by Brian DeChesare Comments (35)

From Community College to Fortune 500 Investor Relations: How to Defy the Odds Even When Everyone Tells You “No”

From Community College to Fortune 500 Investor RelationsThe “path.”

It never seems to die.

And neither does the assumption that you need to follow a certain “path” to get into the finance industry.

It’s like a cockroach: no matter how many times I drop nuclear bombs on it, it just won’t stay dead.

That’s why I wanted to share this story of a reader who did almost everything wrong in the beginning…

…But still managed to win a highly competitive offer in the corporate finance / investor relations team of a Fortune 500 company.

Forget about being from a “non-target school” – he originally attended a community college.

Forget about the recruiting process taking “months and months” – it took him almost 2 years.

And forget about being “discouraged” by your networking contacts – one guy actually told him: “You didn’t go to Harvard, so I don’t know what to tell you.”

But he overcame all that to break in anyway.

And here’s how he did it, along with a detailed explanation of investor relations interviews:

From Community College to CFO Consigliere

Q: Before we begin, can you summarize your background and the position you eventually won?

A: Sure – I was originally very interested in playing (North American) football in college and hadn’t focused much on academics in high school because I was counting on an athletic scholarship to win admission to good schools.

That didn’t work out due to a major injury I suffered, so after graduating from high school I joined a non-profit for a few years and then I applied to local community colleges. With the SAT scores I had, a community college was my only option at the time.

I knew I had to transfer somewhere better to get a solid job post-graduation, so I applied to liberal arts colleges in the US and ended up attending a decent-but-mostly-unheard-of one.

I studied economics there, got fairly good grades (3.7), and also joined as many activities as possible (varsity football, president of a business club, etc.).

I graduated into a horrible economy, so I went through an extended networking process that lasted almost 2 years.

In that time, I took a part-time / remote role at a hedge fund, took a full-time sales job, and went through 50+ informational interviews across one long trip to New York.

And it ended with me leveraging my sales job into an investor relations role in the corporate finance team of a Fortune 500 company.

I work directly with the VP of Investor Relations, and I get exposure to the C-level executives here whenever we’re preparing for earnings releases or giving them updates.

Q: Great. So let’s start with what happened when you first graduated from the liberal arts college.

A: The economy was terrible, and in my area there were several top schools with extremely well-qualified candidates… and I had very little to offer at the time.

But I wanted to leverage my business and economics background and break into finance anyway.

So I followed all your networking tips and went through a crazy effort that entailed:

  • Sending out between 2,000 and 3,000 separate emails.
  • Adding over 1,200 LinkedIn connections.
  • Going through over 50 informational interviews in New York, over 18 days spent there.
  • Surviving some humiliating conversations with finance professionals.

At the same time, I picked up part-time sports coaching gigs and did other part-time work to pay the bills.

I also knew I’d need to get some sort of finance-related work experience on my resume, so in the months after I graduated I got an unpaid internship at a hedge fund.

The PM was an alumnus from my alma mater, and it was a smaller fund, AND it was mostly remote / part-time work (maybe ~300 hours of work total over 8 months)… but at least I had something to write on my resume.

They told me: “We’re not hiring anyone.”

And I just kept saying: “I’ll work for free and do anything I can to save you time” until they finally said yes, took a chance, and gave me a bit of work (mostly research and analyzing potential investments).

Q: OK, so you were working part-time for money, you had a part-time unpaid hedge fund gig, and then you were also networking like crazy.

Can you tell us about those “humiliating” conversations you mentioned?

A: All the usual objections came up – I had attended a community college, my “real” college also wasn’t great, my GPA was borderline, and I wasn’t very “polished” when I met people.

I was “working at a hedge fund” at the time, so people on the sell-side were asking why I wanted to move back to the sell-side, while people on the buy-side were asking questions I couldn’t answer.

Some of the more humiliating responses I got:

“You didn’t go to Harvard. So I don’t know what to tell you.”

“It seems like you just don’t know what you want to do in life.”

“You seem very ‘social.’ Maybe you should think about sales instead of finance.”

“Kid, you’re just not tough enough to work in finance.” (Possibly my favorite)

I met with some pretty high-level people – guys at firms like Greenlight Capital, KKR, TPG, GS, and family offices, but I didn’t “catch a break” anywhere.

The low point happened when I was living in my friend’s garage to save money.

I was speaking with someone at Goldman Sachs who asked “if I was on the buy-side” since they saw my hedge fund experience.

I looked around at the old car and toolboxes in the garage, and almost started laughing.

Q: You should write a book. “The Garage of Wall Street?”

Anyway, I think a lot of recent grads suffer from the ‘lack of polish’ you mentioned – can you give an example of that?

A: The main problem was that I was too direct at first. For example, a family friend was one of the first 10 employees at a tech start-up that had since grown into a $100+ billion company.

I emailed him directly and asked for an introduction to someone in the finance team – he replied and said, “I’m not going to hold this against you, but in the future please don’t send an email like this to someone in my position.”

I had to do more of a soft sell for myself rather than emailing VP/C-level executives and asking for favors.

A lot of my early interviews didn’t go well for similar reasons.

I spoke with a Transaction Advisory Services group at a Big 4 firm, for example, but I came across as awkward in the interview and didn’t win the offer.

Coffee is for Closers: Moving Into Sales

Q: So you weren’t gaining much traction despite an incredible networking effort.

What then?

A: I actually “gave in” and started listening to the feedback my networking contacts gave, and I took a sales job in a new division of a Fortune 500 company in my area.

It was somewhat competitive to get the job, but sales is the type of role where they’ll give almost anyone a chance and if you hit or exceed your numbers, they’ll keep you around.

At first, I really, really, really hated it because the entire job consisted of cold-calling and chatting up people on the phone, which I felt uncomfortable with.

But I learned quickly, and I knew that the only way out was to perform well in this role.

If I did that, they would let me move around internally – and if I didn’t, I was back to square one.

I hit 350% of my quota for 3 quarters straight and led the nation in sales within my organization, which made my boss – and his boss – look great!

But I knew I’d get pigeonholed if I stayed there too long, so I started thinking about other options a few months into it.

Q: So what next?

A: Sales roles tend to have high turnover everywhere, so I knew it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to leave; plus, my boss had looked so good from my efforts he would do anything to help me.

They wanted to promote me after 7 months there, but I said, “Actually, I’m interested in exploring other groups here” instead.

The Sales Manager was actually fine with it, and he even offered to help!

It turned out that one of his family members was in a senior-level role at another finance-related firm and happened to know the Head of Investor Relations here.

At the same time, I also looked up everyone in the IR team in our internal database and emailed the VP, Manager, and 2 analysts all on the same day and asked about getting to know their group.

Q: OK, so why did you focus on IR instead of other groups within corporate finance?

A: I also tried networking with the FP&A and corporate development teams, but I didn’t have an “in” there in the same way.

Also, the IR Manager told me that one of their analysts was leaving (the first day I met with him).

Fortune 500 companies always prefer internal candidates when hiring for these roles, so I figured I might have a shot.

Finally, everyone I met had a pretty friendly attitude and I “clicked” well with them.

Investor Relations Interviews 101

Q: Before we move into the interview process, what types of candidates are they looking for in investor relations roles?

A: The analyst I was replacing had 4 years of finance experience at the company, with 8 years of work experience total, and was about to finish his MBA.

They almost always want to see that type of background, and they almost always prefer internal candidates.

You definitely need to know accounting, valuation, and Excel pretty well because they’ll ask you about financial models, formulas, and all the finance-related work you’ve done before.

In one interview, the VP of Investor Relations actually printed out an 18-page model I sent him and he spent 45 minutes having me walk him through many of the formulas.

At the same time, though, you also need to understand the bigger picture and how details in earnings calls and investor presentations will impact Wall Street’s view of the company.

You don’t necessarily need to be super-social since it’s not a sales role, but you do need to be organized because you have to sort through a ridiculous amount of information – sometimes hundreds of equity research reports each quarter.

Q: Great. So walk us through the interview process.

A: It took place over about 2 months, and consisted of 8 interviews over ~6 hours.

I spoke with people in the IR team at all levels, and even a few people in the FP&A team.

And they called my old hedge fund manager from the fund that I had worked at – he said positive things about me, and thankfully never said directly that I worked remotely for part of it.

The whole thing started with two 45-minute back-to-back interviews

For the 2nd round, I had four 30-minute interviews in one day, and then an hour-long presentation / case study about one of the company’s smaller competitors and how it compared to this larger company.

In the second half of the presentation, I had to explain how I’d sift through tons of information and synthesize what was most useful for the IR team.

I spent 1.5 weeks preparing for these case studies and planned out my presentations in detail before I even started writing them.

Q: We’ve covered a bit on investor relations interviews before, but was there anything unique that you don’t see in other finance interviews?

A: Not really – they’ll still ask about things like Equity Value vs. Enterprise Value, how to calculate Free Cash Flow in a DCF, how the financial statements link together, and so on.

They did ask me some more advanced Excel questions on how INDIRECT and array functions work, but pretty much everything was covered in your online courses and interview guide.

On the qualitative side, they asked about different types of investors and their strategies, and how to pitch our firm differently to institutional investors with different goals.

A big part of the interview process is simply reading people and being able to pick up on what they’re looking for – someone serious? Someone they can joke around with? Both?

Q: Agreed. I need to add a “joke telling” section to the interview guide…

Let’s talk about the case studies – what exactly did they ask you to do?

A: The exact assignment was:

“Please prepare and bring with you a presentation to discuss the following:

[Company X] is a key competitor to [Our Company], and it’s growing quickly and has captured investor mindshare. Assess Company X as a business, and suggest how we might discuss both ourselves and them in the same conversation. Make sure you evaluate the company both qualitatively and quantitatively.

Then, also be prepared to discuss how you could sift through 1,000+ analyst reports each quarter (~50 analysts following our company, and ~20 primary competitors), as well as press coverage and blogs. Outline your plan for ingesting, analyzing, and leveraging data from a wide set of sources.”

Q: And what was your approach?

A: I followed about 75% your tips (Note from Brian: He emailed us and we gave some recommendations – see below), but I presented it differently for the VP and the Manager.

The VP was very quick and had a ton of experience with Excel, so I went over the technical parts quickly with him; the Manager wasn’t as experienced, so I took more time to explain the points on valuation.

Here’s the template you recommended, that I mostly followed:

“I would probably create a 10-slide presentation with the following structure:

Slide 1: Company X Overview – Products/services, what it’s good at, why investors like/don’t like it, and key strengths/weaknesses.

Slide 2: Financial Performance – Revenue, growth, EBITDA, margins, multiples, and forward analyst estimates (whatever you can find via free equity research on TD Ameritrade and so on).

Slide 3: Qualitative/Market Factors – How is Company X positioned vs. your firm and other companies? Is it stronger in certain segments such as big/medium/small businesses?

Slide 4: Investors’ Views on Company X – Summarize the key views from equity research analysts following the company, including what they like and don’t like compared to your firm.

Slide 5: Company X vis-à-vis Your Firm – How would you discuss them? What are the advantages/disadvantages of each one? Can you appeal to investors by pointing out how your huge customer base gives you an advantage / makes cross-selling or other tactics easier, whereas Company X doesn’t have those advantages?

Slide 6: How to Sift Through Data Sources – Suggest setting up Google News Alerts for key companies and phrases and getting summaries like that; you could also suggest “sampling” from the thousands of research reports and picking them based on heuristics like the analyst, bank, keywords, or page count.

Slide 7: Important vs. Unimportant News – Give a specific example of why you’d ignore one event but pay attention to another.

Slide 8: Important vs. Unimportant Equity Research – Same idea.

Slide 9: From 1,000+ Reports to 40-50 – Explain how you’d focus more on initiating coverage and other lengthy reports rather than shorter ones, and also how you’d compile the PDFs so you could search for keywords, names, and so on.

Slide 10: Final Summary – Company X vs. yours, key recommendation discussions, and how to find and sift through the information.”

Q: Great. So what were the most common questions they asked during the presentation?

A: At a Fortune 500 company, many of the investors are value-oriented funds.

So, as explained in your stock pitch guide, you need to explain why the company is undervalued and point out specific factors that the market is, incorrectly, not pricing in to the company’s stock price.

I pointed to the new segments / business lines we were developing, valuation multiples vs. new competitors, and I even used my sales experience with the company’s products to point out its operational merits.

I also stated that the competitor (Company X) was “shareholder unfriendly,” and they dug into that in a lot of detail – so I presented evidence of the CEO’s compensation, family-party transactions, misleading disclosures in their 10-K, and very high executive pay vs. similarly-sized competitors.

Q: And then…?

A: At the end, I asked if they had any reservations about me (no) and said I really wanted the position and would do anything to get it.

They called the next day – Christmas Eve – and gave me the offer as my “holiday present.”

It was a 50%+ pay increase from my sales role, and I started training the month right after that.

So far, it has been great for all the reasons I mentioned – especially the exposure to C-level executives.

Q: Any other thoughts on your story as a whole?

A: Things take a lot longer than you expect them to.

This whole process took me close to 2 years, but in the end I achieved my goal.

If you go in expecting to find a job like this in only a few months, forget it and go for another industry.

Q: Agreed 100%. What are your future plans?

A: The doors have really opened up, so I could recruit for equity research roles from here, take another shot at banking, or even go for my MBA (or your favorite, the CFA).

I’m also thinking about joining the corporate development team in the future since we work with them closely, but for now I’m planning to stay in this role for at least the next 2-3 years.

Q: Great. Thanks for your time and sharing your story!

A: My pleasure! I owe a lot to the crew at M&I / BIWS, keep up the great work!

M&I - Brian

About the Author

Brian DeChesare is the Founder of Mergers & Inquisitions and Breaking Into Wall Street. In his spare time, he enjoys memorizing obscure Excel functions, editing resumes, obsessing over TV shows, traveling like a drug dealer, and defeating Sauron.

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  1. Avatar
    Ashton Hellwig

    Not sure if you still check back to articles written this long ago, but I have a question.

    I actually dropped out of high school my junior year (up to this point I had a 3.6 GPA with 4 AP courses) but I needed to peruse a full time job to help pay the bills for my family. I worked full time in supply chain/logistics for the last three years and am currently taking the required pre-reqs to get into Leeds Business School (not most people’s A choice, but it’s in my back yard). I currently attend Front Range a Community College and maintain decent grades. Do I have any chance of getting into corporate finance FP/A or any other corporate finance gig with my background if I continue to maintain the pre-reqs to get into Leeds for my undergrad in Finance? Or would the job market after all the schooling (assuming I get in, all my credits I’m taking now are guaranteed transfer) be too put-off by my Community College and GED history? I passed the GED with honors with a score of 673 if that means anything.

    1. I think the bigger issue is that Leeds is not a top-ranked school, so I’m not sure how much recruiting there is there. But I believe some large companies in the UK do recruit for corporate finance roles at similar schools. They won’t really care that you attended a community college, but they will care about the quality of your business school. If that’s what you’re going to attend anyway, go ahead, but be aware that it will not position you for large banks and such.

  2. He mentioned that he was “lack of polish” and was too direct in his email for the execs level? Can you explain more on this? Is it mean we cant email execs ?

    1. I don’t have the specific emails from him, but he basically sent something like: “Hi [Name], I’m a recent grad of [School Name] and I am currently seeking corporate finance roles at [Big Company X]. I wanted to ask if your firm is hiring.”

      You can send something like that, with a bit more detail, to a banker, but VPs and executives at normal companies are somewhat different and you shouldn’t send something that direct unless you’ve already spoken with them.

  3. Another great article! I will say that his interview process was much more intensive than the process I went through to get into IR. Mine consisted of a 45min phone call with the IR Manager, a 2hr onsite interview with the IR Manager and the SVP Corp Finance – followed by lunch with the IR Manager, and then finally a 1.5hr onsite interview (separate day) with the CFO. No case studies.


    1. Avatar
      M&I - Nicole

      Thanks for your input Chris!

  4. Thanks for the great article. I’ll finish up CC soon then transfer to continue my bachelor’s. I’m debating between UVA’s McIntire and Georgetown’s MSB. Which of the two will provide better access to internships/jobs while in school, summer and FT analyst positions? I saw Bloomberg rated McIntire #2 nationally but felt Georgetown has better Wall Street connections. Which of the two will provide better ROI?

    1. Avatar
      M&I - Nicole

      I’d say Georgetown’s MSB given alumni presence on Wall Street. Yes I do think Gtown has better Wall Street connections. Gtown’s location may also give you more opportunity to network at the same time.

      1. I am debating about my newest admission offer: Columbia. For Wall St. preparation, will it be better to study at a dedicated undergrad b-school like GU MSB or Ivy econ?

        1. Avatar
          M&I - Nicole

          I’d say GU MSB has very good connections on Wall Street… You wouldn’t go wrong either way.

          1. Thanks for your thoughts. On the education section of my resume, I listed my 4-year school and my expected graduation date. Since I won’t get a GPA until end of first semester, should I include my community college info or leave that off?

            Even though I’m at a target school now, will bankers dislike my CC background because I wasn’t a purebred? If they ask, what would be the best response? Thanks

          2. Avatar
            M&I - Nicole

            I’d probably include your community college on your resume. No, I don’t think so because your target school counts the most. I wouldn’t worry about this and they are unlikely to “grill” you on that. They may ask you why you transferred and you can just give them a short and brief response.

  5. Hi there M&I team thanks for a great read! I was wondering if you could guide me to one of your articles related to transitioning away from a retail branch banking setting to a position with more investment decision making capacity.

    If one doesn’t exist yet, I respectfully urge you to consider that topic for a future article. I’m sure there are plenty of readers of this site that would find it very useful.

    1. Avatar
      M&I - Nicole

      Sure we’ll take that into consideration.

  6. Great post. Really appreciate it. And the underdog stories are always inspiring!

  7. Great post. Love reading underdog success stories like this one.

    1. Thanks! One of my favorites as well.

  8. Hi Brian,

    Can you briefly comment on the current state and the future of the investment banking industry?


    1. That is a really broad question. What are you asking for specifically? This site doesn’t really cover news or current events, so you might find recent WSJ or FT articles more helpful.

      1. In terms of bonuses, the markets, and whether or not IB is still an idea place to start off your career. An answer that briefly summarizes some of your previous articles about the future of investment banking would be helpful. Thanks

        1. Bonuses are down due to more scrutiny and regulation. “The markets” have recovered due to central banks’ borderline criminal behavior but the general economy is still bad and will continue to be indefinitely. If you do not know what you want to do, yes, IB is still a good place to start but you shouldn’t stay in it too long. Long-term career prospects are worse than they were in the 1990s/early 2000s.

  9. Hey Brian
    I apologise if this has been done before but could we have an interview with a quant at a BB please?

    1. It is on the list. There is another relevant interview here:

  10. Incredible story. How did this guy afford 18 days in NY for networking? Is it even a good idea to stay for that long? I heard 2-3 days/1 week max to best maximize efficiency. Thanks in advance for your reply.

    1. Good question… I believe he stayed with friends and saved like that. Also, it was just one long trip so travel expenses were less than they would have been otherwise.

      I generally agree that 2-3 days to 1 week is best for maximizing efficiency. Longer than that only really works if you’re not working or not in school currently.

  11. Excellent interview — thank you Brian!

    A very interesting (and inspiring) perspective from the interviewee as well. Congrats.

    1. Thanks! Yes, I knew it would be a good one when I heard the story.

  12. It’s great to read up on these success stories. Myself, I just accepted a role in corporate banking. Took me 2.5 years coming from a non-target. A lot of work but sure is worth it.

    Brian, are you planning to cover Corporate banking. It seem that there is a limited number of CB articles.


    1. Thanks! Congrats on your offer. Yes, we want to cover corporate banking in the future. There is an article on it right now, but it’s not very detailed.

  13. Great stuff guys! Keep up the good work. I can definitely relate this story to my own attempt as I am currently finishing up my Chartered Accountancy designation and trying to land a job in a Big Four firm through networking since my grades are borderline. My goal is to leverage that into a position in TAS and move up or towards M&A from there. Any advice would be great!

    1. Thanks! You may want to see this interview if you haven’t already read it because the interviewee did something very similar:

      He started out in audit, transitioned to internal M&A, and then went into corporate development.

  14. This interview was great. It gave me hope as I am a econ grad student currently working as a marketing analyst at a community bank looking to transition into corporate finance. Delay does not mean denial.

    1. Thanks for reading!

  15. Excellent interview!! Thanks M&I

    1. Thanks for reading!

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