Former Yves Saint Laurent ceo Paul Levy sat down with The Atlantic’s Steve Clemons Wednesday to talk about his career and his take on the economy. Now founder and managing partner of private equity firm JLL Partners Levy spoke at the Hudson Hotel as part of  the magazine’s “View from the Top: Exploring the Route to Success.”

Levy said of his YSL days, “It turned out to be remarkable preparation for private equities. We had about 50 licensees and I had to go out and get new licenses. I had to call companies, meet ceos and convince them to do business with us. Then if they became a licensee, I had to manage the relationship, supervise their conduct and work with them in a productive fashion which is a lot like private equities.”

He described his experience as Drexel Burnham Lambert’s managing director as “awesome.”

Asked about the economic recovery, Levy said, “The biggest thing that is holding us back today is we have imagination but we don’t have encouragement. I think what’s coming out of Washington is a very disruptive tone. And success is not admired as it once was. I like many of you in this room grew up with the Horatio Alger myth — right or wrong — the idea was if you worked hard, played by the rules you would succeed.

“Capital has an opportunity to be a very creative and liberating force. Robert Nova wrote a book about the religious aspect of capitalism…there is a certain ethic that comes from the pursuit of success. It requires discipline, responsibility, accountability so I think the pejorative tone that has been coming out of Washington is populous and it’s rant. It’s just really not where we ought to be. The question is, ‘How do we grow the pie?’ I don’t have an easy answer for that but I think if we encourage that it can happen.”

As for his hobbies, Levy said, “I am actually learning a lot about Caravaggio. I am a supporter of a school in the city for gifted minority boys. I gave a lecture to them about Caravaggio. I had spent two weeks studying the churches in Rome and flying to Naples to see a few more Caravaggios.”

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