Social Media Legend GaryVee’s Russian-Jewish Family Shaped His Worldview

The entrepreneur, vlogger, author, and keynote speaker has founded over half a dozen companies in several industries.

Many comedians, influencers, and celebrities have taken to livestreaming to uplift and entertain during the prolonged period of sheltering in place. I’ve personally found no show does a better job of inspiring and building community than “Tea with GaryVee,” hosted by business leader and social media icon Gary Vaynerchuk. Since late March, GaryVee has been streaming his daily Q&A show that provides practical guidance, emotional support, and conversations with up-and-coming artists and small business owners looking to make an impact while staying afloat during the pandemic.

If you don’t know GaryVee, he’s the fast-talking, aggressive, “don’t give a fuck” motivational speaker whose viral Instagram and YouTube videos will either make you hate him or love him.

He’s known for being a serial entrepreneur, vlogger, author, and keynote speaker who has founded over half a dozen companies in several industries. He initially rose to fame by transforming his family’s mom-and-pop liquor store into a $60 million-a-year wine business using online marketing and social media. He took that knowledge and created VaynerMedia, a social media marketing firm which runs the marketing for major companies like Kraft Foods, PepsiCo, and Sabra Hummus. In addition to managing his 1,000-person company, he gives regular keynote speeches around the world and interviews celebrities and entrepreneurs on his podcast.

I was first introduced to GaryVee about three years ago and was instantly hooked. After watching a few of his videos (and by a few, I mean around 10 hours worth) I also learned that GaryVee was a Jewish person. Born in the Soviet Union, he immigrated to the U.S. with his parents when he was 3 years old. The title of Gary’s live show is a reference to the Russian-Jewish tradition of having tea with guests, which Gary has been doing for years with his business colleagues. Gary attributes his extremely intense work ethic to his Russian father, Sasha, who regularly worked 80-100 hours a week to feed his family when they first came to this country.

As I do with many celebrities, I did a Google search to find out more about Gary’s Jewish upbringing and identity. I quickly discovered that he met his wife on JDate, but there wasn’t much more information available than that. I had hoped he would have done an interview with a Jewish newspaper or made a passing reference to what being Jewish meant to him. But alas, nothing came up. Gary is notoriously private about his personal life, so it wasn’t surprising that his Jewish identity wasn’t easily googlable.

Luckily, GaryVee created a content library where anyone can search the entire corpus of his online videos and podcasts for a particular word or phrase. As someone who loves Jewish identity snooping, this tool was the ultimate way to find out more about Gary’s Jewish identity. Naturally, I searched for Jewish, Judaism, and similar terms, eagerly awaiting for the results to populate. I was like a kid in a candy store.

Over 70 results popped up, and a picture of Gary’s Jewish journey started to form. At age 3, his parents were allowed to leave the USSR via a trade deal where the Soviet Union would exchange Jewish asylum seekers for wheat shipments from the USA. The experience his family had in the Soviet Union left a big impact on him. Following WWII, both his grandfathers were sent to the Gulag in Siberia for little more than just being Jewish. In the Soviet Union, there was no need for plausible cause to imprison you, especially if you were a Jew. The government imprisoned thousands of Jews on spurious charges, many of which were outright fabrications. In the video below, from 32:44 to 34:48, Gary tells the story of the adversity his family overcame as Jews who had to flee the Soviet Union.

The trauma Gary’s parents underwent instilled a sense of humility and gratitude for the opportunity to live and work in the United States. From age 14 to 34, he worked alongside his father in the family liquor store. It was then he created one of YouTube’s first video blogs with a show called “Wine Library TV,” where he promoted and sold wines online. The success of the series led to an appearance on Late Night With Conan O’Brien, where Gary was first introduced to a national audience.

His family’s experience with persecution is also a bond that Gary feels draws him closer to other marginalized groups. A story he shared from his childhood is how he remembers his grandmother yelling, “Jew, Jew” when a Jewish celebrity came on the TV. It bothered him at first; he thought his grandmother shouldn’t just be celebrating Jewish accomplishments, but everyone’s accomplishments. Later he came to see that much like African Americans and other marginalized groups, when people from disadvantaged backgrounds see one of their own represented in the media, it brings them a sense of joy and inspiration that they too can achieve success. In the video below, Gary shares that story with radio host Charlamagne tha God from 18:34 to 20:26.

It is clear that being Jewish played a big role in who Gary is and how he sees the world. His insatiable drive to succeed combined with his humility and gratitude for the opportunities he’s been given is a mentality that has typified American Jews for several generations. It’s the same mentality I saw in my own grandfather, who was born to Russian Jewish immigrants who escaped pogroms and who eventually started his own printing company.

As a third generation American, sometimes I struggle with feeling like I should have gratitude for the financial prosperity available in America, while at the same time feeling an obligation to criticize America for its many shortcomings. GaryVee leans heavily on the gratitude side of the scale. He believes that each of us, regardless of our backstory, family history, and limiting beliefs, can make a better life for ourselves as long as we are grateful for our opportunities and humble to work hard and achieve our potential. Even though it’s difficult, I have chosen to adopt Gary’s mantra of gratitude, optimism, and humility.

A recurring theme in Gary’s videos and motivational speeches is taking action despite fear. On a recent episode of “Tea with GaryVee,” he encouraged a young artist struggling with insecurity to put her work up for sale on her Instagram page. Two weeks later, she reported back saying that she was completely surprised when her artwork sold for $80 within a few days. I tune in each morning to “Tea with GaryVee” to see an inspiring and compassionate (and Jewish!) business leader sharing valuable nuggets of wisdom, perspective, and emotional support to people struggling in this pandemic, and I know the world will be a better place long after because of it.

You can watch “The Tea with GaryVee” every weekday at 9 a.m. EST on Instagram live, Facebook live, and Twitter.

Header Image of Gary Vaynerchuk by Brian Gove/Getty Images.

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