The Sohn Investment Conference: Head, Heart, and Hedge Funds

"Follow your passion" has become something of a cliché in the self-help sections of America's bookstores and in the kinds of advice columns and blogs about career and work that seem to have proliferated in the age of the Internet. Makes sense, considering our national obsession with individuality and self-realization, and given the sluggish state of the economy and lack of jobs for the millennial generation. But there is another, perhaps more obvious reason, too: it has become a cliché because it is an idea that appeals powerfully to many. Who wouldn't want to find work that combines financial reward with mission and vocation--a profession that fits neatly into the folds where what you are good at and what you love overlap with what the world needs and will pay for.

I have witnessed this first-hand in my own life, and I would say that it represents the zenith of self-fulfillment. Without getting into too much detail, my 21 year-old son has suffered from an auto-immune disease since he was four, and though he is functioning well now under treatment with chemotherapy drugs, the illness and treatment or lack thereof have had such a profound impact on his life that he has decided to study bio-medical engineering in college, where he has just completed his junior year. No other career path could possibly have meant as much to him as one that helps him understand his own biology and that of others like him.

It was in this frame of mind that I attended the 19th annual Sohn Investment Conference at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall in New York City last month. An annual gathering of some of the world's most successful hedge fund managers, the 2014 event was dedicated to both money-making investment ideas, and raising funds for pediatric cancer research and patient care. The schedule of speakers reflected this dual purpose, with hedge fund managers alternating with cancer researchers, survivors and doctors. It's an event that is deeply imbued with the idea of giving the gift of knowledge, both in terms of providing attendees with ideas on which they might make a fortune, and providing cancer researchers and patients with the tools to better understand the disease.

This year, the conference organizers also rolled out something new: the Sohn Partner program. Partners make a non-binding pledge to donate a portion of the investment gains they make on those great Sohn conference ideas to support the foundation's pediatric cancer funding. The partner program is meant to encourage conference goers to give not just once a year, when the conference opens its doors, but year-round. It is a perfect distillation of the twinned themes behind the Sohn Investment Conference: head and heart, work and passion, profit and philanthropy, math and mission.

So far, a number of attendees have signed on to become partners and the Sohn Conference Foundation, which runs the conference, expects contributions to begin rolling in as they begin to realize investment gains. The Sohn Conference has raised nearly $50 million in funds for pediatric cancer in the almost two decades since it first launched.

Many of the usual suspects were in attendance this year: David Einhorn, founder and president of Greenlight Capital; James Grant, author of the investment newsletter Grant's Interest Rate Observer; Larry Robbins of Glenview Capital Management. Chris Shumway, who runs his own family office, managed to move Moody's stock with his presentation, in which he called it a "great business" with "a moat around it." But that's pretty much business as usual. The Sohn Investment Conference is known for its incisive investment ideas, and many of these ideas have influenced markets over the years. And it's all in the service of raising money and awareness for pediatric cancer.

It stands as another reminder of the way in which the hedge fund industry--so often vilified for money lust--is actually very intent on giving back. The Sohn conference was founded in 1995 by the mother, brother and friends of Ira Sohn, a Wall Street professional who died of cancer at the tender age of 29. It has since evolved into the Sohn Conference Foundation, a leading funder of pediatric cancer research. Money raised goes to identify and fund cutting-edge medical research, state-of-the-art research equipment, and innovative programs to help children with cancer survive and live long, successful lives.

Mid-afternoon, high-school senior Elana Simon talked about having been diagnosed with cancer, surviving it and then dedicating herself to the study of it. In fact, she made an important breakthrough for cancer research due to the financial support of the Sohn Foundation. Sohn funds paid for the purchase of special microscopes she used during an internship at the Rockefeller University, where she studied the genetics of cancer. She will head to Harvard in the fall.

Her story reminded me of my son's, and really brought home the idea of pursuing your passion. There is no greater reward.