Martin Chavez wants us to “face the tiger”
Martin Chavez has been a disruptor throughout his career, which has seen him move nimbly from academia to Silicon Valley to Wall Street and in between.
After graduating from Harvard with his A.B. in biochemical sciences and S.M. in computer science, he earned his Ph.D. in medical information sciences from Stanford and co-founded a software company. He spent much of his career at Goldman Sachs, where he was a partner and served in several senior roles, including CIO, CFO, and global co-head of the Securities Division. Today, he is a partner and vice chairman of the global investment platform Sixth Street. He also serves as a board member or advisor of several startups in the life science and AI spaces.
Martin has maintained close ties to the Harvard community. He served on the Harvard University Board of Overseers for several years and was elected President of the Board for the 2020–2021 academic year. In addition, he has been an Xfund supporter from its inception.
Here, Martin discusses creating and building within large institutions, his multiple personal and professional identities, building a cohesive culture that respects diversity, and why founders need to “face the tiger.”
How did you connect with Xfund?
I was on the Dean’s advisory group for the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard. That’s where I first heard about Xfund.
Independently, one of the teams that reported to me at Goldman Sachs, called Principal Strategic Investments, was talking with one of Patrick’s portfolio companies, Kensho. So, I made the connection. I thought, “Oh, this fund I’m hearing about at Harvard, I’m now actually hearing about it in my job.”
Kensho was one of our great investments, and I loved the fact that we found it early, and we found it in connection with Patrick and Xfund. Then later on, I got to know Patrick, and we’ve been friends since then.
What made you want to support Xfund?
I love the connection with Harvard. I’m one of those people who bleeds crimson. Harvard changed my life, and anything that’s good for Harvard, connected with Harvard, or provides opportunities of various kinds for Harvard faculty and staff to connect with capital providers, that’s a good thing. I loved the fact that Patrick had started this fund that was sourcing in this particular way. That’s what got me excited.
How would you characterize the Harvard founder ecosystem?
When I was studying there, there was no source of capital that was in and around the Harvard ecosystem, affiliated or unaffiliated. When I was an undergrad, I bootstrapped a little consulting company, and we did it on a shoestring, with our credit cards with $500 limits. I don’t know how we did it! That was in the 80s.
But I always stayed close to Harvard, and Professor Harry Lewis would always keep me up to date on the latest generation of Harvard entrepreneurs, and we ended up with people like Mark Zuckerberg and others, of course.
Times changed, and it all got bigger — there were more opportunities for students and faculty to connect with providers of capital, which was the big missing ingredient back in the 80s. The ecosystem has matured.
Your career has spanned academia, Wall Street, and Silicon Valley. How do you navigate these different worlds?
I attribute that to Harvard. I think Harvard got me comfortable talking to all kinds of different people. My classmates were so diverse. There was every kind of activity and offering among the faculty. I’ve always been an interdisciplinary kind of person. I’m always really interested in the edges and the intersections.
I would say about myself, for instance at Goldman, when I became Chief Information Officer, I was not the best software designer, architect, or mathematician, or really the best at anything in a group of 10,000 data scientists and engineers. But I was okay at a lot of different things, and pretty good at some of them — and I can write a paragraph. That made me a leader.
That’s something that I’ve always done. I can be a computer scientist, I can be a doctor, I can be an investor, I can be a trader, or I can be a lot of different things. I think that’s a great thing. It sometimes becomes a problematic thing too, strangely.
On Wall Street, the computer scientists think I’m one of them, and then when I suddenly start acting like a trader, they don’t necessarily like it. Or the traders think I’m one of them. Then I start acting like a banker, and they don’t like it. It can be confusing for people. To them, I’ve suddenly switched and become a different kind of person, and they weren’t necessarily expecting that switch. People are very tribal, but I like to belong partially to a large number of different tribes.
At Goldman Sachs, you played a major role in its transformation to a tech-centric institution. How do you maintain an entrepreneurial mindset inside a massive organization like that?
Well, it’s hard, first of all. But again, this is something I like to do. I like to be the entrepreneur wherever I go and square the circle or somehow make it fit within the larger construct. I’m doing it right now. I’m at Sixth Street, which is a 400-person, $60 billion alternate asset manager. I’m a Vice Chairman, which is a great kind of non-title. It kind of screams that if you’ve got an actual problem, you should talk to the actual boss, not me. I kind of like that!
But I am also literally the one-man research and development department. I’m writing software for a big chunk of my day. The software is experimental; it might or might not work, and it might or might not lead to something. I love that.
At this point in my career, if I say I’ll be the one-person R&D department, people generally say, “Well, that sounds great!” So, it’s pretty easy for me to be entrepreneurial in this construct. At other times in my career, it’s been harder. I had fewer credentials and a shorter track record, yet being entrepreneurial was always heavily encouraged at Goldman.
As long as you did your main job, if you were doing some extra things that might lead somewhere and might not, that was a real positive for your career. You could be flexible and multi-task in that way.
Have you always had that kind of entrepreneurial bent?
I learned that at Harvard. A big moment in my life was freshman week. I took sophomore standing, and I was a kid. I was a baby! I was 17, I had to declare a concentration, and I knew it was going to be science. I’m in the science center, and all the professors from various departments are pitching their departments to these poor kids who have to declare a concentration immediately and have no clue.
I remember vividly Professor Stephen Harrison sitting behind an ugly brown portable table. He said, “So what kind of scientist are you?” I said, “I’m a computer scientist,” and he said, “The future of the life sciences is computational.”
This was 1981, so that statement was not obvious. He said, “If you work with me, and you sign up as a biochem major, we’ll create a concentration for you. We’ll call it biochemistry and molecular biology, and you’ll have to take one wet lab class. But everything else you take can just be math, science, computer science, or theoretical computer science, because we don’t know what’s going to actually matter. We’ll let you take anything in any of the sciences at Harvard.”
He was telling me right off the bat that I could entrepreneurially create my course of study, within the framework of molecular biology. Harvard also let you create majors, but I thought that was maybe too freeform.
I like the idea of creating something within a framework. It somehow appeals to me. With some structure, I really thrive that way.
It’s like a sonnet. You might say, “Oh, what a drag. You can only fit so many syllables on each line.” If you look at it that way, it’s going to be unpleasant. But if you say, “Isn’t it great that we have this structure or constraint in which we get to invent?” It’s a bit of a guide. I like that.
You’ve spoken many times of how you came out as gay in an interview with Goldman Sachs in the early 90s, some 30 years ago. How do you view the progress since then with respect to DEI?
It’s interesting. I was talking to one of my LGBT friends on Wall Street, who said, “We almost don’t have an LGBT network anymore.” I said, “That seems sad,” and he said, “No, actually it’s not really needed.” So, maybe that is the measure of success we wanted.
Of course, there will be other LGBT people who might say that they kind of miss the solidarity and the sensibility that evolved back when we were persecuted.
Can’t we have it both ways? Can’t we still have that sense of belonging, without the sense of being ostracized? I don’t know. Maybe the two go together. I just don’t know.
At the same time, I don’t think we’re anywhere near where we would aspire to be. We all have a lot of identities. I have a Hispanic identity and I have an LGBT identity. When some news channel is looking for a Hispanic executive, why is it always me or Oscar Munoz from United Airlines?
I remember once a legendary journalist in Silicon Valley said, “We’re going to go easy on you, because it’s basically you, me, and Tim Cook. We’ve got to be lovely to each other, because there aren’t that many of us.”
So, I don’t know how much progress we’ve made with respect to the glass ceiling. But clearly, we’ve made some progress. When I joined Goldman Sachs, I was the only out gay person in the company, globally. Now there’s probably thousands. So that’s really different.
You’ve been involved in diversity and inclusion efforts at many of the institutions you’ve worked for. What should organizations do to build a culture where people can be their authentic selves?
I think the challenge for every company is that there’s a corporate culture. To have the cohesion that one wants, generally, in a company, you have some set of shared beliefs. Sometimes squaring those shared beliefs with the realities of diverse people is really hard. It requires the culture to bend, and cultures don’t like to bend. So, how do you decide what is core to your culture and what’s not?
For example, maybe part of your culture is that everyone is in the office all the time. That’s great, but how does that standard affect, for example, women who have a disproportionate share of childcare obligations? A shared cultural value can be inconsistent across the diverse realities that people are experiencing.
Every culture is going to be one where some people thrive, and other people don’t. I would just ask myself, “How are the diverse people going to fare in this reality?” Ask yourself if that’s what you really want. Those are the hard questions that can lead to hard decisions and actions.
What advice do you have for founders?
My top advice for founders is to face the tiger. If you’ve got a problem, go to your investors. Go to your leadership team. Acknowledge it. Do something.
There’s always some problem that somebody in the company knows about, or someone who knows that the plan isn’t actually happening. Does that person feel at liberty to share that information and be heard? And then, will the people who hear it share it with all the other stakeholders, and agree upon a plan of action? That also comes back to the culture.