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An Interview With Ram Lee and How He Deals With Burnout

1. What do you love most about the industry you are in? I invest in all manner of assets and strategies all around the world.  This means I could be discussing stocks in China in the morning, and then consumer debt investments and power plants in the afternoon.  There is both variety and depth to […]

1. What do you love most about the industry you are in?

I invest in all manner of assets and strategies all around the world.  This means I could be discussing stocks in China in the morning, and then consumer debt investments and power plants in the afternoon.  There is both variety and depth to researching markets, strategies, and investment managers.  In order to determine the right strategies and markets in which to invest, me and my team spend a significant amount of time understanding a wide array of markets, their economic drivers, the current valuations and macroeconomic and geopolitical risks.  Alongside analyzing markets, I have the opportunity to meet with the most accomplished expert investors in each market and strategy in which I invest.  The combination of original research and meeting with top investors keeps the business of investing interesting and makes me love it.

2. What keeps you motivated?

My central motivation is to have an investing track record over my career of which I can be proud.  Growing Seven Bridges and taking on clients is about one thing: providing good risk-adjusted performance appropriate to their needs and expectations.  So, while I expect the firm will have more assets and more clients 5 years from now, that is not my focus.  The most important thing for me five years from now is to be able to look myself in the mirror and say that I make the best decisions to the extent of my ability at the time and was focused on performance.  In some ways, even if the clients are pleased, if I do not think our performance is excellent, then I am not satisfied.  The business of investing is as much art as science.  If the numbers could tell me what investments to make, then all investors would make the same investments, using the same data.  Thus, investing is as much a judgment business as an analytical one.  In order to make those judgments, I have to stay motivated to explore new areas, sectors, markets, and strategies.  While all of that is intellectually stimulating in various ways, having a strong investment track record over the course of my career is what motivates me to do that. 

3. How do you maintain a solid work life balance?

While I am always ‘on’, in terms of being reachable and responsive to emails and such, I do not believe that hours worked in the office is the most important determinate of success.  If I receive a work email on the weekends or in the evening, I am very likely to respond that day or evening, even if it’s way outside of normal working hours.  Being very responsive and always ‘on’ actually makes it easier to have a good balance between work and non-work hours spent.  Some people prefer to keep their work and personal life hours very separate, to avoid work invading all aspects of their day and night.  For me, by staying engaged on work issues most of the time (including on vacations and the like) actually allows me to have a better balance of official non-work hours.  I can be out of the office or doing something with for my five children, without worrying that work will suffer.  

4. What suggestions do you have for someone starting in your industry?

Anyone who wants to be in the investing business needs to have a strong curiosity about life and lots of different areas of it.  In a sense our work is never done, since once an investment decision has been made, it can be re-evaluated and changed (usually) at almost any time.  If someone is not naturally curious and interested to learn more, then the quality and level of work can stagnate.  So before considering an career in investments, it’s important the understand what you like and dislike in a job.  Do you like to complete tasks or undertaking ongoing research?  Investing is more research than completing lots of tasks and the fulfillment that comes from crossing things off your list.  Do you prefer to work in a team or more independently?  While there is a lot of discussion before decisions are made, the process of researching investments is more done independently.  Do you do well in less structured environments without a lot of deadlines or do you thrive when there are clear deadlines and deliverables?  The investment business requires people to be self-starters who are motivated to learn and to research even without defined deadlines or deliverables. 

5. What is one piece of advice that you have never forgotten?

When someone works with large numbers in finance, millions and billions, it can be easy to start to think only in percentages.  That is, moving $5 million dollars in a $250 million portfolio is only a 2% change.  That may not seem like a lot, just 2% of funds moving within a portfolio. But five million dollars is five million dollars.  When I graduated business school at Yale, I went to work at the UPenn endowment, which was just under $4 billion at the time.  Someone who had worked on Wall Street for many years, with experience working on very large deals, gave me the following advice: “The number are so large, you have to ‘pretend’ it’s real money.”  It was his way of saying to not forget that every dollar being invested was an actual dollar, not just a percentage.  I’ve never forgotten what he told me and try to remember that, while the percentages may be small, it’s real money and it’s a real responsibility to invest it well.

6. What is your biggest accomplishment?

Personally, my five children are my biggest accomplishment, and the thing about which I have the greatest feeling of satisfaction.  Raising five children, four boys and one girl, to be responsible, kind, caring, intelligent, engaged individuals is the greatest challenge I’ve had as a person.  Now that three of my kids are in college, it’s very rewarding to see them branching out on their own, and using aspects of the upbringing that their mother and I gave them. In some ways my biggest professional accomplishment came early on: obtaining such a senior position so young in my career.  I was a managing director in the investment office of one of the largest endowments in the country at the age of 31, after only four years in the business.  Most others in my position had 15-30+ years of experience more than me.  Obviously, I am grateful to the leadership of the endowments at which I worked, who were willing to promote me based upon my performance, rather than simply my tenure.

7. What’s one piece of advice you would give to others?

Try to inculcate and engender in yourself a growth mindset.  A mindset that sees challenges as opportunities to learn, rather than tests that result in either success or failure.  If you do not know a lot about an area that your team is discussing, then that is great opportunity for you to ask lots of questions rather than holding back.  If you make a mistake, own it and, if necessary, apologize, but do not think that defines you or says something about your competence.  See it as an opportunity to learn and be better next time.  Without a growth mindset, it becomes harder to admit mistakes.  People start to see any mistake as failure, rather than learning.  They think every outcome says something about how smart or competent they are. With a growth mindset, you learn from both your successes and your failures. 

8. Outside of work, what defines you as a person?

Caring for and service to others is the trait those who know me well would say defines my non-work life.  I have five children and my love language is ‘acts of service.’  I’m generally willing to lend a hand to someone who needs help, even basic, manual labor things like moving and fixing things.  When I have some time and a homeless person approaches me in New York City, I do not ignore them (unless they seem deranged).  I answer their questions and ask some of my own about them.  I try to show some care to them as individuals with their own interesting story, whose final chapter has not been written yet.  I care greatly about helping people who have been victims of sex trafficking, and the focus of my giving has been towards organizations helping women get out of the sex trade in Southeast Asia. 

Ram Lee is a partner at Seven Bridges Advisors in New York City, which oversees approximately $5 billion in assets for a range of medium to large clients.  Raised in Colorado, and educated in Philadelphia and New Haven, Ram initially studied history and economics at the Honors Program at Swarthmore College before transitioning to finance while earning an MBA at Yale University.  After Yale, he joined the investment teams at the UPenn endowment and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute endowment.  He joined Seven Bridges, www.sevenbridgesadvisors.com, as a partner and owner in 2013.

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