Despite the first half of its name describing “a risky or daring undertaking,” the popular perception of venture capital – shrewd, analytical, with the checkbook to prove it – seems dominated by that latter half. For Kevin Starr, that was an issue.
“We came to the conclusion that the venture capital model was broken,” Starr told me, describing how he and partners Mark Levin and Bob Tepper formed Boston-based Third Rock Ventures. “A lot of that was because venture lost courage. They lost the courage for the big idea, [the] ‘change the world’-type vision.
One of the most successful venture funds in the history of life sciences, the firm has raised over $2 billion in capital to date. Their “discover-launch-build” approach to investing has catalyzed some of the world’s most innovative biotech companies, including SAGE Pharmaceuticals, a Boston firm who presented the world’s first drug to recover patients from states of continuous seizure.
Without Starr and Third Rock, those patients could only be kept breathing through a medically-induced coma. Because of their work and their courage, those patients finally have a chance to live.
In fact, Starr and his co-founders recruited Third Rock’s early employees to build an office culture that’s exactly the opposite. Employees are encouraged to hang art in their offices; working remotely is readily embraced. Starr himself is a fan of wearing Chrome Hearts jewelry and John Varvatos jackets to investor meetings. His favorite pair of designer sneakers (yellow PUMA x McQueen low-tops) is an office fixture on par with the watercooler.
Is life-saving, multi-billion Third Rock Ventures a serious place? Yes, full stop. But it’s also the unlikely home of a secret sneakerhead. On a sunny spring day, we met at Starr’s Boston office to talk sneakers, art, and how authentically expressing yourself at work requires a courage all its own.
You probably don’t see a lot of guys with your unique sense of style in meetings, do you?
Quite often, I’ll meet with a Nobel Prize winner for the first time or a senior executive I’m trying to interview to bring on one of my board of directors. One time last year, I was over at the Four Seasons waiting for a lunch meeting to interview a very senior candidate for a board of directors role. They came in, looked right at me – we hadn’t met before – and saw me rocking a skull T, Chrome Hearts jewelry, Y-3 sneakers; said “Oh that can’t be him”; then sat at the wrong table. So, I get up, say “Hey, how are you?”, and he’s giving me this look like “I thought I was here to be interviewed for a serious position at an important company.”
Of course, five minutes later it, all goes away. We don’t want to even take the five minutes, we just want everybody to be comfortable with who you are. You’ll find, if you’re walking around Third Rock, lots of different styles and that’s who we select for. Just be yourself.
When did you discover your own personal style? Have you always embraced it?
I have. Back at Millennium when I was the Chief Financial Officer, I used to ride motorcycles and would show up to work in a big leather jacket, American flag skullcap, lots of rings and all that stuff, but then when I got to the office I had to take it off and put on a suit. Back then, a lot of the dual-look approach had less to do with acquiescing to norms and abandoning style, but as the CFO of a public company that was worth billions of dollars in the early 2000s, you’d be doing your company harm by trying to express your style on top of what the norms were.
For credibility in the role of Chief Financial Officer, you needed to wear a suit and tie when you got behind podiums to deliver messages to a largely financial audience. But, I felt my sense of style was always there – even under my suits. Today, the environment is a lot more relaxed in general.
I’m sure there’s a component of it too where if the guy producing results wants to wear Chrome Hearts to the office, then who’s going to argue?
It’s true. We encourage our young guns who come in to just not worry about it. What you’re wearing, it shouldn’t be even something to think about. Focus on how you listen, and learn, and teach, and help your partners. That’s what you should focus on, not [dress codes].
What I’ve found, personally, I’m more comfortable being myself and therefore I’m better at doing what I’m doing. If I go down to big events in Washington DC, I don’t mind throwing on a tux either – I think that’s stylish thing to do – [but] I wouldn’t be excited about wearing a tux every day.
Just be yourself, don’t lose yourself. That’s the key message.
So when you being yourself, not losing yourself meets another person who’s doing that professionally, can you guys talk shop?
Well, what I’ve found is pretty interesting because when people come in to a firm like Third Rock they don’t know what to expect, and since they are generally looking for money for their ideas, they’ll be styled a little bit more conservatively.
Probably a dozen times a month in those types of meetings, someone would make a comment on styles in general like: “Oh my god, I didn’t realize I wouldn’t have to wear a suit here.” And then that’s the opening. They feel comfortable and open up about their style opinions: “Oh yeah, I love art,” “I love sneakers,” and you can talk about motorcycles, you can talk about anything they are personally interested in.
I had one fellow in a couple of years ago and he saw all this stuff in my office which has funky artwork, skulls, lots of colors, and that was an opening to: “Oh, my son is a new graphics artist. He’s doing some creative work that I think you’d like based on your décor.” That guy sent me three sketches that his son did that were the coolest thing I’ve seen. If I was in a suit and my office had plain white walls, we probably never would have got to that conversation.
Fashion is so visible. It’s almost showing a vulnerability and showing an openness. I think it’s human nature that everyone desires to be expressive at some point. And so art, fashion, style, wherever they come from, love it or hate it, is an opening for someone to be a little bit more expressive.
So tell me about your favorite pair of sneakers.
The PUMA McQueen’s are probably my favorites. They’re well loved. Some people buy some of these and keep them on the shelf – I wear [mine] ‘til I get holes in all sides. I like it even better when they’re all broken in like that.
I bought [this pair] down in the Meatpacking district in New York. As soon as I saw them, with the spikes on the side and that color of yellow that you just didn’t see other sneakers at the time… [I knew] those were ones you stick with. I’ve had a lot [of pairs] come and go, those still stay on the shelf.
What else do you have in your collection?
I have a few pairs of two tone PUMA Blacks with the tip dipped. Those are fun because when you wear them with jeans, the jeans cut to the top and all you can see is the tip. But, if you’re walking around, all of a sudden you see [the other color]. I like that little pop and surprise like that.
I’ve got several pairs of Valentino runners, too. I love the Valentino’s because you can wear those [with everything] – dress up, dress down, shorts, long pants on those. I love Rick Owens, and Y-3 too. And McQueen. I love their sense of style.
A little birdy told me you know a thing or two about cars and motorcycles. What’s your current favorite?
It’s a toss-up between a Rolls Phantom Drophead Coupe and a Mercedes G Wagon. The Rolls is metallic shiny blue with the stainless steel polish hood on the end, and reminds me of a cruising boat. I used to have a McLaren MP4-12C, and I recently traded away a BMW Z8. I loved, loved, loved that car for its timeless design. I had the Z8 for almost 10 years. Honestly, I just mix it up a little bit.
Now read our discussion with Tim Raue, the Michelin star chef who only wears Nikes.
- Photography: Kris East / Highsnobiety.com