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

New York's National Museum of Mathematics is described as the coolest thing to ever happen to math. With a prime piece of real estate between Fifth and Madison Avenue, the museum opened on December 15, 2012 to reveal the wonders of mathematics and spark curiosity. It's been going strong ever since, with an expanding staff. 

You can think of MoMath, as its known (this being New York), as the museum that hedge fund geeks built. The idea for this venture came from Glen Whitney, a former math professor who worked at Renaissance Technologies, the Long Island hedge fund created by James Simons, another former math professor and now mega billionaire. Whitney did very well during a decade at Renaissance, like everyone else there, and soon was thinking about other things to do with his life besides quantitative trading. He started tutoring kids in math, and ended up leaving Renaissance to devote himself to creating MoMath -- an institution that could actually make math exciting. 

Whitney turned out to be superb fundraiser, putting together a working group that brought in millions of dollars, including early funding from James Simons and a $2 million grant from Google. 

Another key backer of MoMath was John Overdeck, a hedge fund manager and math whiz. Overdeck now serves as the museum's Vice President, a member of the Board of Trustees, and a major financial contributor to the museum. To channel his philanthropic giving, Overdeck started his own private philanthropy, the Overdeck Family Foundation, in early 2012. Not only has he begun running his own foundation, but he also sits on the board of directors for the Robin Hood Foundation. 

Overdeck brought deep pockets to MoMath as the co-founder and co-chairman of Two Sigma Investments, a New York-based hedge fund with over $20 billion under management. At Two Sigma, Overlook is responsible for a majority of the firm's model development, trade execution, and risk management capabilities. Prior to hedge fund's inception in 2001, he was the Managing Director at D. E. Shaw & Co and a vice president with Amazon.com.

Like Whitney, Overdeck has a long and involved history with math. In 1986, he won a silver medal in the International Mathematics Olympics, and he earned a mathematics degree from Stanford in 1989. He pursued his doctoral degree in statistics at Stanford and was appointed a Stanford University Professor of Mathematical Sciences in 2013. (You don't see that every day: New York hedge fund guys moonlighting as math professors in Palo Alto on the side.)

Before the math museum opened its doors, Overlook attended a gala/tournament to raise money, where he swept the competition and reined as champion with math questions that looked like this:

  • Call a set of integers "spacy" if it contains no more than one out of any three consecutive integers. How many subsets of {1, 2, 3, ……,12} are spacy?
    A) 89 B) 99 C) 109 D) 119 E) 129

“Lots of kids never get exposure to math other than some kind of boring work sheet,” Overdeck, said at a subsequent gala that raised more than $1 million for the museum in October 2013. “Our goal is to get them turned on to math at an early age.”

But math isn't only entrenched in Overdeck's professional life, as his family seems to share his obsession with numbers, equations and formulas. Before retiring, Overlook's dad worked as a senior mathematician for the National Security Agency, and his mom was the director for satellite communications software development for Computer Sciences Corporation. He is married to Laura Overdeck, author of "Bedtime Math," which is a compilation of math problems for children. Laura holds a degree in astrophysics from Princeton University.

At this time, Overdeck's foundation only accepts unsolicited grant proposals for large initiatives that expand the reach of his wife's “Bedtime Math” numeracy programs for three-to-eight year olds. Laura actually heads her own philanthropy as well, the Bedtime Math Foundation. Other major Overdeck grantees include the Center for Talented youth at Johns Hopkins, Khan Academy, the Liberty Science Center, and Math for America. But if early childhood math education is your cup of tea, reach out to Overdeck Foundation program officer Lauren Coape-Arnold at lauren.coape-arnold@twosigma.com