Melody McDonald, a career investor who now serves as the honorary chair of Jack McDonald’s popular Stanford GSB investments course, says that her late husband advised his students to focus on three things: staying humble, working hard, and being kind. Owen Wurzbacher, a current research assistant for the course, embodies all three of those goals, she says.
While studying human evolutionary biology as an undergraduate at Harvard University, Wurzbacher was heavily influenced by the work of Nobel Prize-winning behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman.
“A lot of the work I did as an undergrad was focused on looking at why humans think the way they think and make the decisions they make. I studied a lot of Kahneman’s approaches in intuitive and reflective thinking, and I found those frameworks to be really useful. I also spent time thinking about how they applied to human cooperation.”
But the 27-year-old Seattle native also had a passion for investing. He spent four years as an analyst at Highfields Capital Management in Boston and the Blackstone Group in New York.
“Investing is a lot about people and a lot about human decision-making. Investors will talk about how market opportunities come into existence because people think very short-term and act emotionally when they ought to be rational. So the study of human behavior is highly relevant to long-term investment success. To me, investing is in many ways an applied version of the things I studied as an undergrad.”
He’s also intrigued by the idea that businesses that focus on long-term horizons, as well as human capital, can outperform those that focus on quarterly earnings.
“I think a lot about how short-term our orientation to the world has become in business, investing, and arguably politics. And I tend to think that most good things take a while and take a lot of hard work. Sustainable businesses are filled with people who care about one another and are excited to walk into work. Warren Buffett has talked about tap dancing to work every day, and I think really good businesses have that mentality.”
While at Stanford GSB, where he is an Arbuckle Leadership Fellow, Wurzbacher is also pursuing a master’s through the Graduate School of Education. He describes education as one of his passions and attributes that to his mother, who works as a mental health counselor with adolescents and their families and manages teen health clinics in Seattle public schools.
“My mom has worked in social services her whole life, and her values were instilled in me very early on. I’m aware of how much she sacrificed to get me into these incredible schools. Education can unlock so much human potential — I come alive seeing other people be their best. And if you can help a young person see why learning is important and give them the tools to participate in finding their future, it’s a higher calling. I don’t know how education will be a part of my life 10, 20, 30, 40 years from now, but I know it’ll be a part of it.”
Wurzbacher has joined Stanford GSB’s Women in Management group as a board member, in part because he recognizes the importance of diversity in the business world. He considers his participation on the board to be among the most important things he’s done while pursuing his MBA.
“I’d basically been on teams that were predominantly male. That wasn’t good for those organizations and didn’t reflect the fullness of what the world looks like today and will look like going forward. I was curious about my own blind spots and knew there were some things I might not be picking up on. Classes like “Touchy Feely” (the nickname for the school’s popular Interpersonal Dynamics course) are really good for exploring how the things you say, how you behave, and even how you look can impact the way people perceive you. I thought that being a part of Women in Management would be a great opportunity to learn from people who have thought more about those things than I have.”
Wurzbacher’s immediate post-graduation career path is set: Two former colleagues from Highfields have asked him to join a new Boston-based investment venture.
“It combines my passion for entrepreneurship, which is a huge piece of what brought me to Stanford, with my passion for investing. The firm we’re building will focus on public markets and is adopting a long-term perspective. The investment community has continued to shrink its time horizon. In business terms, time-horizon arbitrage is what we call it. Having a contrarian view and being able to think long-term when the rest of the world is thinking short-term — to be greedy when others are fearful — is an underlying principle of what we’re building.”
Photos by Kiefer Hickman