Bowdoin’s liberal arts curriculum doesn’t offer the same classroom opportunities in business and finance that many other schools do—but that’s not stopping a group of students from taking the initiative to carve out their own paths in the financial industry. Acadia Impact, which launched in March 2020, is the nation’s first student-run intercollegiate impact fund. Founded by Brian Ou ’23 and run by a team of 15 undergraduate analysts from Bowdoin and other schools across the country, it manages a portfolio totaling over $100,000 in assets.
Ou founded Acadia with Sofia Radionova, a sophomore at New York University’s (NYU) Stern School of Business. The two met at an NYU pre-college event in 2018 and bonded over a shared interest in impact, or environmental, social and governance (ESG) investing—investing with consideration not just of potential financial returns but also of the social and environmental welfare of a company.
Ou’s interest in investing and finance runs deep; a first-generation college student growing up in a low-income household, he has always had an interest in understanding how money works and how businesses grow.
“When I turned 18, I started investing,” said Ou in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “I opened a Robinhood account, the whole shabang, and since then I’ve read over 50 books related to investing, investing classes and overall portfolio management theory … It was definitely mostly self-taught. My parents didn’t graduate college and didn’t go into finance, so there’s nobody to hold my hand through it.”
The initial idea for Acadia came as a product of Ou and Radionova observing two key phenomena in the world of finance: a rise in the popularity of ESG investing and a lack of opportunities for students from underrepresented backgrounds to get experience in that branch of finance.
“I was looking at what I was going to do for … my freshman summer, [and I] didn’t have a lot of access to internships that were dealing with ESG or focused on responsible investing,” said Radionova. “So, I decided I wanted to create that experience for myself.”
Ou and Radionova officially launched Acadia in March 2020. Initially, the capital for the fund was cobbled together with individual contributions from its co-founders. However, once Acadia entered the fundraising stage, its capital grew significantly; friends and family members were enthusiastic about contributing and notably, an anonymous Bowdoin alum working in the finance industry contributed over $50,000 in seed capital.
“I’d say I was a little surprised when friends and family were willing [to invest],” said Ou. “Some of my friends’ uncles wanted to invest, and my cofounder’s parents wanted to invest … they know we’re hardworking, and they know we want to push this forward.”
Unlike typical hedge funds, which charge a two percent management fee and take 20 percent of any returns earned from clients’ money, Acadia charges no management fees and subsidizes operating costs solely by taking 20 percent of any returns paid to investors.
“Who are we to justify [charging a management fee]? We don’t have an office, we don’t have legal people to pay for—we’re just students. So we don’t charge a management fee,” said Ou. “But we do charge 20 percent of profits. The interests align because if we make money with your money, we all get paid.”
Since the early fundraising surge, Acadia’s portfolio has steadily grown to almost double its initial valuation, helped along by a booming stock market in the recovery from the pandemic crash in the latter half of 2020.
Part of it was definitely luck,” said Ou. “Back in June, the whole market was recovering, so we rode the wave up and invested in small cap companies … we were lucky to make a good couple picks.”
For example, Acadia invested in Celsius Holdings, a Florida-based energy drinks manufacturer, when it was valued at $5 a share. Now it’s up to almost $60 a share, a 600 percent return. Unlike other funds, Acadia also shorts, or bets against, companies. In anticipation of the Biden administration emphasizing incarceration reform upon taking office, Acadia shorted Geo Group, a real estate company that invests in private prisons, at $8 a share. Geo Group is now trading at $6, making for an investment that was prudent both “morally and economically,” according to Ou.
“We … focus on looking at what the company is producing and what the company is doing,” said Radionova in a phone interview with the Orient. “Is this something that’s impactful to society, and is this creating some systemic change or contributing to society in a positive way?”
Acadia Impact has strong connections to Bowdoin through both Ou and two of its junior analysts, Anna Constantine ’23 and Tristan Bradley ’23. But Acadia also offers its members connections and a sense of community with students from other schools. Drawing students from established “target” undergraduate business schools like those of NYU and the University of Pennsylvania, Acadia is staffed by a diverse group of students with a range of financial backgrounds.
“[We] have some kids from Bowdoin, and also from [bigger business schools] … it’s kind of all over the board in terms of what types of experience they’re getting in school,” said Radionova. “One of the commonalities between everyone is that everyone is super interested in learning more about the field outside of school. Although not everyone has the same classroom experience, you don’t really see much of a difference in terms of work ethic and drive and what [our analysts] can do.”
“We’re also trying to structure some more social events to get to know each other,” said Constantine in a phone interview with the Orient. “[I’ve been] partnered with a student from Rutgers, and he and I have gotten to share our different experiences because his school is more technically tailored to finance than Bowdoin is—but he’s taken a bunch of other classes as well!”
Constantine, who found the application through LinkedIn, was selected as one of 15 analysts from an applicant pool of over 90. Acadia’s analysts are unpaid, but they are encouraged to invest in the fund themselves to reap the benefits of their investment decisions.
Since being officially welcomed to the equities arm of the fund last month, Constantine has begun her job of researching around 125 assigned companies to evaluate their social impact and economic potential before eventually arriving at a shortlist of eight to 12 companies for the fund to invest in. Constantine will be interning with the Federal Reserve this summer and, like other analysts, expects to continue participating with Acadia while pursuing another internship in the finance sector.
Ou hopes to grow Acadia’s portfolio to $150,000 by the end of 2021, as well as to hire a new class of analysts in the fall and start a new venture capital arm of the fund. As Acadia grows, though, Ou is committed to maintaining the core values that he views as the most important aspect of the organization.
“The whole mission behind Acadia is threefold,” said Ou. “First, [we want to] create an opportunity for Bowdoin students to get hands-on capital markets experience … Second, helping students [from] underrepresented backgrounds break into prestigious roles in finance typically reserved for students at target schools or the white and wealthy … And the third is cultivating responsible investors who want to invest in a more equitable and innovative society.”