Hedge Fund Wizard Building a Legacy at UVA Early On

Jaffray Woodriff, the investment whiz who made his fortune at a relatively young age with predictive modeling, has made a big impact in a short time at his alma mater University of Virginia. His recent $10 million gift toward the school's big data science program is the latest in a five-year run of grants to benefit the school, totaling more than $30 million.

Born and raised in Virginia, now based in Charlottesville, Woodriff has used his mastery of investment data to build the $4 billion-plus managed futures firm Quantitative Investment Management. Paying tribute to his golden goose, the investor's private foundation Quantitative Foundation pledged the most recent grant to advance the emerging field of data science at the school.

At just 44, Woodriff has become one of the school's biggest benefactors, with his foundation making a string of sizable grants since 2010, just a few years after the self-taught trader started to make a big splash in the investment world. He made back-to-back $2 million grants for education support in 2010 and 2011, then another $4 million for education in 2012. His foundation that year also donated $12.4 million to build a state-of-the art squash facility at a Virginia sports club to serve the UVA squash program. Woodriff is an enthusiastic fan of the sport.

The latest $10 million gift will go to the endowment of University of Virginia's new Data Science Institute, a cross-disciplinary center that will focus on using and interpreting meaning from the heaps of data drawn from arenas such as e-commerce, environmental monitoring, and finance. The university will also provide $7 million to the endowment.

“I believe it will pay tremendous dividends for the students, the commonwealth and society in general,” Woodriff said in a statement. 

And dividends are his thing. Woodriff grew up on a farm in Virginia, and after graduating from UVA, taught himself trading out of his apartment. He did pretty well for himself, and with his friend Michael Geismar, co-founded Quantitative Investment Management (QIM), which has since skyrocketed to more than $4 billion in investments and the top of many investors’ lists of funds to watch. (Fun fact about Geismar: In 2012, he went to a hedge fund conference in Vegas and went home with $710,000 in blackjack winnings.)

Woodriff has been described as monastic, working isolated in a windowless room, monitoring the computer models that lie at the heart of QIM’s successful investments. They have staff, but Woodriff makes the predictive models and adjusts them over time by himself. What exactly do they do? No idea! It’s dizzying stuff. As one investor told a writer in 2009: 

I have had clients visit QIM to try to understand how its models work, but few have ever come back and said they had a thorough understanding of their methodologies—and these are very smart people.

With his $10 million endowment in the Data Science Institute, Woodriff is hoping some other very smart people can help make sense of the river of numbers that increasingly rules all of our lives. Data science research focuses on some major transformations happening in society. We are collecting and storing massive amounts of data from our many systems, and are increasingly able to make powerful mathematical models to make that data useful in science, engineering and other applications. The center will offer instruction and research across such fields as engineering, science, medicine, business, ethics, and computing; the institute is also developing a masters, an undergraduate minor and eventually a Ph.D. Program.

Considering the Quantitative Foundation just got going in 2009, this is likely only the beginning. Assuming his data crunching continues to reap dividends, Woodriff and the University of Virginia appear to be at the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Learn more about Woodriff’s foundation here and about the Data Science Institute here. Jaffray Woodriff has a blog, and he's on Twitter.