Five Questions for David Centner

Miami-born tech executive David Centner has recently returned to South Florida, where he and his family are becoming an important part of the area’s philanthropic and physical landscapes. After successful corporate exits in New York — his most recent company, Highway Toll Administration, was acquired by Platinum Equity’s $6.5 billion global buyout fund — Centner and his wife Leila are even more focused on humanitarian efforts. With the help of a $40 million donation to the Miami arm of the Newark-based Teachers Village Project – a national move toward building affordable housing for educators – the Centners are instrumental in bringing to Miami a mixed-use project, currently in the design phase and slated to offer workforce rental housing and condos, as well as office space, retail shops and a hotel. The Centners and their foundation support over 50 philanthropic organizations nationally though locally, they focus on a select few: JAFCO, Lotus House Women’s Shelter – their $2 million donation funded the David and Leila Centner Culinary Center – and the Adrienne Arsht Center for Performing Arts, having recently sponsored the Imagination Ball. SocialMiami editor Brett Graff sat down with David Centner and got his take on rising up in tech, giving back to the community and living life in Miami.

You left Miami after graduating Sunset High, then to Wharton Business School of Business and so many successes in New York… what brings you back? 
My heart’s always been in Miami, Miami was good to me. We are each a product of our environments and we don’t realize how good or bad we have it until we have distance. I can look back now and see my upbringing in Miami and I know the caliber of my friends shaped me in having the success I had. The fact that it was a public school, developed by the city of Miami and the citizens of Miami, I feel the community gave me something. The city, I now see, shaped who I am today.

Being from here, how have you seen the city change?
On arrival you can’t help notice how much joy is in the area, it’s one of the most joyful communities in the country. And it’s matured dramatically, now you have a vibrant, thriving young downtown community that previously was a parking lot. Not to mention world class restaurants and nightlife. It’s still early and it’s still the first inning of a great ballgame – we believe Miami is the best place in the entire country to live right now.

Certainly, you’ve been making an impact in the community – how do you decide on whether to support a philanthropic organization or cause. 
We have a fairly well articulated vision on the characteristics of the organizations we like to support: They all have components of sustainability. Meaning whoever is the recipient of the funds will help break the cycle of suffering. The culinary center at Lotus Village will teach women skills in a food services environment, cooking and serving, which will immediately make them more employable. They’ll leave the shelter, get jobs, support their kids and the cycle will have been broken.

What advice would you give to a person who wanted to break into the business of technology?
There are many avenues. Without a degree or any training, the best way is sales. Find a hot tech company and get a job in the sales department. Do as great a job as you can, then opportunities will start to reveal themselves – you can take it in whatever direction you want.
If you’re trained in a field such as development or coding or project management, you’re likely to be employable, so get in there. Once you’re in, you’re handed the ball so do what it takes to rise to the ranks — get some financing become an entrepreneur because once you’re in, you’re in. Getting in is 90 percent of the battle.

Now that you’re back (and out of high school!) what are some of your Miami favorites?
We live on Miami Beach we walk to the Fontainebleau with the baby strollers, enjoy the day by the pool with the kids in a cabana. There’s also adults pool party with a DJ. We enjoy the entire facility. For restaurants, The Forge was amazing recently, we went for Valentine’s Day it was so beautiful and romantic and the food was spectacularly good. I also like to go Cecconi’s, eat at the bar with a martini, that’s a lot of fun.

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