We welcome Eric Sassano to the podcast today. Eric earned his B.S. in Business Administration at the University of California at Berkeley and currently finishing his MBA at Haas. He works in Investment Strategy at Compound. Before joining Compound, he was with Caprock Group as Manager of Private Investments. Eric began his career at Hall Capital Partners, a multi-family office based in San Francisco. He initially spent his time advising clients on portfolio allocation decisions. Subsequently, he focused on research and due diligence for the firm’s Private Equity and Venture Capital fund investments.
Eric grew up close to Berkeley, so it’s no surprise that he is a Double Bear. In this episode, we get to know a little about his upbringing, growing up within the Berkeley ecosystem, his experiences both in undergrad and graduate school, and why going to business school is one of the best personal investments he has ever made.
Eric also shares what got him in the investment space, how portfolio management works, and the future of investing.
On growing up within the Berkeley ecosystem, getting his undergrad, and coming back for graduate school
“I was pretty awestruck by that experience. And such a beautiful campus. I never really appreciated that growing up, but as I’ve come back to Berkeley again, some of my best memories are taking walks throughout the campus. And so, that’s been an important part of just being immersed in this, again, just long-tenured history.
I’m fortunate to have that younger perspective and now a little bit older perspective. And I’ve certainly tried not to take it for granted because I think life is happening fast at 18, 19 years old. And you miss out on certain things just because things are moving so quickly. So, as I’ve come back, it’s really trying to take the time and appreciate the experience for whatever it is.”
Transitioning from being a collegiate athlete to a hardcore student
“It was hard. I felt steps behind, Imposter Syndrome, whatever you want to call it. Still, I’m certainly out of my league. And certainly, I have overcome some of those things. But when I came back to Haas, it was another feeling of that again because such impressive people around you have done so many awesome and interesting things, like, whoa, how do I even deserve to be in this cohort of people?
But I wouldn’t lie that I certainly struggled for a period of time before I found my footing and that internal drive and belief to say, you know what? I do deserve to be right here. I can work at this level.”
On his experiences at Haas
“You’re making an investment in yourself. And ultimately, it’s been one of the best personal investments that I’ve made in myself, both from a financial return and non-financial return perspective. I think the relationships between professors, colleagues, and alumni have been unbelievable. I think you can’t put a price on this professionalization and self-confidence-building exercise that I think a lot of people go through when they go through an MBA program. You get to a point where, perhaps, before it was a little bit fake it till you make it. And then, after, you’re like, ‘No, I can do this. I can learn something totally new and thrive and succeed in that.’ So, I think that’s been incredibly invaluable.”
(Transcripts may contain a few typographical errors due to audio quality during the podcast recording.)
[00:00] Chris: Welcome to the One Haas Podcast. I’m Chris Kim. Today, we have Eric Sassano. Eric is a graduating Haas MBA and an experienced leader and investment professional. Eric’s background includes working in investment research and impact investing and is also a Double Bear Double Haas alum. Eric, welcome, and great to have you on the show.
[00:26] Eric: Thanks, Chris. Really appreciate it. Great to be here.
[00:28] Chris: I’d love to learn more about your story. Now, can you talk a bit about where did you grow up, and did you know that you would be where you are today when you were a kid and growing up?
[00:39] Eric: I was born in Southern California, youngest of four. My family moved up to Northern California when I was five, turning six. So, I really grew up as a North Cal kid. I’m fortunate enough that I was only 15 minutes away from Berkeley my entire childhood. Really didn’t know too much about it, frankly, until my oldest brother went to Berkeley as well. So, we have three bears in my family. All the boys in the family went to Berkeley, and my sister went to Santa Cruz. And we all played soccer. And soccer has been an important part of my life, for sure, for a whole number of reasons, not only because it helped me get into school, but I think just a lot of lessons learned along the way and instill just some pretty impactful ideas that I try to carry with me today. So, I remember it as a great place to grow up, a lot of nice people, great education, and feel really fortunate to have grown up in that community, for sure. A lot of lifelong friends that I’m still very close with that I’ve known since I was in elementary school.
[01:37] Chris: Eric, what was it like growing up so close to Berkeley and being within the ecosystem of Cal, even as a kid? I think a lot of folks end up coming to Cal after either doing research or they find out about the program through a work connection or something like that, ended up coming to the MBA program. What was it like actually experiencing that as a kid? And did that influence you at all in terms of figuring out what you might study in college or what you might do for work in the future?
[02:05] Eric: The earliest memories I have of experiencing Berkeley were going to watch my older brothers play. And as a kid, I was a big fan of them. And so, whenever I go to their games, it’s enough to sign me out of school some afternoons to go watch a big important game. And I do the whole face painting thing. So, I was an avid Cal and Berkeley fan since I was a kid. But frankly, it never cross my mind to go to Berkeley, but really, more importantly, that I would be able to go. It’s such a storied institution. And it’s just such a high caliber of people. I was pretty, I would say, fortunate and lucky that a lot of circumstances in life led me to Cal and Berkeley.
Basically, up until I was going to Berkeley, I was not going to Berkeley. When I was a senior in high school, I pretty much decided I wasn’t going to go play soccer, or I was going to go to San Diego and do bioengineering. I remember I learned for the first time in this AP bio class, which is incredibly difficult and I barely passed, but I’ve learned and watched a simulation of proteins folding. And I thought that was the coolest thing in the world. I was like, “Okay, I’m going to do that. Soccer is ending. I’m going to go focus on science.” And then, basically, during the decision period, I found out that I was being recruited to Cal last minute. And that was just an opportunity that I couldn’t give up. And so, it was a pretty meaningful pivot at the last moment to say, okay, I need to go to Berkeley.
[03:29] Chris: That’s crazy. We have a terminology we call folks Double Bears, which means essentially they went to Berkeley for undergrad and they also came back for graduate school. What was it like when you first got on campus? You probably had a little bit of a unique experience for college. What was that like compared to, maybe, what you thought you were going to do?
[03:48] Eric: So, fortunately, my middle brother and I were close. So, when I was a junior and senior in high school, he was a junior and senior at Cal. And so, we would go out to lunch, come out for dinner, and spend a lot of time. So, I got to spend more of those formative years hanging out with them in Berkeley and getting to really know and love the institution, the city, the people. And so, when I first came to Cal as a student, it was pretty surreal, really couldn’t believe that I was there. I remember my first class was actually a music class. I ended up dropping it because I’m not a great singer, but it was a massive class with hundreds of people. And I was pretty awestruck by that experience.
And such a beautiful campus. I never really appreciated that growing up, but as I’ve now come back to Berkeley again, some of my best memories are just taking walks throughout the campus. And so, that’s been an important part of just being immersed in this, again, just long tenured history.
And so, I’m fortunate again to have that younger perspective and now a little bit older perspective. And I’ve certainly tried to not take it for granted, because I think 18, 19 years old, life is happening fast. And you miss out on certain things, just because things are moving so quickly. So, as I’ve come back, it’s really trying to take the time and appreciate the experience for whatever it is.
[05:12] Chris: I’ve heard a bunch of things about the undergrad experience. What was that like for you? And did you have any memories or experiences from the undergrad experience that informed who you would later become as part of that?
[05:23] Eric: Yeah, absolutely. It’s such a fantastic program. And again, candidly, I was a bit lucky in the sense that I was taking the courses to do the prerequisites, really not knowing what Haas was as an institution. I was fortunate enough to have some close friends. Back then, you had to do pre-Haas track. You had to take your first two years and figure out this is what you want to do and then do an application process. And it just so happened that my interest aligned perfectly with the prerequisite curriculum. So, all the math classes, econ, business, this, that, and the other. And I was making the decision to quit playing soccer because I didn’t make it four years. I only made it two years on the team. I decided to make that transition. And I wanted to spend more of my time focused on school and just the idea of being surrounded by some pretty competitive people, because I think, as I reflect back, it was certainly a really competitive and compelling cohort of friends that I’m still with today. I just look at the roster of folks and where they’ve gone and started companies, like our executives now. It’s such an awesome pipeline for growth.
And formative professor, the late Rob Chandra, was a really impactful quasi-mentor, not only I think for myself, but for pretty much anyone he taught, frankly. He was a former partner at Bessemer. And so, he was a venture guy that had success in life and wanted to come back to Berkeley where he was formerly an undergrad. And he wanted to give back. And so, he taught a class on alternative investments. And I took that my junior year. And I was just blown away. And learned so much, not really opened the door to what would be my career at this point of alternative investing, private investing, investment allocation, those types of things. I was so fortunate to take that class and then stay connected with them over the years. And I think anyone you talk to about him as a person would echo those comments. Just a world-class person, let alone a teacher, storyteller, businessperson, investor. So, that was definitely something that stands out, like what was an important inflection point for me and hone in on what I want to do post-school, post-Haas.
[07:41] Chris: Eric, Haas, in general, has this reputation for people being really, really hardworking, but I don’t think I’d be wrong in saying the undergrad has a very, very high reputation, knowing that everyone is working really hard. They get a ton of internships. They’re all in a million and one clubs. How did your experience playing soccer in college compared to being a Haas student, and then thinking about graduating? What was that experience like, transitioning from being a collegiate athlete to then having to be a super hardcore student?
[08:12] Eric: It was hard. I felt steps behind, Imposter Syndrome, whatever you want to call it. Still, I’m certainly out of my league. And certainly, I have overcome some of those things. But when I came back to Haas, it was another feeling of that again because such impressive people around you have done so many awesome and interesting things, like, whoa, how do I even deserve to be in this cohort of people?
But I wouldn’t lie that I certainly struggled for a period of time before I found my footing and that internal drive and belief to say, you know what? I do deserve to be right here. I can work at this level. Yes, I’m behind because most of my life has been dedicated to kicking a ball around a field, but as I started this conversation with, there’s so many lessons learned from the world of sport and, specifically, soccer, that translated to success at Haas and thereafter. And then, working hard across initiatives, endeavors, this, that, and the other has a similar flavor. And I’ve worked pretty hard those first two years pre-Haas as an athlete and trying to get good grades to get into Haas, to begin with. But you’re totally right. People were in multiple clubs, founding businesses, this, that, and the other. So, there was certainly a period of awestruck and feeling like I need to catch up, absolutely.
[09:28] Chris: Man, that’s crazy. Eric, you’ve had pretty, in a lot of respect, successful career even post-college. How did you decide to go into finance as a career choice? And what was that process like for you, going from a full-time student to now becoming a early working professional and starting your professional journey?
[09:47] Eric: Most of my family is from soccer. My dad’s an attorney. My mom is a teacher. And fortunately, going back to your previous question on working hard, it is funny, they both did night school for their professional degrees. And so, for better or for worse, I’ve mirrored that ability to turn on that extra level and extra gear what I need to. So, I wasn’t able to rely on them for insight into the world of finance. But I was able to utilize that hardworking framework that they gave me. And really, they gave me such a gift in being able to think about you can do whatever you want, the world is there for you. And I do think that was just such an important gift and runway for my growth.
And to that point, I think it was hard for me to make a decision as to exactly what I wanted to do. But as I mentioned, Rob showed me the way of this pretty cool universe of investing. And I was fortunate enough, through a connection with soccer, to find Hall Capital, which really provided me with this foundational investment experience and exposure, thinking holistically across asset classes, geographies, underlying strategies, from the earliest stages of a company to its later stages of the public business, thinking really holistically as what does it mean to be an investor, what does it mean to look at the market, both domestically and internationally, and think where are good places to make investments. And so, I wanted to find something that was fairly broad because I knew the runway to dive deeper into something that was interesting. And ultimately, Hall did give me that. I started off on the client-facing side of the business and then transitioned to investment research.
And so, over the course of five years, at that point I had a lot of friends that were certainly higher-attrition. Five years was like a dinosaur, I feel like, in that cohort. But I was able to learn a lot, and I was able to build a strong network of people that ultimately opened the door for me to come back to business school and come back to Haas.
[11:49] Chris: That’s awesome. Eric, some folks who are familiar or may have a better insight, but a lot of folks may not understand quite how investment management works or portfolio management, specifically. Could you explain a bit in terms of what are the tactical things that a new college grad, for example, would get asked to do as part of that? And then transitioning to, you talked about investment research, what would that pivot look like for someone who’s in the industry?
[12:12] Eric: Totally. From a high-level investment management is this really interesting intersection of the hard due diligence and hard financial analysis and impeccable client service. So, there are certain things that you can quantify, risk return, allocations, this, that, and the other. But there’s certain things that you can’t quantify necessarily in the same way. That is how do you interact and treat your clients, and what kind of partnerships do you form with them. But they’re equally as important. You can’t have a business with no clients. You can’t make an investment and help make investment decisions if you don’t have clients.
And so, early on, from that type of role, if you graduated from undergrad, you’re really getting a broad exposure. I enjoyed being on the client service side, client-facing side, because you’re helping people solve problems. At the end of the day, if you take a step back, a number of my clients were families. A number of them were endowments for charitable foundations and this, that, and the other. They’re doing really impactful and powerful things. And to be a part of that, very small way from my perspective, but nonetheless, a part of it was meaningful and valuable for me. And I wanted to make sure that, in some way or somehow, my role is adding value, both from a firm perspective, but also an impact. What are these dollars being used for at the end of the day?
And so, you can pick a lot of different lanes within investment management. You can go work for direct investing where you’re actually buying stakes and companies. You can allocate the funds. You can be a consultant, somewhere in between. My experience, I feel so fortunate for, you can only plan so much and so many things in your life. But going broad to narrow was super helpful. As I went more narrow, it was really because I wanted to hone in on what was the most interesting asset class for me personally at the time, which I think is still incredibly interesting, but within venture capital and private equity and allocating funds to those types of managers and those types of external funds. And so, being really close to innovation was an awesome experience and understanding, how do you take an idea? How do you work an idea, turn into a company? How do you scale a business? I really want to ask those questions. I had that itch of what does that look like, and how do you invest?
[14:26] Chris: That’s awesome. Eric, I’ve heard this a lot. And I know a lot of other folks get this question. You already graduated from a top business school in your undergrad, and you’re a long-tenured person already working in a lot of people’s dream jobs. What was the impetus to want to go back and get the MBA? And what was your thought process as you were going through that? Because I know a lot of folks think it’s super transactional, I did this for this, and it’s point A to point B. But could you explain, maybe, to folks who may not understand what was going through your mind in terms of why go back to get the MBA?
[14:59] Eric: Absolutely. I think that answer has rightfully so changed over a period of time and will continue to change as the circumstances of life and professional career necessitate a different answer. I think the role that I was in was predominantly a pre-MBA type role, which is pretty consistent for financial services, whether it’s investment banking and asset management or consulting. And so, at some level, it was, hey, this is probably what you’re going to do. There’s a ceiling of opportunity here at the current firm, which has an interesting construct. And you could probably spend many, many podcasts on diving into the intrinsic motivation needed to succeed when you know there’s a finite life and finite period.
But it forced me to make the decision. I took a step back and said, this is not a known next step. I don’t necessarily know that I’m going to go to business school. I really had to ask myself the hard question, because it is a big commitment, not only financially but, as you know, Chris, a lot of sacrifices of time and energy. And you can’t do it all. So, at some point, you’re going to have to sacrifice something. And so, I really tested that. I really tested, why do I want to go back to school? What is this going to get me? And ultimately, the arc and narrative that I told myself was, I’ve been an investor for five years, I have seen a lot of different asset classes. I want to know what it means to go work at a company.
I think Haas or any top business school would help me make that transition to a high-growing company to see what it means to scale that business on the ground, like live and breathe scale, which I think is important. Ultimately, because I think it’ll make me a better investor. And I knew at some point I would come back to investing. I just didn’t know how or when or, really, what that would look like. And so, it’s funny. It’s similar to the undergrad experience. I did not get into the Haas full-time. But looking back, it is 100% the best outcome for me. I was going to go to UCLA for a couple of weeks there. I was like, this is the full-time program. This is going to be great.
And then an interesting thing in life happened where I got a job in a high-growth company that was basically doing it. You go back to that arc I was talking about, and it was like that is a high-growth business. I can be an operator. I can know what it means to go through a transaction. I’m just going to do that. While that happened, I also applied to Haas part-time. And these two things happened within two or three weeks of each other. And you couldn’t even really plan it out. And so, I started a new job, an entirely new industry, an entirely new role. And I started Haas a couple of months later. And the two things paired together very well. Obviously, there’s a lot of work, because I had no idea what I was doing probably in both. So, the familiarity of Haas was nice in that regard. But it was certainly an adventure, no small feat to just do something totally different while doing business school.
[17:47] Chris: That’s crazy. Eric, I remember the first couple of weeks of the program. And think I even remember meeting you and you were saying, “I’m in this new job,” and you were explaining it. We’re like, wow, that is totally different. That’s like interesting business. It’s like, totally, it’s a new role. And then you’re also starting the MBA at the same time. And Haasies are super ambitious, but that was like, wow, Eric, that was impressive. But you ended up working in that company for a while. And then even before you graduated, you ended up pivoting at Caprock Group. What was that experience like for you? And were you thinking about eventually transitioning? How has that process in your mind, as you had this day job and then also transitioning to this other company that now allows you to go back into investing, like you mentioned?
[18:32] Eric: So, I had that loose framework and personal narrative that I was using as my guiding light. But again, I didn’t really know how it was all going to shake out at the end of the day. The role that I was in at when I started Haas in a finance and operations role, I knew that also had a finite life to it, because we’re basically trying to sell three businesses, which eventually, we ended up doing. And so, at a certain point, it was like, okay, those businesses are sold, it’s time to figure out what happens next. So, it was a natural inflection point, which was nice for me. And I was actually able, for the first time since I had started working, to take a couple of months for myself, granted this is during COVID and that was a whole complicated factor. But I felt fortunate to take those couple of months to reset, reorient myself, and look back to that guiding light.
I have entertained doing corporate finance role, but what I really came down to was I wanted to be back on the investor seat. I wanted to think strategically across a whole host of different asset classes and eventually help clients and help people make smart decisions with their money. And so, it took a little bit of time to tell that story. To me, it made a lot of sense. I was an investor, turned operator. And I’m going back to investing. I’m a better investor because I know what it means to work at a company. Some people bought into it, and other people didn’t, because the pivot is you always have to tell some kind of narrative.
But I was fortunate enough to find Caprock. It’s actually a really funny and weird story. As I was finishing the negotiation on the phone, I was driving my brother and his father-in-law and two cars full of stuff from California to Minnesota because he was moving. He moved during the pandemic. And so, we’re in Montana. I’m negotiating on the phone with my now current boss. And we finally get to the point where we’re like, this sounds great. I’m on board. I’m excited to join Caprock. And we stopped at this state park in Montana, which was just awesome. And we’re watching the sunset. And we’re going to this trail. And mind you, the name of my firm is Caprock. And at the specific state park in Montana which we decided we were going to go to, but two days before, there was a trail that’s called Caprock Trail. And I was like, that’s super weird. I don’t really know what to do with that. I think it’s a good sign. So, good thing I already said yeah because that would mess with my head if I had found out that beforehand. It’s pretty funny.
[20:59] Chris: Oh, my gosh, what are the chances?
[21:01] Eric: I don’t know.
[24:34] Chris: Eric, you know both you and I are coming towards the end of the program. We’ll be graduating soon. What are your reflections from your experience at Haas? And then, also, what are some of your thoughts, both professionally and personally, as it relates to what you’re planning to do after you’re done with the MBA?
[24:51] Eric: First and foremost, I can’t really believe that it’s been three years, almost three years. My wallet and bank account know that it is. That’s part of it. You’re making an investment in yourself. And ultimately, it’s been one of the best personal investments that I’ve made in myself, both from a financial return and non-financial return perspective. I think the relationships between professors, colleagues, alumni have been unbelievable. I think you can’t put a price on this professionalization and self-confidence building exercise that I think a lot of people go through when they go through an MBA program. You get to a point where, perhaps, before it was a little bit fake it till you make it. And then, after, you’re like, “No, I can do this. I can learn something totally new and thrive and succeed in that.” So, I think that’s been incredibly invaluable.
And I think pairing it with work has been important for me. So, the part-time program allowed me to do a 1 plus 1 equals 3 type situation. I think there’s just so many compliments between the two. I could take lessons learned from both. I’m sure you would agree. It’s harder for sure, but you can take lessons learned and the growth happens almost exponentially. I think there will be continued value that I don’t even know about that, that will pop up in the next 5 or 10 years. But another important part is just being able to take a step back and reflect and say, am I on the path that I want to be on? If not, how do I make a change? If I am on the right path, that’s great, let me keep checking with myself. And I think, at this point, I’m on the path that I want to be, is continuing to deepen my skillset as an investor. And grateful for the people and opportunity. Obviously, COVID was particularly weird. I’m sure we have challenging feelings about that. But at the end of the day, I’d take a step back and say, look, I’m still incredibly fortunate to have gone to such a prestigious school and be around awesome people. Even if a lot of it was over Zoom, from the grand scheme of things, it was a really great place to be. And you can’t trade those experiences. And so, I’m hopeful, excited, got a lot of energy, looking towards the future, looking to travel a bit here when the school is over. So, that’ll be good. But I’ll be excited to see what happens next. It’s been a fun journey, for sure.
[27:09] Chris: As we’re getting towards the end of the podcast, we typically ask guests if they have an organization or a cause that they want to plug to give them an opportunity to share that with listeners. Is there any type of organization or cause that you’d like folks to get behind, and any actions or next steps that folks might be able to do to help support that cause?
[27:28] Eric: Yeah, and I appreciate the opportunity. A couple of different things I’ll say with the timing with the plug. I was fortunate enough when I was an undergrad to help start a class at Haas, specifically, for Haas and on Haas majors, to help them get a job and help them figure out how to navigate the interview, resume process. And so, it’s called The Workshop. And if you’re ever asked or want to proactively volunteer your time, I’m always looking for really interesting and exciting people to this day to help build that network and help people eventually do what you’re focused on in school, is finding a job. And so, I think that’s a great plug there.
And then, also, maybe just an indirect one is both of my sister and my mom are teachers. And to the extent that I find the time to give back and go to the schools and teach impromptu lessons or teach part of the curriculum where they see fit. I think there’s such a value-add for people coming from industry to going and telling the story and having kids hear from your mouth your perspective, just add so much value. And so, it’s not a follow this organization. It’s more be involved in your community and find opportunities to make change and help over again.
[28:39] Chris: Well, Eric, it’s been awesome to be in conversation. Typically, as our tradition and with a lightning round, some fun, quick questions towards the end, we’d love to go through some of the questions, if you’d be up for it.
[28:50] Eric: Let’s do it.
[28:51] Chris: All right. Well, first question, favorite place to eat in Berkeley?
[28:56] Eric: Well, let me go with Cheese Board for dinner and Yoga Park for a treat.
[29:02] Chris: Nice. And for folks who haven’t gone, definitely great places, absolutely. Second question, lasting memory from your time at Haas?
[29:10] Eric: Lasting memory from time at Haas? Day one and orientation, just hanging out with friends until way too early in the morning, and people that you just met for the first time, and just the community and camaraderie that it was apparent right away. It was pretty awesome.
[29:27] Chris: What’s one piece of advice that you give to people, either professional or personal?
[29:32] Eric: I think check in with yourself, whether it’s in your personal life, whether it’s in your professional life. I think the world of COVID has exposed the upside of doing that and the upside of slowing down and saying, hey, how am I doing? Where do I need help? Where can I improve? Where do I need to slow down, this, that, and the other? And I think that’s just really important to have that inner dialogue, either with yourself or with someone close to you. But just being mindful and intentional to set yourself up for success.
[29:58] Chris: And last one, what’s one thing that gets you excited for the future?
[30:02] Eric: Well, there are a lot of things that are complicated and scary. I think the pace of innovation and just the exciting ways of thinking about the world and solving those big problems and solving those scary things. There’s a lot of smart people that are dedicated to doing that. You look at a big carbon capture removal technology just raised hundreds of millions of dollars. Hopefully, it really works. And hopefully, it can work at scale. But even 5, 10 years ago, that wasn’t even possible. And so, I think we’re starting to see a lot of momentum in those types of industries that are solving big hard problems. And so, innovation and ingenuity and people that want to do good by themselves and the people around them.
[30:44] Chris: Eric, it’s been great to have you on the show. And I wish you all the best in the future.
[30:49] Eric: Thanks, Chris. Thanks, everyone. Really appreciate the opportunity. Go, bears.
[30:53] Chris: Go, bears.
[30:54] Outro: Thanks again for tuning in to this episode of the One Haas Podcast. Enjoyed our show today? Please remember to hit that Subscribe or Follow button on your favorite podcast player. We’d also really appreciate you giving us a five-star rating and review.
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