What Is This Wall Street Quant Worried About? STEM Education, Naturally

What happens when not one brainiac, but two, start a family foundation?

Consider the case of John Overdeck and his wife Laura, who established the Overdeck Family Foundation in 2011. Overdeck cofounded and cochairs Two Sigma Investments, a New York-based hedge fund with some $25 billion in assets under management. But before Overdeck found success on Wall Street, he was a bright young mathematician, who, in the 1980s, was an International Mathematics Olympiad silver medalist. Overdeck got his B.A. in mathematics and his M.A. in statistics from Stanford University. Laura, meanwhile, holds a B.A. in astrophysics from Princeton University and an M.B.A. in public policy from the Wharton School.

Should it be any surprise that the couple has made STEM education a big priority of their emerging philanthropy?

John Overdeck first came to our attention last year, when we were digging into the funding behind the National Museum of Mathematics, or MoMath, which opened not long ago in Manhattan. Overdeck was one of the rich Wall Street "quants" who helped make the place a reality.

RelatedMeet the Hedge Fund Quants Who Built New York's Math Museum

In a way, the Overdecks remind us of another brainy couple in philanthropy, James and Marilyn Simons. In the case of hedge fund billionaire Simons and his wife, who both have Ph.D.s, their lifelong interest in science and math has led to philanthropy focused on pushing forward the frontiers of these fields. 

Unlike James and Marilyn Simons, the Overdecks are just getting started (and aren't yet billionaires), but the one-two punch of a couple with this kind of background and interest in STEM is worth digging into. Just what do we know about the Overdecks' philanthropy so far?

1. The Overdecks' Education Philanthropy Has Four Key Components

The Overdeck Family Foundation has four key interests, and they are all centered on education: "Early Impact," which assumes that a child's first years lay the groundwork for future success and well-being. "Exceptional Educators" aims to prepare teachers of the highest quality. "Innovative Schools" looks at structuring and organizing schools to achieve the best outcomes for kids. And "Inspired Minds" is focused on getting kids excited about STEM.

It's worth noting that while the foundation doesn't have a specific STEM grantmaking program, each of the different interest areas considers the impact of math and science on lifelong outcomes. For instance, the "early impact" focus area states that the "effects of a solid, early foundation last into adulthood, improving the likelihood of excelling in reading and math, graduating from high school, and attending a four-year college"

2. The Couple Has Bet Big on Early Childhood Through Robin Hood

Being a Wall Street guy, it's no surprise that Overdeck sits on the board of directors at the Robin Hood Foundation, the New York City anti-poverty giant that also runs education programming. (We wonder whether Robin Hood sends out membership cards to anyone who starts a hedge fund.) One of these education efforts is the Early Childhood Research Initiative (ECRI), a multiyear project between the Robin Hood Foundation and MDRC that aims to study the long-term effects of various early childhood programs.

The Overdecks gave $1.5 million to the ECRI in 2013, and are described as lead funders of the initiative. That's a big bet in a hot area by a funder that most people have never heard of. In 2012, at least $500,000 went to the Robin Hood Foundation. Another grantee in this area is Harlem Children's Zone.

3. So Far, the Overdecks' STEM Grantmaking Has Focused on a Few Outfits

Laura Overdeck is an advisory board member and the former chair for the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth (CTY), which in 2013, received $250,000 from the couple. Laura is also vice chair of the board of trustees at the Liberty Science Center in New Jersey. The center received $200,000 from the couple in 2013. The couple has also funded the NJ STEM Teaching Fellowship, and supported science outfits at Drew University in New Jersey. The common thread with a lot of this grantmaking is either a board membership or a New Jersey location, which is where the Overdecks reside. Overdeck also is vice president of the National Museum of Mathematics, and presumably that will be an ongoing funding focus. In addition, though, support has gone west to Khan Academy, the online learning giant beloved by a great many funders, as we've reported.

4. Laura Has Taken the Lead in STEM Efforts, Too

Grantseekers should also keep an eye on Bedtime Math, a nonprofit Laura founded which aims to position math as a fun, necessary and critical component in life. Bedtime Math provides a compilation of math problems for children. In an insightful TED Talk, Laura questions why an adult saying he or she can't really do math is acceptable, but saying he or she can't read certainly would be considered problematic.

Another reason why grantseekers should be aware of Bedtime Math is that because, as of right now, the Overdeck Family Foundation is only accepting unsolicited grant proposals for "large initiatives that will expand the reach of Bedtime Math."

The important thing to remember here is that the Overdecks' philanthropy is just getting started. It's unclear how much the couple is worth, but at the end of 2013, the Overdeck Family Foundation held more than $164 million in assets. While the foundation has yet to give away significant sums ($3.8 million went out the door in 2013), this could change down the line. Most of these Wall Street couples give more money as they grow richer and older, and the Overdecks are already ahead of the curve in establishing a solid philanthropic legacy. 

Related: John Overdeck Profile