Features

Junior exec

Culture | Meet Brandon Conley: teenager, high-school student, hedge fund operator

Issue: "Ethiopia's new flower," May 31, 2008

NEW YORK CITY- The life of a budding 15-year-old investor is rarely sluggish.

After a youth choir practice at St. Malachi's Church in midtown Manhattan, Brandon Conley and his younger sister, Joralyssa, meet up with their mother at a nearby coffee shop, where Brandon is supposed to log in for an online class with an experimental high school for gifted youth that Stanford University has started.

There's no wireless access at the first coffee shop. So his mom takes her two younger children to a local park while Brandon grabs a laptop bag and dashes across busy 8th Avenue to a Starbucks where he grabs a table, opens the laptop, plugs in an ear bud, and is racing against the clock, getting past firewalls to log into class. Starbucks' site requires money so he searches for other free signals and, finding one, makes several attempts before hitting success.

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"Yes! Six minutes to spare," he says, pumping his fists. Before long, a Stanford professor's face appears on a video feed. A Power Point presentation appears with the title "Democracy, Freedom & The Rule of Law" and bulleted points to follow. Brandon and students from across the country are now chatting in a chat room with the professor. He's drinking his second cup of coffee; the first one earlier that day had two shots of espresso. He's trying to cut back.

This is an afternoon glimpse into the fast-paced world of a young man going for a nontraditional education in the Big Apple. His parents have figured they could best educate their children by turning them loose on opportunities New York has to offer and using the internet to find top-notch resources.

Brandon, the oldest of three children in the Conley family, is like any other 15-year-old in some ways. He wears braces and doesn't yet need to shave. He enjoys Seinfeld reruns and animated films. His favorite sports are chess (and he'll argue that it is a sport) and baseball. He cheers for the St. Louis Cardinals even though his dad likes the Yankees.

But in another sense Brandon is not your average 15-year-old. He usually wakes at 6 a.m. for a two-hour subway and train commute to a high school in Katonah, N.Y. During the journey, he enjoys reading financial newspapers and checking stock quotes on his cell phone. He usually wears a shirt, tie, and sport coat-partly because of the school dress code and partly because he enjoys dressing up. He prefers the online high school through Stanford because it suits his learning style.

Terence and Judith Conley had homeschooled Brandon up till this past fall, when he received scholarships to attend the online high school with Stanford as well as Montfort Academy in Katonah. (They still home educate their two younger children and are very involved in Brandon's education.) They initially homeschooled Brandon when they realized they couldn't afford expensive private schools in the New York City area and didn't want to send him to public schools in their neighborhood that are often rife with violence and underachievement.

Terence is a jazz pianist who grew up in Detroit, Mich. Judith is a classically trained pianist and computer programmer whose family emigrated from Haiti. They met at music school in Boston (Terence is finishing his bachelor's at a local college in New York). Together they've found ways to educate their children using both an improvisational method as well as a systematic approach to technology and schedules.

Judith Conley says she sees herself as an educational consultant who gauges what her children are interested in and helps them discover the best resources to pursue those interests in New York City, in book curriculum and on the internet. Faith is part of their focus as well. "It is sort of like a rudder in a world where there is such change," she said. "Faith has always been a foundation for our lives, for our marriage." The family attended the Brooklyn Tabernacle for a time, but now they attend a Catholic parish.

They discovered that dozens of Wall Street banks and other financial firms have launched websites, created investing games, and offer financial literacy training programs for young people. Citigroup, for example, is spending $200 million over 10 years for various financial education programs, including games, workshops, and school curriculum.

Since Brandon was naturally developing an interest in markets and investing, his parents enrolled him in several financial education programs, including a four-part financial literacy course in 2006 sponsored by Washington Mutual, the Junior League, and a nonprofit organization called Out of the Box.

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