News > Lifestyle, 4:01

Why investment bankers are switching suits for startups: the story of Vasco Serpa

By Finbuzz
Lifestyle, 4:01

After spending 17 years as a banker at Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, and Banco Espirito Santo, Vasco Serpa turned to startups, investing in five lifestyle and leisure companies. One of these projects is ABoatTime.com, which is the equivalent of Airbnb for hiring a boat, Finbuzz reports.

During his transition from banking to entrepreneurship, Serpa took a “sabbatical year” and spent much of this time on the water. Serpa sees himself as one of the leading trendmakers of banking veterans leaving the industry to invest in startups.

A young sailor with an Olympic dream

“I am from Portugal, but in the early stages of my life I lived in Mozambique and Venezuela,” said Vasco, 43, who looks a bit like Hemingway: bearded and tanned with a wide smile sitting relaxed with his white shirt open. The only thing missing was a captain’s hat.

“My father was a merchant navy captain, so I grew up in the environment of sailing and sea.”

At age 10 he went back to Portugal and started sailing in the local club in Cascais, becoming part of the national team at 15. Then he went to the junior world championship and later his boat, the “Laser” was selected as an Olympic category one. He started sailing the world with the pre-Olympic national team. Meanwhile he got into the top economic school in Portugal, Universidade Nova de Lisboa. “I can’t say that I had an urge to become a banker, but economics was what I ended up choosing. I guess at that time my mind was more into sailing…” Vasco said with a smirk.

While finishing university he faced a choice: either participate in the 1996 olympics or take an investment banking job his uni professor offered him. He chose the Olympics.

“Eventually I placed 7th out of 54, so I was very happy but when I got a call from a friend just after the Games, asking me if I wanted to finally come to a job interview, I decided it was time to see how far the flow of finance would take me”.

The Investment Banker

Vasco got the job and started as a broker at the Portuguese-based bank Banco Espirito Santo (BES). Soon after he became a fixed income trader.

“The Industry was booming,” explained Vasco, “we were in the stage that lead to the Monetary Union in Europe. Portugal, which was closed from 1974 to 1980, and had already had an IMF intervention that ended in 1985, was now an EU member and was growing strong, it also became part of the MSCI index, which meant we joined first world’s markets. My bank was doing great, lots of young people came to the industry and their careers were flying. It was a moment of growth.”

But Vasco was still not fully satisfied and wanted to get his Olympic medal. So late in 1998 he took off and started to sail professionally again in order to prepare for the 2000 Olympic trials. After he “only” ranked second in Portugal and was not selected to join the Olympic team, he finally decided to fully commit to his banking career, eventually becoming head of corporate derivatives sales in 2003 at BES.

In 2005 Merrill Lynch in Madrid brought him onto the fixed income sales team that covered Institutional clients in Iberia.

“The perception then was that the world economy was in perfect shape in many extents,” Vasco said. “But you sensed that the leverage in the economy was running a bit high. There was plenty of liquidity in the system, competition to lend was high, credit spreads were at minimum and lending criteria too loose. Yo

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