By Kevin Wang
At the heart of Phi Beta Kappa lies the motto “Love of learning is the guide of life.” Life is a laboratory of change, and it makes sense that it is crucial to navigate such change through continuous learning. For investors like Rick Witmer (ΦBK, Brown University, 1974), things are no different.
Witmer graduated from Brown University with an AB in American civilization after enjoying a quintessential liberal arts experience. His studies covered everything from psychology to political science, though to this day his true loves are still history and literature. The decision to study American civilization at Brown was a simple one for him. “I wanted to understand the American character, what it means to be American,” Witmer said.
After earning his bachelor’s degree, Witmer enrolled in Harvard Business School to pursue his MBA. This decision was not as straightforward. “I went to business school mainly because a number of the role models I admired had done it,” Witmer said. Witmer had taken economics classes and had even studied abroad during his junior year of college at the London School of Economics, but he had always thought he would go to law school. After interning at a law firm one summer, Witmer reconsidered his trajectory. “The work was fairly repetitive, and I knew I didn’t want that,” Witmer recalled. While the experience showed him what he didn’t want, it also showed him something he did want. Witmer enjoyed the advisory role of lawyers, and though he knew a life in law was not for him, he sought such a role in other professions. In 1976, after graduating from Harvard, he joined Brown Brothers Harriman (BBH), a privately owned financial services firm.
At BBH, Witmer not only found an opportunity to serve as an advisor to others but also found a way to deploy the skills he acquired through his liberal arts education. “Investing is a composite of three things,” Witmer explained. “Knowing your circle of competence, having good pattern recognition, and knowing yourself well.” In order to develop these capabilities, Witmer cited renowned investor Charlie Munger’s “latticework of mental models,” an approach to investing that integrates the biggest ideas from a number of different disciplines to help make decisions. From understanding adaptive systems in biology to studying human tendencies in psychology, economic phenomena from housing bubbles to the trends of capital markets can be perceived from combined perspectives.
Though Witmer works in the financial industry, it is his time that he invests in a cause he cares deeply for: not-for-profit education. From 2008 to 2013, Witmer served on the board of Teach for America’s Connecticut branch, and this year he was elected as Chairman of the Springboard Collaborative, an organization that aims to increase literacy rates among low-income populations. According to the 2013 Nation’s Report Card, 80% of low-income students in America are reading below grade level, a statistic that shocked Witmer. “I was motivated by outrage to do something,” he said.
But Witmer’s fight for equality in education sprang from much more than a simple gut reaction against injustice. It is rooted in a lifetime of devotion to the love of learning. “Investing is about seeking the truth,” noted Witmer, “much as history is.” Phi Beta Kappa has cherished the pursuit of wisdom and learning for more than two centuries; for Witmer, the search began long before the day he received his key. “I was always driven by incredible curiosity and learning,” he said. “It’s just the way I’m wired.”
Kevin Wang is a senior at Yale University majoring in molecular biophysics and biochemistry. He was elected to ΦBK as a junior and is currently serving as vice-president of the Yale Phi Beta Kappa chapter. Yale is home to the Alpha of Connecticut Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, founded in 1780.
Follow Kevin on Twitter @kkwang23.