Sunil Thakor ’99: Investing in Education

“It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Colby,” said Sunil Thakor ’99, who names the Economics Department and Colby crew as the two biggest influences on his education and his personal development at Colby (aside from meeting his wife, Kristin Fairman Thakor ’99, who is also a Colby grad). Both helped prepare him for his current career with Sands Capital Management, LLC, where he co-manages a $3-billion global growth fund. “We invest in growing businesses all around the world—everything from Google and Apple to a motorcycle company in India, a stock exchange in Brazil, and an instant noodle company in China. There’s no instruction book for how to do my job, so I guess I’m a pretty good case study for the old saying that a liberal arts education does a terrible job preparing you for your first job but a great job preparing you for every job thereafter.”

Thakor gives a lot of credit to his economics professors for his career success. “The substance of what they taught was very interesting and helpful, but it was a lot less important than how they taught it. David Findlay’s classic exam question would be to give us a headline from the Wall Street Journal and ask us what we thought about it. You had to take everything you’d learned and apply it to this real-world situation. You had to use logic and judgment. Those were among the toughest questions you could get in a class, but they forced you to do a lot more than just regurgitate the textbook.”

Being a member of Colby crew gave Thakor a somewhat different experience than most students because of the pre-dawn training sessions and the camaraderie that was forged. “It taught me about hard work and all the unglamorous stuff that has to go into being successful at something, and that has carried through to my career,” said Thakor.

Whether or not to invest in a company is a fairly broad question, says Thakor. Some of the answer is in financial analysis. “You have to know your way around an income statement and a balance sheet, and you have to know something about accounting. But that’s not really where the secret sauce is. There’s a lot of judgment involved in analyzing things like a company’s market position, its competitive advantage, and the quality of its management team. You’re trying to be a visionary about how an industry is going to evolve in the future.” For example, when Amazon released its Kindle three or four years ago, Thakor’s team had to understand the digitization of media and its implications—whether it was likely to change the way books are sold and consumed. “And you’re not going to learn any of that in a textbook. By the time it’s in a textbook, it’s obsolete. So every single investment in our portfolio is a mishmash of judgment that requires a bunch of different skill sets, very few of which show up in textbooks anywhere. You need to think for yourself and not be afraid to have an opinion that’s different from the consensus, and I learned that at Colby.”

“In the early days when we were launching our Global fund, there was a lot of unglamorous, unsexy, hard work that went into getting our portfolio up and running,” said Thakor. The team had to figure out such things as the custodial relationships needed to buy stock in a Brazilian company, how to use derivatives to gain exposure to Indian companies, and how to build out on ground research networks in places like China or Brazil, etc. “It all went on quietly alongside our day jobs over multiple years, and then out the end came a real business that’s now profitable. I liken that to starting out in the fall in a crew boat. You’re not in the world’s best shape, the boat’s really rocky, it’s not running along smoothly in the water, and your end goal is to win New Englands or win a big regatta in the spring. You win your spring regattas in January at five a.m. on a cold snowy day. Investing works the same way.”

When Thakor tells people what he does every day, they usually think it’s really exciting—living a globetrotting lifestyle, sitting down with the CEOs of major companies all around the world, managing big-time money. “Every once in a while I step back and think, ‘Man, this is pretty cool.’ But there’s a much bigger element that is just basic blocking and tackling, and much of it’s not that exciting. For instance, tonight I’m flying to Brazil. Three of us are going down for three days. We’ll spend two nights on an airplane, two nights in a hotel, and about ten or twelve hours in a minivan every day. We’ll sit in fast food outlets all across Sao Paolo and surrounding town and cities and observe. Then we’ll do six hours of consumer panels with a market research firm, sitting behind one-way glass while the moderator asks our questions about consumer dining habits.” The trip will help the team determine whether to invest in a major South American fast food chain. . “We are considering making an investment in, broadly speaking, Brazilians buying cheeseburgers. So let’s go watch and talk to a lot of Brazilians buying cheeseburgers and do our on-the-ground due diligence to understand how that business operates, what consumer perceptions are of the brand, where fast food and eating out fits into their lifestyle, how things like inflation affect their purchasing habits. When you get right down to it, much of the work itself is pretty unsexy. What’s fun, though, is getting an investment right, watching it go up a lot, and delivering strong returns for our clients. So the outcome of all this can be really cool even if some of the inputs are mundane and repetitive.

“I just made flying to Brazil for three days sound very unglamorous, but I have a lot of fun doing it. I really enjoy my job, and I get a kick out of coming to work every single day. When I look around at my close friends from Colby, they’re in about as disparate a set of careers as you can imagine, but the vast majority of them are having a heck of a lot of fun at whatever it is they do. Whenever I go back to the College, the vibe I get is that it’s still very much the same: a lot of incredibly smart, hard working students who also have the humility not to take themselves too seriously. They know how to work very hard and be very successful but also how to step back and have fun.”

Suni and Kristin Thakor have given back generously to Colby for years, and Suni also serves as an overseer. He said, “Colby is the best education money can buy, and I personally think it’s one of the most underrated schools out there for the caliber of education it provides. It has always bothered me that it’s inaccessible to many. I happen to be very fortunate that my parents were able to send me to Colby, but most people can’t, so I give to the Colby Fund every year, and I know a fair amount of that goes to financial aid.”

“Both my mom and my dad pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps,” said Thakor. His father immigrated to the United States from Ahmedabad, India, with nothing but a suitcase and a ticket to college. He worked his way through the University of Illinois and built a successful career in corporate finance, retiring as the CFO of a Fortune 500 company in Indiana. Thakor’s mother worked her way through college as a telephone operator. She eventually earned a Ph.D. and taught biology at North Carolina State. “All the doors that opened in my parents’ lives, they largely opened themselves through education and hard work. Many of the doors that have opened in my life, I opened through education.”

To illustrate his philosophy toward supporting education, Thakor points to the saying, “If you give someone a fish, you feed them for a day; if you teach them how to fish, you feed them for a lifetime.” “I’m not big on giving handouts, but I’ll pay for people’s education all day long,” he said. And the two educational institutions he really enjoys supporting are Colby and the KIPP Delta Public Schools. Colby because he knows how his money will be spent. “I would love the College to get to a point where it can be completely need-blind in admissions. While it has made tremendous positive progress in recent years, the College remains significantly underendowed Whatever I can do to help get it there, particularly on the financial aid side, is a big interest of mine. Education can open up so many doors for those who aren’t fortunate enough to be able to pay for it.”

The KIPP Delta Public Schools are a group of charter schools in Helena, Arkansas founded and run by a close friend and former teammate of Thakor’s, Scott Shirey ’98. “I support his schools in particular because I have a tremendous amount of respect for Scott as both a person and as a leader. The KIPP Delta schools are doing amazing work and I’m convinced the money will be put to the best use possible.”

Both at Colby and in the KIPP Delta schools, the recipients of his funds are doing the work themselves, Thakor knows. “Whoever gets a scholarship at Colby still has to show up and do the work, still has to go out and get themselves a job. At the KIPP schools in Arkansas, all the school and its support structure is doing is giving kids an opportunity; each student still has to learn reading, writing, arithmetic; they still have to get themselves into college on their own merits. In both cases I look at financial support as an investment with a big positive return, not an expense.

“There’s a fair amount of debate over whether a four-year liberal arts education is still worth it. I think the answer is unambiguously ‘yes.’ A high quality education lets people choose their own destiny.”
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