How I made my way from poverty to playing in the Super Bowl – and now PE
Rising from poverty to graduate from an Ivy League university is impressive enough, but that only scratches the surface of Isaiah Kacyvenski’s story. He earned two degrees from Harvard and was an aspiring doctor and four-year starter on the university's football team before playing in the National Football League for eight years and then returning to his alma mater to get his MBA. Now he’s a technology entrepreneur and an adviser to the New York-based private equity firm Star Mountain Capital.
“As an undergraduate student at Harvard, I was pre-med, and my plan was to be a doctor, but fortunately I was drafted by the Seahawks, and I went on to live the dream of playing in the NFL,” Kacyvenski said.
After being named the Harvard University Male Athlete of the Year, Kacyvenski became the highest NFL draft pick ever from Harvard and went on to have a successful NFL career as a linebacker with the Seattle Seahawks. He was elected special teams captain and played in Super Bowl XL.
Dating back to his playing days, Kacyvenski has gained experience as a private investor – he’s made more than 20 private capital investments in small and medium-sized businesses in technology, sports, biotech, consumer, media and sports medicine, often advising the management teams of the startups he invests in.
“I grew up in poverty – my family never had any money, so the first time I signed with the Seahawks and got my signing bonus, I realized I better get smart with my money, because I had heard horror stories about former professional athletes going broke,” Kacyvenski said. “I learned a lot about the markets, combed through information, asked former classmates working in finance a ton of questions and started making a few investments.
“I started liking the investment side, direct investments, angel investments, taking a vision, creating value and growing a startup – I loved that aspect,” he said. “Initially I was thinking maybe med school, but by the time I retired, I decided that business school would put me in the right position to be involved in a lot of things I’m passionate about.”
Life after football
After retiring from the NFL and getting his MBA, he became the global head of business development and chairman of the sports advisory board at MC10, a wearable sensor technology startup.
Last year, Kacyvenski co-founded the Boston-based Sports Innovation Lab, a research firm that identifies and evaluates sports- and fitness-related technology products and services. The other co-founders are Josh Walker, a former VP of research at Forrester Research and entrepreneur-in-residence at General Catalyst, and Angela Ruggiero, a U.S. Olympic gold medalist and member of the Hockey Hall of Fame who also got her MBA at Harvard Business School.
Kacyvenski is a managing director at the Sports Innovation Lab, which offers a digital market research platform and an adviser network to help companies make strategic investment decisions. That dovetails with Star Mountain’s focus as a lower-middle-market private equity firm that invests in small-to-medium-sized companies with $10m to $150m of annual revenues.
Kacyvenski has invested in Star Mountain and advises the PE firm on sourcing, analyzing and adding value to its portfolio companies in New England and provides industry sector expertise on an area where the PE firm is increasingly pursuing investment opportunities. He also serves on the board of both the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) and the Star Mountain Charitable Foundation. The latter helps athletes with internships and career development.
Brett Hickey, a former competitive speed-skater and the founder and CEO of Star Mountain, graduated from Harvard Business School’s Owner/President Management (OPM) program, during which time he first met Kacyvenski.
“Isaiah can definitely squat more than me, but I think I would take him in a running race,” he said.