rather than giving me energy."

5. Is there something you do splurge on?

  • "Creature comforts. ... The first time I came into a little bit of money, I got a really nice comfortable couch for my living room, which I still have."

6. You and Robinhood were vilified during the GameStop saga. Elon Musk said recently that he doesn't care if he's hated. Do you care if people like you?

  • "Depends on the people," Tenev said. "It's a fool's errand to try to make everyone like you."
  • "I'd like to think that over the long run, if we keep delivering and doing good things, my brand is synonymous with the Robinhood brand. I think it'll improve as Robinhood's brand continues to improve and vice versa."

7. What's your blind spot?

  • He's been trying to be more visible in public — talking more to the press, being more proactive on social media and communicating with customers outside of product launches.

8. What's the one book — business, philosophical or cultural — that most shaped or reflects your leadership?

  • Tenev, who holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in mathematics, said he remains "very passionate about math," and still picks up his old books to see if he can still solve problems.
  • He recently read "Proofs and Refutations," which he described as "almost like a philosophy book about the structure of mathematical inquiry."

10. What's one thing you do outside work that helps you perform optimally at work?

  • "I work out a lot … some combination of cardio and strength training."
  • While his sleep schedule varies every week, he averages a little bit more than four hours a night — owing to fewer hours during the week, and more on the weekends to catch up.

🤳 1 fun thing: What's one of the first stocks you bought?

  • 3Com, which he bought in the '90s, made computer networking equipment like routers and modems. The company, founded in 1979, was acquired by Hewlett-Packard in 2010.

This story is from an Axios Finish Line interview series on leadership.

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