Off-duty: HarbourVest’s Scott Voss on surfing, Catena Malbec and lighting up your right brain

Voss tells us about his early dream of working for a snowboard pioneer, taking up surfing after the age of 40, and the importance of putting yourself in luck’s way.

Scott Voss, HarbourVest Partners

Buyouts’ Off-duty provides a snapshot of top investors, including a few details about what they do when not chasing deals.

Scott Voss got the idea of pursuing a career in private equity while studying for his MBA at Babson College’s FW Olin Graduate School of Business.

Prior to graduating (cum laude) in 1999, Voss applied and was accepted for an internship at HarbourVest Partners, a global private markets investor. Taking the role, he was told the internship would not at the time “lead to a full-time position.”

More than two decades later, Voss is a member of HarbourVest’s senior leadership. A managing director, he oversees global primary partnership investments (fund investments), a business that accounts for roughly half of the firm’s $106 billion of managed assets.

Last year, HarbourVest celebrated its 40th anniversary. Founded in 1982 by Brooks Zug and Ed Kane, it has to date committed more than $55 billion to newly formed funds, closed more than $46 billion in secondaries purchases, and directly invested more than $33 billion in operating companies across a range of sectors.

Voss today lives in Boston with his wife and three children.

Where is your hometown?

Sandy Hook, Connecticut. I lived there from age 5 to age 25 and attended Sandy Hook Elementary and Newtown Public. Now, ten years after the shooting, Sandy Hook will always be closely associated with (and our community forever connected by) the tragedy.

For me, Sandy Hook is defined by its iconic flagpole in the center of town, the majestic view from Churchill Road (Ed Sheeran’s song, “Castle on the Hill,” reminds me of this), and dollar movies on Friday night at the Edmond Town Hall.

My favorite thing to do was to hang out with my brother and our friends at a rope swing on the bank of the Housatonic River at the base of the Shepaug dam.

If you weren’t in PE, what job would you like to have?

When I was young, my dream job was to work for Burton Snowboards. I have a few rejection letters signed personally by Jake Burton Carpenter. Jake and Tom Sims were my first entrepreneurial idols. They created two iconic brands and built an industry that did not previously exist.

Those letters taught me rejection and perseverance and I appreciate that Jake took the time to send and sign them.

How do you relax when you’re not working?

Surfing, ideally with family, is my mid-life hobby. I do it throughout the year. If there is a wave, I will do my best to ride it. It is difficult to get good at something when you try to pick it up after 40, but there is something special about being in the water with a nice swell and offshore wind.

I encourage people to find hobbies that are outside of our “on-demand” world. Hobbies where you need to drop everything when the conditions are right because you know they won’t last forever and your only option is to live it when it happens.

What book are you reading right now?

I always have three or four books I am reading at one time. Depending on what mood I am in or where I am going dictates what is in my backpack. I am ashamed to say that a Robert Ludlum Jason Bourne book is in my backpack right now and I love it.

What is your favorite song, album, performer or music genre?

I like all types of artists and music. Most of all, I like people who are totally original and creators. Let’s try this with a few artists, albums and songs. You can tell I like story tellers.

  1. Bob Dylan: Highway 61 Revisited’s “Desolation Row” (Listening to it while I write this. Eleven-plus minutes of genius.)
  2. Elton John: Honky Chateau’s “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” (Just so good.)
  3. U2: The Joshua Tree’s “Where the Streets Have No Name” (This song live is euphoric! An absolute adrenaline kicker!)
  4. Pearl Jam: Ten’s “Black” (3:35 is the most amazing lyric and delivery of a lyric.)
  5. David Nail: Fighter’s “Home,” “Fighter” and “Old Man’s Symphony” (These songs mean something to me. And David Nail is a special artist).

What is your favorite meal, recipe, cocktail or bottle of wine?

Catena Malbec is all I need for the first course, the main course and dessert.

What is your favorite place for a vacation, sanctuary or a place to explore? 

Any place with a sandy beach, a slow breaking, three-to-five-foot wave, 9’6” Anderson surfboard and a few All Day IPAs. Playa Longosta, Costa Rica or Surfer’s End in Rhode Island come to mind.

Who in your career do you regard as a mentor?

My dad: He is a great listener and helps me get to my own conclusions without introducing bias.

HarbourVest’s founders Brooks Zug and Ed Kane taught me so much. Like Burton Snowboards’ Jake and Tom, they built an iconic brand, but more importantly, played a role in building an industry. If you have an opportunity to learn from the originals, you win. Big thanks!

Professionally, what was your toughest moment?

Moving my family to Hong Kong (one of HarbourVest’s global offices) when my kids were ages 8, 6 and 2.

Although this is a tremendous family life adventure, convincing my spouse and telling my young children you want to move them from their comfortable suburban home to a new home and school halfway around the world, where their daily lives will be very different from what they have always known – well, this is a daunting task. Young children can see right through the “family life adventure” pitch.

What was your most rewarding moment?

Moving my family to Hong Kong when my kids were ages 8, 6 and 2.

The reality was this was one of the best experiences we ever had as a family. It was not without challenges, but we grew together. My kids got to scale the Great Wall and walk through Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, etc. They got to walk the markets in Hanoi and learn to surf in Australia.

Now my kids are ages 20, 18, and 13, they still sing their favorite Chinese songs when we are on road trips in the car.

What PE buzz words or jargon do you hate most?

Wish I had one, but nothing hits me right now. Maybe words like “robust,” “resilient” and “proprietary”?

What advice would you give a young person interested in a PE career?

In any career, do what you need to do to get your foot in the door. Be humble, don’t be entitled, work hard. Put yourself in luck’s way and recognize when it walks in front of you.

What word or phrase best describes you?

Creative. People see me as “the right brain” in the room. I have a Time magazine on my wall that I am staring at right now called, “The Science of Creativity, Imagination at Every Age: Your Inner Genius.” Everyone should work on lighting up their right brain.