From Goldman Sachs to the NBA Part 2
Continuing our in-depth interview with Ryan Renteria
former Partner & Managing Director at Karsch Capital
and currently the Analytics Guru of the Indiana Pacers
In Part 1 of our exclusive interview with Ryan Renteria, Ryan shared his background story starting from humble beginnings to making partner at a multibillion dollar hedge fund at 25. Arguably at the top of his game with the career track that would be the envy of thousands across the world of high finance, Ryan retired from the investing business to dedicate the next chapter of his life to several charities in New York City. We pick up our conversation with Ryan from there:
You retired from Karsch Capital not long after turning 30. Not many people in that position would choose to do that. Why did you?
No question leaving the investing business when I did was one of the toughest calls I’ve ever made. I really admired my mom’s intense dedication to helping less fortunate people, but also saw the immense toll it took on her to work all week and then volunteer on nights and weekends. So I developed this dream of being able to volunteer to help disadvantaged people on a full-time basis.
Working on Wall Street provided me the best chance to gain the freedom and independence needed to realize that dream at a young age. I pursued this path and once I achieved what I had set out to do, I no longer wanted or needed to endure the massive stress and around-the-clock hours specific to the hedge fund business. So it was a logical time to transition to a new life.
Didn’t get a chance to read Part 1? Click here.
How did your colleagues react to your decision?
Some people thought I was absolutely insane, but many others emailed me very kind words and expressed a desire to do something similar one day. Everyone in the industry knows how difficult it is to land and hold onto a senior-level position at a quality hedge fund run by an amazing guy. Karsch Capital had trounced the S&P 500 since inception, performed well during the downturn in 2008 and doubled assets over the prior five years. So some people asked me how on earth I could give up my position there. Before deciding to leave, I obviously had lengthy conversations with people who made similar career moves and reflected in solitude a lot. Many others sent me very personal emails congratulating me, sharing their favorite charities and saying they would also like to take the plunge. A handful of people who were contemplating making a similar move asked me out to lunch to explain every element of my thinking and strategy.
Why did you decide to dedicate most of your time to volunteering?
As early as I can remember growing up, my mom was constantly reminding me that there were tons of people less fortunate than us. She emphasized over and over again that helping others was the right thing to do and one of our key family values. I watched her lead by example and a few memories stand out.
Every Christmas she would sponsor several of the poorest families at her school, collect money from other teachers and head to Target to buy everything she could on the Christmas lists of the kids (and parents!). A single mom who lived on our block was buried in medical bills from her daughter’s condition so my mom walked around the neighborhood and quietly collected funds that could help ease the burden. In the winters my mom would give away our blankets to homeless people who slept under the highway. I admired my mom so much, and I got this indescribable feeling every time I volunteered with her, that this became part of my core identity. Now I finally had a lot more hours to dedicate to volunteering.
Where did you volunteer?
On Mondays I volunteered for Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital’s Child Life group. Their goal is to improve the lives of children hospitalized with serious illnesses. I would visit kids bedside to play games, sing songs with volunteer musicians or just hang out so the parents could take a break. I went to Ronald McDonald House on Tuesdays. Children with cancer and their families live there while receiving treatment at a nearby hospital. I was part of a team of volunteers that served dinner to the families and planned fun activities for the kids. On Wednesdays I volunteered for Safe Horizon at the Manhattan Child Advocacy Center. They offer assistance to abused children. After an incident occurs, the child is brought to the center where I would engage him or her in activities that would foster feelings of safety and trust.
On the weekends I coached Special Olympics teams in five different sports. I would lead drills, teach the athletes basic skills and try to bolster their confidence. I also volunteered for the Make-A-Wish Foundation, helping grant wishes for children with potentially life threatening illnesses. At various times during the week I would interview kids to find out their wish, spearhead wish logistics and even attend wish days when they were local!
What were the most inspiring moments during your volunteering?
Three experiences stand out. First, Jeremy Bar-Illan inspired me on a weekly basis. He left Wall Street to pursue his passion to become a musician, lost his teenage son to cancer and became a volunteer musician, overcoming the pain of returning to a children’s hospital to share his unique gifts of music and empathy. Taking him to kids bedside, singing along as he jammed on the guitar and feeling the instant mood change in the room was one of the most incredible experiences of my life.
Second, our Special Olympics floor hockey team was selected to compete in the state championship tournament. In the title game, with literally one second left on the clock, one of our athletes scored a game winning goal. I nearly dropped the video camera running on the court to celebrate and the athletes felt on top of the world for months.
Finally, most Make-A-Wishes are very moving experiences. Kids are treated like VIPs as they meet their favorite celebrity, go bananas on a shopping spree or travel somewhere fun with their family. One time I was on an electronics shopping spree, the child had another $100 left to spend and he told me he wanted to give the money back so it could go toward another child’s wish.
What did you learn from the experience and did it have any impact on your career today?
Due to my experiences growing up and how my mother raised me, I already realized how lucky I was, was thankful for it and took little for granted. Those feelings grew much further after my volunteer experience. I became fairly close with some of the families, often seeing them for months at the hospital and then doing their Make-A-Wish. They were honest and hard working people who, to no fault of their own, now had a child with cancer, which often led to divorce and bankruptcy from medical bills. Despite this they maintained tremendous faith and rarely complained. I was also blown away by the positive spirit and sheer resiliency of these incredibly brave children going through the horror of challenges beyond what most of us can even imagine.
So in my career and life today, I am even more intent on thanking a higher power for not having faced this level of misfortune, channeling the spirit I learned from these families away from excuses and into expanding goals, and living every day to the fullest extent.
How else did you fill your time while you were retired?
I trained and sparred at Mendez Boxing, a long held interest since I had several Golden Glove competitors in my family. It took 4 months of training to achieve the absurd conditioning levels needed to spar 3-4 rounds and another few months of getting whooped by my sparring partner until I learned how to hold my own. I also learned stand-up comedy and performed at Comic Strip Live and Gotham Comedy Club in New York as well as some clubs in California. I wasn’t very good at it, but I enjoyed the frightening challenge of standing alone on stage and trying to make an audience laugh. I discovered how to cook exotic dishes from Thailand, Mexico and the Bayou. I also analyzed a lot of alternative investment possibilities, years later becoming a part owner of a Minor League Baseball team. Lastly, mainly out of curiosity at the outset, I read everything I could find on basketball analytics and began to explore developing a system.
It sounds like you were ready for a change, perhaps jump back into a career. What was the next step that you wanted to take?
Given I had been an ambitious competitor my whole life, it was naive of me to think I would be happy spending most of my time volunteering in perpetuity. Although this period was one of the best of my life and I was fulfilled spiritually, I started to crave intellectual growth, competition and that amazing feeling of helping a team win. However, I felt conflicted because I was doing good things in the world, so I sat down with one of the rectors at our church for a long conversation. Quite surprisingly, he told me it was alright to cut back on my volunteering and pursue a more balanced life that would bring both emotional and intellectual satisfaction. When I thought about my options it became clear.
Since I was a kid I had been a rabid basketball fan who dreamed of one day joining an NBA front office. Given this dream, my extensive experience in using analytics on Wall Street and the strong movement in the NBA toward utilizing more analytics, it became the perfect time to pursue possibilities in NBA analytics.
What was your strategy to make this happen?
The first part of the game plan was to develop deep expertise in basketball analytics. I read every book, academic paper and blog/forum post on basketball analytics that I could find. I examined all of the publicly available metrics and systems to understand their strengths and shortfalls, which helped me create my own proprietary system. I tested and tweaked my methodologies over and over again until I had a differentiated system that could help answer virtually any question an NBA front office or coach would have. The second phase of the game plan was to figure out how to communicate this knowledge in interviews and I learned a lot via numerous calls with industry insiders. I selected only the most crucial of my findings, put them into a succinct presentation in basketball language and customized the presentation for each NBA team. Another part of this phase was honing my resume and cover letter to convey why my Wall Street background made me a unique asset and ideal fit. The final part of the game plan was reaching out to an immense number of my business contacts to develop connections to the various teams.
What were the 3 biggest keys to your successful transition to professional sports?
I knew the odds of landing one of these roles were extremely low due to the limited supply of teams and huge demand of people dying to work in a sports front office. Virtually none of these teams had actual openings they were trying to fill so I needed to convince them my value would be substantial enough for them to create a new position for me. So the first key was methodical preparation. I spent a full year researching basketball analytics, developing an extensive set of proprietary methodologies and preparing all of my presentation documents to show teams I could be an immediate contributor. The second important aspect was customization. All of my documents (presentation, resume and cover letter) were highly tailored toward the specific teams’ needs and the executive with whom I was communicating. The final key was casting a wide net. Hit rates are low so I aimed for large volume when reaching out to business contacts for connections to teams and to industry insiders for informational calls.
In our third and final installment of this exclusive interview, Ryan discusses how the skills he developed at Goldman Sachs and in the hedge fund business helped him become a member of the Indiana Pacers’ front office and contribute to their efforts as of one of the NBA’s most successful and smallest market teams. Don’t miss it!