CBOE’s Harkins Rides FAR
In this exclusive conversation with Traders Magazine, Bryan Harkins, co-founder of Wall Street Rides FAR, and head of U.S. Equities and Global FX at CBOE Holdings, took some time to speak with John D’Antona Jr about the upcoming charity event set to raise money for autism.
Why is the cause of autism research personally important to you?
“I’ve seen firsthand the impact that autism has on families, not only to the children and adults diagnosed as on the spectrum, but its impact on the broader family dynamic. When you have an autistic kid, your life revolves around enhancing his or her life and nothing seems to matter beyond that goal. Siblings and spouses often become secondary.
While I think most people have a general sense of this, unless you’ve seen it up close (with friends or family who are coping with the challenge), you can’t truly understand the dedication required. The kids require special schools, need special babysitters and services. The downtime that every parent gets to enjoy doesn’t exist for these parents. Their whole lives are centered on these children, at every moment.
As a parent myself, I can only imagine what that’s like, and I feel that it’s our duty in society to try and lessen that burden and make that difference. If you have a healthy kid, you’re blessed, but things might easily have gone the other way. It’s the luck of the draw, and we all need to recognize that.
Obviously, there are other afflictions that produce different challenges. And there are a lot of wonderful charities out there, almost an endless amount. They all exist for good reasons. Cancer receives a lot of funding and attention because it’s so prevalent in society. Everyone knows someone who has lost someone to cancer. Except for the rarest forms of cancer, there’s not really an issue in getting people to acknowledge the problem and to help.
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Autism is a growing problem, and a relatively recent problem. One in sixty-eight children born today in the United States is on the spectrum, and one of the most unfortunate aspects is that we don’t know why. That’s one reason we haven’t found a cure, and it’s a reason some treatments are hit-and-miss. The best way to attack this overarching problem is more scientific research. We need to understand the triggers. Genetic research could tell us what’s passing on the “autism gene”, so to speak, and with additional research, in our own lifetimes we could know more. Looking again at cancer, research has made a big difference, to the point that some types are highly curable if caught early. The commonality is that the answer lies in science, and the science needs money to make it happen.”
What attracted you to the Autism Science Foundation (ASF) specifically?
“I believe that if you have a doctorate in research, if you’re pursuing a career path as a scientist in medical research to save lives and change the world, you’re going to look to the people who can fund your research. The top scientists are going to ASF, the only autism charity focused exclusively on funding research. As I met more of the scientists getting grants from ASF, I was so impressed by the aptitude and caliber of these people, and I knew I had to be more involved.
There are other autism organizations that focus on awareness, which is incredibly important as well. People are more apt to donate to a problem they’re already aware of when the solicitation comes. Advertising pays off over time.
But ASF is focused on directly funding research and does not spend much on marketing themselves.”
Does Wall Street approach philanthropy differently than other industries?
“This is a great industry that I’m lucky to be a part of. On the philanthropy front specifically, it’s great for a few reasons.
First and foremost, people in this industry are often in a position to help financially. The whole nature of the financial services business is to help our clients and investors generate wealth and achieve their financial objectives. So it’s obvious how and why Wall Streeters approach philanthropy differently than most industries: our very jobs revolve around helping our clients be able to achieve financial goals, which include contributing to society philanthropically.
Second, this is a community of aggressive, driven problem-solvers. Look no further than the trading floor. The modern Wall Street trader has evolved from someone who, in previous decades, yelled really loudly and happened to have connections to get into the business, to a highly quantitative thinker, often with a STEM background, devoted to understanding and tackling complex issues. The very activities of investing and trading themselves have become highly quantitative and powered by technology. There are some natural parallels with a foundation like ASF applying its talents toward scientific endeavors. It’s a natural alliance.
What I like about Wall Streeters is that they say, “You have a problem? Well, what are you going to do about it?” You identify a path, a potential solution, and you attack that problem. Wall Street folks are aggressive. We’re not going to stand still in the face of this kind of challenge. We’re going to attack it with science, identify the best minds and put them on specific projects, like the Autism Sisters Project or the It Takes Brains program, with clearly definable objectives and goals.”
What does the response so far tell you about your peers?
“While financial firms are often criticized today – sometimes fairly, sometimes unfairly – the individuals who work here are incredibly charitable. On one hand, there are big donors like Michael Bloomberg who believe it’s important to be public about their philanthropy to lead by example, but more often than not, most people are quiet as they give money in big sums to the causes they care about. They’re making a big difference, but the public doesn’t always see what they are doing.
I believe that the image of Wall Street and its place in society and how it contributes to the public good is really important. One of the reasons I’m using “Wall Street” in the name of this event is to bring this community into this mission.
Part of our obligation as an industry is to give back, and it’s important to show that Wall Street does a lot of good.”
How is philanthropy different for Gen X/Millennials vs. earlier generations?
“Technology is obviously one big thing. With the rise of social media, how you promote a charity has changed dramatically over the past 5 to 10 years. WALL STREET RIDES FAR is no different, using these amazing tools that help us promote the “why” behind the charity.
Beyond that, we know that Gen X and millennials place importance on making an impact and feeling good about their place in society. This shows up in how they choose their careers and the products they are attracted to. They’re also more emotional. There are lots of ideas and theories as to why, but it’s wonderful to channel that emotional trait into charities like WALL STREET RIDES FAR.”
Where do you see WALL STREET RIDES FAR going next?
“The first years were about the launch, making sure we laid the foundation by creating an event where people have a good time, a good experience. On our end, it was the hand-to-hand combat of generating word of mouth, getting people to volunteer. We’re still doing that of course, with activities like happy hours.
Now we’re starting to transition a bit from the launch phase to the scalability phase. How does this initiative stand on its own two legs, how does it “outlive” me to be around for decades to come? We’re making sure we identify the right strategic partners, big time partners like larger corporations.
The dream scenario is that in a few years’ time this ride is so big it sells itself, with people coming back every year. There are so many amazing possibilities, how it could expand to London, Chicago, maybe bring it indoors with cycling studios. But we must remain disciplined and not get ahead of ourselves and dilute what we’re trying to do.
The key is that the playbook is set at this point. Now it’s about using this event to do as much good as we can, for as many people as we can.”