From Sparr to Times Square

Meet the young Marion County man who won entry to some of the country’s most elite and Ivy League institutions and will soon take on Wall Street.

In August, Vincent B. Vaughns will trade his quiet, tree-shaded family home in Sparr for an apartment in the midst of the dizzying atmosphere of New York City, where he will begin working for Morgan Stanley.

The path that led him to this point includes earning full-ride scholarships to Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and Yale University in Connecticut, navigating the culture shock of being thrust into environments where his contemporaries were the children of billionaires and having to double down on his already strong work ethic.

Along his journey, he recalls watching a fellow student arrive for school in a bright yellow Lamborghini, rather than a yellow school bus, at his elite prep school, where he endured bitter cold northern winters and ached for southern soul food.

His extraordinary story of chasing and realizing his dreams is one for the books.

A Head Start
Vaughns, 22, was born in Jacksonville. At 10 weeks, he was adopted by Vincent W. Vaughns and his wife Mae, who were already blessed with a biological daughter of their own, 8-year-old Keturah.

He got an early academic head start when complications from a neuromuscular disorder caused his mother to leave her job as a media specialist at North Marion High School (NMHS) and she began to stay home and care for her young son. 

“Being home, I really began to see this was a smart little child,” Mae Vaughns recalls. “I knew he had great abilities. Before he started kindergarten, he could read, write and do math. The teachers told me there was really not much they could teach him. He was way advanced.”

Vincent attended Sparr Elementary School before moving to North Marion Middle, where he discovered a love of science.

“In seventh grade, science fair was a big turning point,” he offers. “I got to see kids from different schools who had done great research projects and I realized that being smart wasn’t bad, because sometimes the kids pick on you in school for being nerdy, but I saw kids do really cool projects and win money and it got me excited about learning.”

Following a week-long summer robotics camp at the then-named Central Florida Community College, he applied his new knowledge on a computer science project for the eighth-grade science fair.

“I ended up winning second in the regional science fair, but I was upset because I wanted to go to state,” he recalls, his voice rising with intensity. “The next year, as a freshman at North Marion High School, I improved upon it and won top 10 in the state. My sophomore year, I won third in the state and, both years, I won Intel’s Best Use of Computer Award.”

A Good Sport
It was in seventh grade that Vincent discovered sports.

“I played a few weeks of basketball and the agreement my parents made was that I could play sports if I made straight A’s,” he explains. “My eighth-grade year, I was a pretty good basketball player, but I was more athletic than skilled. In my ninth-grade year, my track coach, Tony McCall, invited me to try out for the track team and in my first season I won district in the 400-meter dash and 200. I made it to regionals but got disqualified for missing a check-in. I got upset about putting in all this work and missing this opportunity, so I ran summer track, where I ended up in the top 20 kids in the country for my age group.”

In his sophomore year, he got a recruiting questionnaire from UCLA.

“I started to think about being able to run track in college as well as the fact that I had straight A’s, so I thought I could run at Duke or an Ivy League school,” he recalls. “But I didn’t have a lot of guidance as to how to get there. And the valedictorian that year got rejected from all the Ivy League schools he applied to, so I knew it was going to take more than just having good grades or doing some clubs.”

Family member Patricia “Patsy” Conlon, the librarian at NMHS, who later taught at the University of Florida, connected Vincent with NMHS alumni Dr. Emery Brown, who is, among other accomplishments, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard Medical School. 

“Dr. Brown was coming to speak at the UF Brain Institute and me, my dad, my aunt Patsy and Uncle Jorge went to see him,” Vincent remembers. “It was in this large room and I was pretty sure I was the only high schooler there. I was able to ask him a question, which he said was a good question, and he gave me a shout-out in front of all these scientists and said, ‘I’m going to try to get this kid to come up north with me, so y’all might try to grab him if you can.’”

Brown told the youngster that going to Phillips Exeter was one of the best decisions he had ever made because of the rigor, the people and the opportunities.

“He also went there for the last two years of his high school career, so that’s when I decided to apply to Phillips Exeter,” Vincent recalls. “It is the number one boarding school in America. It’s also one of the richest schools in the world. It was founded in 1781, as a feeder school to Harvard, but now it’s just a very good preparatory school for all of the top colleges.”

“I grew up in the community of Martin and attended public schools in Ocala/Marion County. My parents, Benjamin and Alberta Brown, were math teachers,” Brown offers. “I met Vince in January 2014. Patricia Conlon and I had not been in touch for nearly 40 years when she wrote to tell me about him. A few weeks later we met in Gainesville. During his time at Exeter, and to a lesser extent at Yale, I have been an informal advisor. I have watched with tremendous admiration his success during the last several years. I strongly encourage young people to pursue education as far as possible, ideally, at least through college. Not only does education make it possible to have a better life, but it also makes it possible to find more creative and productive ways to help others.”

To apply to Exeter, Vincent had to hustle to take the ACTs, write two essays and get recommendations from teachers. He interviewed with an Exeter alum at a meeting in Gainesville.

“It’s a very competitive school to get into. Some of the kids have done cancer research, others are on the math Olympics team. Some were names like Rockefeller, DuPont—you start to realize who is getting into this school,” he remarks. “Shortly after I was accepted, they sent my financial aid package and it was a full financial aid scholarship to attend.”

“Looking back, I was kind of nervous about getting it, but I had a 4.8 GPA because I took all college ACE classes, which are weighted 5.0s. I took driver’s ed and got an A and it dropped my GPA because it wasn’t a college class. I was starting to get looked at by top Division 1 colleges for track and field. I was a very, very good candidate,” he asserts. “But, when you kind of look at yourself small…you don’t come from the greatest place or you don’t see a lot of people doing it, you very much doubt. I was blessed to have people that saw greatness in me and encouraged me to apply for those types of things. I really think that was a huge determinant that allowed me to capitalize on the hard work that I was already doing.”

Lifted by Others
Although he had the scholarships, Vincent needed things like a computer and printer, winter clothing and airline tickets. One of his basketball coaches, Jermaine Stokes, a financial planner in Ocala, hosted a fundraiser for him.

“When he received the scholarships, I formed the Pay It Forward Committee, which included educators, lawyers and businesspeople,” Stokes explains. “We met weekly and planned a big benefit dinner at North Marion High School.”

“The fundraiser helped cover extraneous things, even just being able to go out with the guys and get pizza or go out on the weekend, allowing me to have a very similar experience as some of my peers,” Vincent notes. “I definitely have received a lot of support from Marion County over the years and I always like to say I made it because I’m from Marion County, not in spite of it.”

Before Vincent was ensconced at Exeter for his junior year of high school, his father worked to prepare him for the reality of this new experience and encourage him.

“Because nobody in our family ever graduated from Yale, or a prestigious school like that, and having him go away when he was still in high school, I had concerns how he would fit in,” Mr. Vaughns states. “And there were people who tried to explain to him what it would be like to be around kids that were more privileged or might feel as if they are better than you. I would tell him, ‘You have a right to be there.’”

Stokes maintained contact with Vincent and attended his graduation from Exeter and also had tickets to his graduation from Yale, which ultimately had to be held online due to the coronavirus.

“He has not wasted any of the help he received,” Stokes says. “Vincent’s story, from childhood to now, is a great story. I’ve suggested that he write a book or do a documentary. Young people could learn from and be motivated by this rare, outstanding young man. He has always been very respectful of others and has maintained a strong level of focus. And he is the type of person who has the heart to give back. He will pay it forward.”

Driven to Succeed
Vincent says Exeter “was brutal. That first year was terrible. I went from making straight A’s to, my first trimester, I didn’t even make the honor roll. I was out of my comfort zone. I also ended up tearing my posterior cruciate ligament in the early part of my indoor track season because I had never run indoors and was out for the season. I went home. And I really started to think, ‘Was this a good idea?’”

Barely suppressing a chuckle, he goes on to say, “My second semester, I was able to refocus and I had to up my work ethic. And I never learned how to work harder in my life. I took rehab like I was training for the Olympics. I was still very involved with the team. I kind of came in as this big-time track guy and wasn’t able to put anything down on the track, so I had to be a leader, whether it was hyping the team up before a meet or doing managerial things. And, by spring semester, I achieved high honors. It all was a big testament to the work, prayer and dedication. It was super rewarding. I remember thinking, ‘Now I’m doing it on the big level, with the top kids in the country.’”

That summer, he devoted himself to studying for the ACT.

“Every Saturday, I would get up and take a practice test. I knew I had to get top 10 percentile to get into an Ivy League school. They look at your grades, clubs, everything else you’re doing besides being an athlete. If those standards are not there, you don’t get in. You could be Tim Tebow, but if the grades and extracurriculars are not there, you’re not getting in.”

His persistence and drive paid off.

“I did end up scoring top 10 percentile and I ended up breaking five school track records.”

From Yale to Wall Street
Vincent intended to study biomedical engineering at Yale and go on to medical school. He took typical science classes, along with chemistry and math. But an opportunity to shadow an engineer made him realize he didn’t really like being in a lab and working for an extended period of time on a project that might not even produce results.

“I ended up taking my first economics class and it blew my mind,” he says excitedly. “Admittedly, I did not do very well in that class, but I really enjoyed it. I learned about consumer choice, the way businesses make decisions and started thinking about the stock market.”

On summer break, back home in Marion County, he worked at Office Depot during the back-to-school season, which, he says, taught him “people skills,” as people can be very aggressive.

He then became a finance intern at Community Bank & Trust and got to work closely with CEO Hugh Dailey and CFO David Denyer. He learned about such things as wealth management, trading, being a teller and commercial lender.

He also went to Atlanta that summer, with the Yale Higher Education Initiative, and got to learn about the child welfare system and observe juvenile custody court hearings.

“We gave presentations to at-risk children on educational opportunities that were there for them because they were foster children,” he recalls. “Being adopted, it was interesting to see how things could have turned out very differently for me.”

While in Atlanta, he saw the SunTrust, Robinson and Humphrey building and remembered overhearing Denyer making a deal with someone named Jeremy Smith at the firm. He requested an introduction and ended up spending two or three hours with the executive.

“He showed me Mercedes-Benz Stadium and talked about how they had to go to capital markets and raise billions of dollars to fund this thing and how he acts as a bond salesman connecting the capital with the investors and helping the deals go through,” Vincent recalls. “He also had a Bible on his desk, which was interesting how things kind of aligned. The one bond sales guy with a Bible on his desk…”

In his sophomore year, Vincent applied to every sales and trading division internship he could find—and got rejected from all but one.

“It’s a very difficult process because you have thousands (of applicants) trying to get to Wall Street. I got my first Super Day at Goldman Sachs. I was super excited. Very few people ever get to go inside an investment bank, nevertheless work at one. I thought I did a very good job preparing and I thought the interview went well, but I didn’t get the job. Something clicked in me and I went to a church service and I just let it all go. I was like, ‘You know what, maybe it wasn’t for me. Let me rethink this plan.’”

He says he spent late nights on calls with Smith, went to Yale’s law school and checked out books such as Investment Banking Brain Teasers, and read the Wall Street Journal every day.

“I started doing my own trade pitches, trying to figure out where the market was going,” he notes. “At one point, I skipped my own birthday party because I was studying. I was all in.”

Then Morgan Stanley gave him a first-round interview.

“I was like let’s go,” he says, his voice again rising with enthusiasm. “This was a Wall Street leading firm. I did everything I could…due diligence. I was supposed to hear back in two weeks. Didn’t hear. Emailed back, emailed back. Four weeks went by and I hadn’t heard anything and so I kept emailing. Then I receive this email: ‘Wow, Vincent, you are so persistent. I have one more Super Day, which is the final round of interviews, and I’m going to give it to you,’ it read. ‘Good luck and I hope you make the best of it.’ He wasn’t giving me a job.

I wasn’t the top applicant. I said I’m going to have to come in and blow these people away.”

Vincent recalled that a track teammate had said a friend’s dad worked at Morgan Stanley. All he had was the name. When a few searches revealed no contact information, he realized he could search for people in the Bloomberg database with an account he had through Yale.

He launched an email, not knowing what position the man held at Morgan Stanley. Then came the phone call, followed by a meeting.

“In sales and trading, you don’t have an office, you have your desk with your monitors until you are a senior managing director,” Vincent offers. “This guy walks me past these desks into his office. And that’s when I realized I had stumbled upon one of the top people in the division. He goes, ‘You go to Yale and you worked hard to get here and I didn’t go to Yale, couldn’t get in, so you go on that interview and you act like you deserve to be here.’”

Vincent nailed his interview.

“I remember walking out in Times Square. I saw it all lit up, that New York story time, the Coca-Cola, hustle, bustle,” he recalls. “I said this is so beautiful, I need to take a picture. But something in my mind said no. Don’t take a picture. You’re going to be here next summer.”

He said it typically takes a few days to hear back from such a venture, but on the train back to Yale he got an email from the man who did his first-round interview: “Wow. Great win! They decided to give you the offer for next summer. I don’t know what you did in there, but congratulations.”

“I cried on that train,” Vincent murmurs. “All the effort, all the… I had been rejected without an interview from like 23 places…”

And, about this time, he got a second offer from Goldman Sachs, but chose to stick with Morgan Stanley.

Forward Momentum
Vincent graduated from Yale on May 18th with a bachelor’s degree in political science with concentration in economics. He was honored as a commencement speaker, with his “Ode to the Fight” broadcast via YouTube.

He completed his thesis, “The Cost of Incarceration,” which, he says, is essentially a bill to reform Florida’s criminal justice system, under Dr. Jacob Hacker, a professor of political science and director of the Institution for Social and Policy Studies.

“Throughout this last six years, and experiences I’ve had growing up in rural Ocala, to working with the big players on Wall Street, I say we can’t forget about those who don’t have privileges or aren’t represented or don’t have enough representation,” Vincent states. “Regardless of which side of the aisle you are on, if you forget about those who have been left behind, that is when America or the state is going to have a problem, and whether you want to talk about COVID-19 or the racial atrocities we’ve seen in the news, and I would say the poor leadership responding to these, we’re going to continue to see issues like this until the people who have been overlooked are truly heard.”

George Evans, a Yale assistant track and field coach, has known Vincent since his junior year at Exeter.

“I will always remember his maturity and his ability to learn from his experiences, good and bad. He is always analyzing things, looking for better methods to accomplish his tasks. And when he goes at it the next time, more often than not, the results are better,” Evans offers. “Vincent was one of the most respected teammates in our track and field program. He has an uncanny ability to relate to everyone. He talked about how he prioritizes his life, his family values and how his connections to his home are the most important things to him. It’s easy to see why once you meet his parents,” Evans continues. “Vincent was the top guy at Yale, and such a huge part of our program. Not just because of his incredible athletic ability, but because he was a consummate teammate, never took himself too seriously, and was a joy to be around. His energy is contagious, work ethic second to none and he always produced in the biggest moments.”

As for what advice he might offer to his young neighbors in rural Sparr, Vincent is quick to say, “Find out what your dream is and then go after it with absolutely everything you have. And don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it.”

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