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.
"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.
As part of the program, Brandon and other students developed their own business plan. One fellow student wanted to open a skateboard shop. Inspired by the private equity and hedge fund boom, Brandon wanted to start a mini-hedge fund. "It blew me away," says Jay Ellis, a regional manager of Washington Mutual in Manhattan and instructor in the program.
With encouragement from Ellis and others, Brandon sought investors-mainly his uncles-and combined their contributions with his income from fixing neighbors' computers to create a meager fund with just over $5,000. The fund was legally structured as an investment club and operated under his parents' names, but he used some hedge fund techniques such as taking positions both long (betting a stock price will go up) and short (betting a certain company stock price will go down) in the market.
Brandon ran the small fund for eight months out of his book-filled bedroom in the small apartment where his family lives in an urban but gentrifying neighborhood in Brooklyn. Why does he call his company Mariner Investment Advisers? "We are navigating the market and the market is like a sea," he says. "There is sometimes a lot of turbulence." Despite the turbulence in 2007, his fund made positive 30 percent returns during the eight-month experience.
Brandon's room is full of neatly stacked papers and corporate reports. A series of clocks on his walls show time in Paris, Tokyo, Chicago, Moscow, and Hong Kong so he can keep track of when foreign markets open. His younger siblings, Christopher, 6, and sister Joralyssa, 10, sometimes use ticker symbols, referring to McDonald's as MCD. Brandon's baseball glove and bat are behind a stack of books. He said he likes playing catcher on his local team because, like trading stocks, it involves a lot of strategic thinking and split-second decisions such as what pitches to call and whether to throw a runner out who is leading off first.
With an unusual level of professionalism, Brandon trained and hired three neighborhood friends-all in their early teens-to serve as industry analysts for his investment fund, making them participate in early morning conference calls at least once a week before the markets open and weekly markets training at a coffee shop after chess practice. With those three young men off to college and high schools now, Brandon is recruiting new analysts for a re-launch of his fund (marinerinvestmentadvisors.com).
Brandon, as CEO, on several occasions last year attended investor and analyst meetings at fancy hotels for companies in which his small fund held positions. He and his father would go to the meetings, and Brandon would pose questions to executives such as Lakshmi Mittal, one of the wealthiest men in the world and majority owner of the world's largest steel company, Arcelor Mittal.
A reporter from The Wall Street Journal met Brandon at such an event and profiled him for the newspaper. After the story appeared, Montfort Academy in Katonah offered Brandon a scholarship. Dozens of readers got in touch with him and pledged to invest between $5,000 and $10,000 apiece for a total of between $250,000 and $500,000 when Brandon re-launches his fund.
"Taking their input is crucial to shaping strategies," he says. A large Manhattan law firm is handling the legal work for his fund pro bono (he only pays for filing fees), and several Wall Street banks have taken an interest in Brandon. He consults mentors at Bank of America and may have an internship at another bank this summer.
Brandon is preparing to re-launch a small hedge fund under his Mariner Investment Advisors brand this summer with a pledged investment pool of more than $250,000. It's the second iteration of the fund he initially launched last year. At the moment, besides his schooling and extracurricular activities, he's busy filing paperwork with lawyers, communicating with investors, and preparing to hire analysts to work for him. His mom will be a partner in the firm and Brandon will be CEO. He says he worries about that relationship a bit. "I'm CEO and in charge in that respect," he says. "She's my mom. She's in charge in that respect."
His mother does worry sometimes that Brandon is growing up too fast or getting into uncharted territories, but other advisers assure her that he will be fine. Some experts on gifted young people such as Sylvia Rimm, a Cleveland-based child psychologist, say that parents like Judith and Terence are doing the right thing to be supportive as their children take risks. She says they should be ready to be supportive whether the ventures turn out as successes or failures, particularly in a risky area such as professional investing.
"We try to not restrict his steps but to monitor his steps and provide a safety net for him and provide other safety valves for him. We try to instill values in him," says Brandon's father, who has played with the Duke Ellington Orchestra in the past and speaks with a smooth, jazz-style cadence. "I don't worry too much about it. It looks as though he does make decisions that are healthy and that are wise. . . . He has strong faith in God. That keeps a good head on his shoulders as well. As far as what we monitor and observe, I think he will be all right."