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2017 Silver Anniversary Award: Tommy Vardell

Former Stanford standout smoothly transitions to career in venture capital

In 2000, Tommy Vardell peeled off an NFL jersey for the final time, marking the end of his distinguished college and pro football career. But, only 30 years old, the former Stanford University running back was far from ready to retire. Later that year, Vardell and his former NFL teammates Brent Jones and Mark Harris, cofounded Northgate Capital, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm.

For Vardell, the transition from the NFL to the business world was daunting, but invigorating. While he initially received some skepticism as he acclimated to a new field, Vardell appreciated the challenge that starting his own business created.

Vardell will receive an NCAA Silver Anniversary Award at the NCAA Honors Celebration on Wednesday, Jan. 18, in Nashville, Tennessee. The annual award recognizes six distinguished former student-athletes on the 25th anniversary of the end of their intercollegiate athletics eligibility.

“The new environment I found myself in – it was very comparable to my time as an athlete,” Vardell said. “The high-risk, high-reward atmosphere was familiar to me. I knew how to navigate that path effectively.”

At Stanford, Vardell was a two-time team captain, 1991 Academic All-American of the Year, and studied at the university’s demanding engineering school. In 1992, Vardell graduated from Stanford with a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering and was selected in the first round of the NFL Draft by the Cleveland Browns.

For the next eight years, Vardell competed in the NFL for the Browns, Detroit Lions and San Francisco 49ers. Meanwhile, he utilized his free time during the offseason to learn about the venture capital sector and develop investment strategies.

After meeting in 1996 as teammates in San Francisco, Vardell and Jones connected with partners at Sequoia Capital, which allowed them to learn the business from experienced industry insiders and network with potential future partners.

Even with a degree from one of the top universities in the country and a burgeoning familiarity of the industry, Vardell felt behind the curve after leaving football and entering the business world. While he was pushing weights and eluding tacklers, his new peers had been honing their craft and developing their skills. However, Vardell eventually realized that his football career provided a sturdy foundation for his future.

“The NFL locker room was great entrepreneurial training ground for me,” Vardell said. “You’re forced to adapt to a wide spectrum of personalities, develop emotional intelligence and critique yourself on a daily basis. Exposure to such a competitive environment demands accountability, attention to detail and self-assessment.”

Vardell, Jones and Harris created Northgate and worked on establishing a business model. The former teammates found their sweet spot by sponsoring other venture capital firms’ investments. In 2008, Northgate was one of 15 companies based in the United States named a World Economic Forum Global Growth Company. Currently, Northgate managers almost $5 billion in assets with established offices in the United States, United Kingdom, Hong Kong and Mexico City.

Content with his accomplishments in two competitive fields, Vardell is in the process of selling his remaining shares in Northgate. He hopes to focus more time on his positions as president of the Brotherbird Foundation – a charitable organization that provides enrichment services to disadvantaged youth – and as a board member for the Stanford Alumni Association, for which he serves on the finance committee and alumni business and services committee. He also plans to spend some of his hard-earned free time with his family.