Diversity Recruiting: Your Secret Weapon for Breaking Into Investment Banking?
“Can you tell me exactly what I have to do to get into finance?
There must be a combination of grades, certifications, internships, and activities that will guarantee me a spot at Goldman Sachs, right?
Give me the magic bullet solution for breaking in!”
Ah, another day, another email.
And if you don’t believe that questions like this come in all the time, just take a look at some of the articles here that have hundreds of comments asking for similar answers.
Sometimes I’m tempted to say, “Yes, just pass all 4 levels of the CFA and you are guaranteed to become an investment banker,” but I can’t always bring myself to have that much fun.
The truth is that there isn’t a magic bullet for getting into the industry.
Or is there?
Diversity recruiting may just be the best, most “secretive” way to get into the industry that you’ve been ignoring up until now.
So read on to learn how you can use it, what to do if you’re not “diverse,” and just how effective it was for a reader who won a bulge bracket internship offer and who’s sharing her story here.
I expect that this story will cause some controversy because:
- You might view diversity recruiting as “unfair” or know someone who abused it before.
- It may not apply to you.
I understand where you’re coming from with those 2 points, but I would still encourage you to consider the strategies here – if only to learn about alternate paths to break into finance.
Also, you should do whatever it takes to break in as long as you’re not breaking any laws or doing something clearly unethical like forging documents or lying about an offer.
So yes, maybe this won’t apply to you 100%, but as you read think up other ways you could put your own “unfair advantages” to use.
Feel free to disagree but be civil about it – comments that add no value will be moderated.
Q: Let’s get started with where you were coming from – what type of school did you attend and what experience did you have?
A: For undergraduate I attended a liberal arts college that was well-known but certainly not a “target” – only 1 bulge bracket bank recruited here and a few others had a resume drop, but rarely called students in for interviews.
I was completing an economics-related major, which you pretty much have to if you’re coming from a liberal arts college – it’s hard to convince banks that you’re serious if you major in French Literature and also have no finance experience.
This was my first attempt at internship recruiting so I hadn’t had much experience – just a few informal internships in other industries.
Q: OK, so you’re at this non-target liberal arts college and you don’t have relevant finance experience – how do you go from there to winning a bulge bracket investment banking offer?
A: By using the strategies you’ve recommended before: networking extensively and playing to my strengths.
In my case, I used my uncommon background to my advantage by attending lots of women’s recruiting events put on by different banks, as well as more specialized diversity events.
The advantage of going to these “diversity events” is that you can build much stronger connections with bankers than if you blindly cold call places or email alumni.
The more you have in common with the person – especially when you’re from a completely different background than most others – the better your chances of getting interviews and offers.
Q: Right, so what exactly are these “events”? Do you just apply for them online?
A: It varies by the bank and the region you’re in – some of these diversity recruiting events are more like first round interviews and some are more like standard information sessions where an MD or other senior banker will present first and then you get time to network afterward.
At some banks you can just apply online and get invited to the event – for example at Goldman Sachs you can do that and get invited to events like their “Women’s Road Show” (a half-day event) in Boston and New York based on your resume and online application.
At other banks – like JP Morgan – you had to pass a phone screen to be invited to their events, so there it was just part of the process and I had real interviews with several bankers at the event.
Q: So far you’ve been mentioning women’s events – what else do banks do for diversity recruiting?
A: You do see events for other groups as well:
- Minorities (defined as anyone who is under-represented in banking, for both men and women)
So you can still get in even if you’re not female.
M&I Note: While not diversity-related, there are events for people in other categories – for example if you want to work in Japan and know the language, there’s the Boston Career Forum; for China and Hong Kong there are events like SuperReturn and AVCJ.
Q: Out of curiosity, how strict are they about letting people in? For example, could I show up to a women’s recruiting event even though I am male?
A: They are not strict at all about screening people.
When I say “not strict,” I mean that they’re not going to do a full background check on you or hire a private investigator to look into your past and see whether you really qualify.
You would probably not get into a women’s event if you’re male – I haven’t seen anyone get away with that before – but for the other groups it’s much harder to verify whether you qualify.
I’ve seen plenty of people attend minority and LGBT events who shouldn’t be there – then you get those who are 1/64th of a certain ethnicity and use that to claim their minority status.
And when events are held at public places like hotels, I’ve seen people who didn’t even apply or who weren’t accepted show up and walk in – sometimes HR kicks them out, but if it’s big enough they may not catch on.
I’m not advising you to abuse the system, but as with resume writing and spinning your experience in interviews, there’s room to stretch the truth.
At the Sessions…
Q: So let’s say that you either legitimately qualify for an event, or you’re a borderline case and you show up anyway.
You mentioned that there are different types of events depending on the bank and the region you’re in – can you give us an overview of what you went through?
A: As I said before, the JPM event was more like a real interview or Superday since I met with multiple bankers.
They also had another event just for the LGBT community that was called “Proud to Be” – at that one they flew in people nationwide and everyone there (around 60 people) got first round interviews.
I mentioned the “Women’s Road Show” event for Goldman Sachs – that was more of a standard networking event where they gave us all the recruiting deadlines and a special code we could use when applying that would get us placed in a separate pool.
GS has another event called “Foundation” that is for minorities across genders and also students at non-target schools.
UBS had one event that was more like a trading competition, and then a more traditional networking session with a panel presentation, networking, and a reception at the end.
Credit Suisse had a “Women’s Day” event, which again was more like a prelude to first round interviews – for summer internships that one usually takes place in December/January.
Q: Those are quite a few events. What do the numbers look like? Is it similar to information sessions where you get 20 people crowding around 1 banker asking what it’s like to be an investment banker?
A: The numbers are much better at these events – there are at most 50-60 people total, and more often it’s in the 20-30 range.
Of those 20-30, 10 might be bankers – so unlike a traditional information session there are only 1 or 2 students per banker at these events.
Sometimes it goes up to a few more than that, but it’s never the 20-30 crowding around 1 banker that you see at information sessions open to the general public.
Q: So it sounds like everything is more personal and you get to have more in-depth conversations with everyone?
A: Pretty much. Also, unlike panels at normal information sessions where the questions you ask don’t matter so much and it’s all about the networking afterward, questions to the panel matter more.
So looking up everyone’s background and preparing intelligent questions is a good use of time.
Beyond just being more personal, these sessions also have more alumni and alumni from neighboring schools – especially if you’re in a region of the country with lots of non-target schools or lots of women’s colleges, for example.
And if you can’t find anyone from your school or nearby schools, you can always just ask the HR reps there for alumni contacts – since it’s such a small and specific group, they are more likely to help you out.
The vibe is also much different at these events – they are not as stuffy and formal as the usual information sessions at schools, and people were more relaxed, especially at the LGBT-type events.
The more specific the group, the more direct the answers they gave were – if you asked about something like work/life balance at a normal event bankers would give diplomatic/uninformative answers, but at these events people were more honest.
Success or Failure?
Q: So you made extensive use of these events – how effective were they? Do you have numbers on how many attendees actually won interviews or offers as a result of attending?
A: I don’t have exact numbers there because I didn’t follow-up with every single attendee, but:
- I got first round interviews at almost every bank (and eventually an IB summer offer).
- At many of the events, they’d give first round interviews to pretty much everyone there, but then only a few would win offers.
- This year most females and minorities who got into GS from non-target schools (not necessarily just in IBD, but more in the back and middle office) came from these events.
- 80% of the LGBT bankers I met were willing to help me in some way. I don’t care how good a networker you are, you will never get that ratio via alumni informational interviews.
The overall offer rate may not seem that great, but look at the alternative: if you’re at a non-target school and you don’t go to these events, your chances are minuscule. It’s better to get the interview and at least have a shot at winning the offer.
And as I’ve mentioned, you get special codes at these events that you can apply when submitting your resume and online application – they will then review your resume in a separate pool from everyone else, which also gives you a big advantage.
Q: What about the downsides of going to these events? Let’s say you go to a diversity event and you make a huge mistake that results in everyone there disliking you – would that hurt your chances in normal recruiting?
A: Yes, it could, and that is a risk. If you apply via these events and don’t win an offer, it may be harder to get a real interview later on if you go through the normal channels.
I applied all of those strategies, only in the context of diversity events rather than the standard information sessions.
You still have to be interesting, follow-up, speak 1-on-1 with bankers, and so on – it’s just that you’re working with a more specific set of contacts here.
Q: That’s true, but I’m sure there are still some common mistakes attendees make – what have you seen before?
A: Some girls would wear really short skirts or boots or dress up looking like they were about to go clubbing – but it’s still a formal business setting, even if it’s more relaxed than usual.
Other people looked really good on paper, had high grades, and completed solid internships, but then did no work to prepare so they had no idea who would be best to talk to, or which alumni were attending. You still need to be proactive even if it is a smaller event.
Then, other people were horrible at following conversations and reading social cues. Sometimes the banker speaking with us would start talking about lighter topics or activities outside of work, and the other students there would immediately jump back into asking about EBITDA.
One mistake I made was not recognizing someone at an event when I had seen the person previously – right after the event ends you need to write down all the names you can or at least get business cards and make sure you can match names to faces (easier these days with social networks).
Q: You used diversity events very well to get all those interviews and win your offer – did you run into any problems or awkwardness when interviewing?
Even though you met lots of female bankers, it is still a male-dominated industry, so did you run into any resistance?
A: No, not really. I went through dozens of interviews and felt it was more about chemistry with the interviewer and your performance than gender.
I can’t say whether being female hurt or helped me in interviews, but I didn’t see much of an effect either way – going to all those events was essential for getting interviews in the first place, though.
Q: Right, if anything I think you probably had an advantage since most bankers would prefer more diversity in the industry.
But you were also a liberal arts major at a small school – did that present any challenges in interviews?
A: Not really – I don’t think they treated me much differently from anyone else without a finance background.
I never received extremely difficult technical questions, but I got the usual math and brain teaser-type questions for S&T interviews, and for IB got the usual questions on valuation, DCF, how the 3 statements link to each other, and so on.
These were all covered by relevant guides so I never felt unprepared.
Finance or accounting majors would probably get more difficult technical questions, but these days you must have a minimum level of technical knowledge no matter what your background is.
I also ran into the usual interview scenarios that banks like to use – for example the “good cop, bad cop” deal where one interviewer constantly interrupts you and objects to everything you say, and the other one is more laid-back.
Q: That makes sense – you’ll still get the technical questions, but not quite as many as if you were from a finance background. Any more tips or advice?
A: One other point I didn’t mention: try to shadow bankers or traders – this is more common on the trading side, but at a lot of these events banks will let you follow a trader around for a few hours and see what they do.
Take that opportunity to be proactive and meet other traders/bankers there – don’t be shy, just go around introducing yourself and explain what you’re interested in doing.
Also, don’t be afraid to ask for what you want. This sounds silly, but many people complain endlessly about their situation and never take action to fix it.
I never hesitated to follow-up with people, and in one case I wrote a quick email to a Director at a bulge bracket bank who I hadn’t even spoken to in a year – and got an interview from doing that.
In another case, when I was assigned to shadow traders I said I was more interested in sales so a Director there switched my role and let me shadow someone in sales instead.
Q: Awesome – thanks for sharing your story, that was very informative.
A: No problem – enjoyed speaking with you.
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Investment Banking: Pakistan Edition
But this is such a good interview and has such specific information that I wanted to publish it anyway.
Plus, the interviewee has been a long-time reader of M&I and captured the personality of the site very well. So let’s get started and learn all about banking, PE, recruiting, and the lifestyle in an emerging market that might be completely off your radar.
Q: Can you tell us about your background?
A: I play the drums. I love buffalo wings with sour cream and ginger ale. I love stargazing. I’m a huge Tolkien fan. I find jazz very relaxing. I just discovered a hidden passion for photography and hopefully I’ll be traveling to Iceland in a few months after I buy a Canon DSLR.
I was born in Abu Dhabi and raised in Dubai. My father retired from his marketing job and we moved to Islamabad (Pakistan’s capital), where I completed high school and undergrad. I was a very distracted student during my O/A Levels because I really didn’t know why I was studying and what I wanted to do, so I definitely lacked direction for a time.
But during the first year of my undergraduate, I got really interested in corporate finance and M&A – so I actually performed decently and did much better than in high school.
After graduating, I networked my way into an investment banking analyst position at a bulge bracket bank in Karachi (Pakistan’s finance capital), and then I moved into private equity in the same city.
Q: Most Westerners know very little about Pakistan aside from what’s reported (accurately or inaccurately) in the news. What is the country really like, and how is the finance industry there different? Are the rumors of economic collapse / bankruptcy true?
A: A recent Newsweek cover described Pakistan as “The World’s Bravest Nation” – after describing it 3 years earlier as “The World’s Most Dangerous Nation.” I know the general perception is that it’s a country filled with corruption, religious fundamentalism, and no roads or women.
There is an element of truth to those claims, but for the most part we’re just regular people and most of what you read about in the news corresponds to a very small part of the country.
So don’t believe everything you read about the claims above (especially the part on roads and women) or the frequent accusations of terrorism – there are isolated extremists here but they are not representative of Pakistan at large.
Economically, we were always an underdeveloped country due to corruption from previous governments – but during Musharraf’s 10-year rule we were elevated to “developing country”status. Since that time the rulers have been questionable, so the progress has been disappointing since then.
The rumors of economic collapse are untrue. We’re not in the best shape right now, but we’re far from bankruptcy – the US and its allies also have too much of a stake in the country to let a bankruptcy happen. And we’re part of an IMF program that has pledged billions to us over the next 3-4 years.
Overall finance is still very much in a growth phase here, and private equity is at a nascent stage; Islamic finance is developing rapidly and corporate finance is also thriving. Hedge funds don’t exist yet, but many banks do have investment banking divisions and a handful of research and brokerage houses here offer investment banking and related services.
Q: What’s different about recruiting there? Do they prefer certain backgrounds or certifications?
A: The recruiting process for both IB and PE is highly unstructured.
Unlike the US or Europe where certain “paths” are preferred, here you can transition from almost any finance-related field into IB or PE.
I know people who have gotten into investment banking from industry, management consulting, and research, and people who have gotten into PE from Transaction Advisory Services, research, middle office trading support roles, and corporate banking.
My VP (from the US) would always tell this analyst at my bank that the CFA was completely useless in banking, but in Pakistan people have been conditioned into believing that a CFA + an accounting degree is the key to achieving unprecedented glory.
Wheeling & Dealing
Q: You were at a bulge bracket bank there – do the other global bulge bracket banks have presences in Pakistan, or are local firms more common?
A: It’s a mix of both. JP Morgan has been here since the early 90’s, Citi even earlier than that, and Credit Suisse has been here since 2008. UBS and BoAML operate through local affiliates, but aren’t officially here.
Even though they’re bulge bracket banks, they usually work on deals worth around $100 million USD – sizable for here but small by US standards.
M&I Note: Middle market banks in the US would do deals of this size; most bulge brackets focus on $500M+ or $1B+ deals, though they do occasionally go lower depending on the market.
Since that’s “the bar” for bulge bracket banks, smaller, local firms – called “investment houses” – advise on deals worth less than $100 million USD.
They offer everything from research to mutual funds to M&A advisory and capital raising. Two of the largest investment houses also have consumer and corporate banking divisions that they use for syndications.
Pure-play boutique investment banks are still very rare here – off the top of my head I know of just one firm that offers only M&A advisory and restructuring services to clients.
Q: What types of deals and companies are most common in Pakistan?
A: The breakout for deal types is something like this:
- Debt Financing: 70%
- IPOs: 15%
- M&A: 10%
- Restructuring: 5%
M&A is most common in the banking and telecom sectors. Here’s a table of M&A activity from 2002 – 2010 that I’ve been updating from time to time:
M&A in Pakistan rarely takes place to create value – this consolidation in the banking sector is driven by regulatory requirements (specifically higher capital adequacy requirements).
The actual rationale for M&A activity would be more interesting to look at – in my opinion it’s something like the following:
- Regulatory: 65%
- Gain Market Share: 20%
- Divesting Operations or Exiting from Pakistan: 10%
- Private Equity Investment: 5%
- Value Creation: 0%
The government also has a massive privatization program in place (the numbers above exclude this, by the way) and so all the bulge brackets submit RFPs (Requests for Proposals) to the Privatization Commission for each deal.
Even some banks like Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and UBS that don’t have a direct presence in Pakistan will fly in, submit their RFPs, pitch, and fly out – they’re known as “parachute bankers.”
Some local firms also work on these privatization transactions, while the bulge bracket banks focus more on attracting institutional investors via road shows or finding international buyers for assets that the government is divesting.
Here are lists of completed and upcoming privatization transactions in Pakistan:
Q: You mentioned how you networked into investment banking and then into private equity – how is it different in Pakistan? Do informational interviews and cold calls still work?
A: Right, so just to give you a brief overview first of how I networked my way in:
I went to a non-target school, but I did have 5 internships and decent extracurricular activities, as well as the resume template on your site. And I knew a lot about investment banking and private equity and kept up with global M&A deals and private equity activity via the NY Times Dealbook site.
A year before my graduation, I cold-called the bulge bracket bank I worked at – they’re known for only hiring summer interns from top US and UK schools, so it was a bold move.
A man picked up and I asked to speak to someone regarding summer internship opportunities in investment banking – the guy replied with, “I’m the guy” and he turned out to be my future VP.
I asked about the recruiting process for summer internships and he said they had already gotten started with interviews – but to email my resume anyway so he could send it to the team.
I did that, and about an hour later he replied and said, “When will you be able to join us for an internship?”
Q: Wait a minute, so you actually got an internship just by cold-calling a bulge bracket and asking for one?
A: Far from it, though that’s what I actually thought at the time – I didn’t even get an interview. I think he was just asking that to see when I would be free for an internship rather than actually giving me one on the spot.
He said they really liked my resume but were looking for a winter intern, which didn’t work for me timing-wise due to classes.
Over the next 5-6 months, I stayed in touch, emailed him on his birthday a la Bud Fox, added him on LinkedIn, and even sent the occasional random link.
Q: So you actually pinged him consistently – that’s interesting because I usually tell readers NOT to worry about constantly staying in touch and to focus more on making a good first impression and then asking for what they want when the time comes.
A: Right – you do have to be subtle if you want to take this approach. I didn’t want to give the impression that I was stalking him or wanted to be his best friend.
I did this more because I had an uphill battle given my school and background, and because there just aren’t as many banks in Pakistan – so it’s not like the US where you could easily go through hundreds or thousands of contacts to find the most helpful bankers.
Q: So what was the final outcome here?
A: In May I called him again, sent him my updated resume and “reiterated my interest” for an investment banking analyst position.
Despite being up against 100+ candidates from target schools, I was interviewed and offered the position.
What worked in my favor?
- I was myself and had the ability to laugh at myself – I didn’t act like some super-genius with perfect grades who claimed to know everything about finance.
- I had a burning desire to get into investment banking – I read everything and anything related to banking that I could find and this came across with how much I knew about the industry vs. the other candidates.
Q: What about your move into private equity? Did you go through a headhunter there or was that also networking?
A: Networking, once again. I cold-called my current PE firm’s Dubai office and spoke to a Partner there – we chatted about how Dubai has changed over the years and about the Middle East PE market in general.
I sent my resume, he forwarded it to the Partner in Karachi, and I interviewed a couple times and was offered the position.
M&I Note: This may seem ridiculous, but keep in mind that in certain parts of the world they are looking for very specific people and recruiting is less structured. It would be tough to pull off the scenario above in the US, but the same is not true in emerging markets.
Q: So it sounds like overall, the standard networking strategies still work and may even work better since recruiting is so unstructured in Pakistan.
You mentioned before how knowing so much about investment banking gave you a big advantage – but doesn’t everyone coming out of target schools there know the industry quite well?
A: No! A lot of students from top schools have absolutely no idea what investment banking or private equity are.
I’ve interviewed candidates from top schools here and this is how interviews often go:
- Me: What do you think investment bankers do?
- Interviewee: They make investments so that you get higher returns.
- Me: Higher returns… um, ok, and why do you want to get into investment banking?
- Interviewee: I’ve heard really good things about investment banking and [Interviewee inserts objective from his/her resume and “pitches” it] and how much I can learn there and bring my skills to the organization.
- Me: Right, we’ll let you know.
One time I had a PE candidate try to convince me that he was a “private equity investor” because he invested in the stock market.
I’ve come across only one candidate who made a convincing argument for why he/she should work in investment banking or private equity. And I’ve met hardly anyone else who has networked his/her way into IB or PE here like I did.
But as you can see from my story, it’s definitely possible – if you’re hungry and motivated, you can do pretty much anything.
Private Iniquity, Pay, and Exit Opps
Q: Not to sound like those annoying kids in Harold & Kumar, but what’s it like working for a PE firm there? What types of companies do you invest in, and is your job more about sourcing or execution?
A: Work is very unpredictable, which makes the hours unpredictable as well. I’ve pulled all-nighters, and I’ve found that there is a massive cultural difference / work ethic difference between local firms and international firms.
PE firms here do not focus on specific sectors – they’ll invest in anything from green/brownfield projects to mature companies and even distressed assets.
LBOs are highly uncommon here and so most of these investments are minority stake acquisitions instead.
Work is a function of sourcing and execution – I’d say I spend 20% of my time on sourcing (looking for new investments) and 80% on execution (doing due diligence, modeling for investments, and coordinating our team).
Q: As with other emerging markets, I’m assuming that salaries and bonuses are lower on an absolute scale but higher on a relative basis if you take into account the cost of living – is that accurate?
A: Yes, definitely true. In a good year, an analyst at a local firm can make 10 to 15 times his monthly pay with his bonus (around 80% to 125% of his annual pay).
In average years an analyst’s bonus might be around 50% of his annual pay – which is quite a lot of money in Pakistan.
Q: And are your co-workers all from Pakistan or are you starting to see immigrants there as well?
A: Right now there are hardly any immigrants – it’s 99.9% Pakistani co-workers.
Q: What are your future plans?
A: I’m planning to attend business school in 2 years, ideally at Wharton. I do want to stay in PE, and post-MBA I’d want to go to a larger firm in the US and work there for a few years before returning to the Middle East or Pakistan. If all goes well, I might start my own buyout fund here one day.
I also want to take up stellar and extragalactic astronomy – it has always fascinated me. And if I have enough capital, I want to start a theme-based restaurant at some point.
Or I could just take the CFA…
Q: Please, don’t.
A: Yeah, I think my own restaurant would be more fun anyway.
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How to Network Like a Ninja in London and Break Into Finance with Low Grades and a Non-Target School on Your CV
“You’ve written so much about networking, but it doesn’t work outside the US. No one in my country responds to cold calls or emails – what do I do?”
It’s one of the most common objections I get to the networking advice on M&I.
There are dozens of interviews disproving the old complaint that everything here is targeted at Ivy League grads with high grades – so let’s turn our attention to showing that networking does, in fact, “work” in other countries.
In this interview with a UK reader, you’ll learn:
- How he went from low A-levels and a non-target university to over 1,000 finance contacts in the UK and a top Master’s program there
- How he used a non-finance degree to boost his chances of breaking into banking
- Whether or not traditional networking “works” in the UK and how it’s different from the US
- What it’s like to work at a combined M&A and asset management firm
Q: Tell us about yourself.
A: Sure. Growing up my family had a lot of health issues, so my academics back in secondary school suffered quite a bit since I was in the hospital constantly and had to take care of myself. To give you a rough idea:
Although my grades were poor, my family situation forced me to think about how I could survive on my own and so I started investing and building up my savings at a young age (a unique finance “spark” that I could use in my answer to the “Walk me through your resume” question).
Anyway, I had no chance of getting into a top school with that kind of performance, so I ended up going to a non-target university in London. I studied politics there and earned a 2:1 – not spectacular, but at least better than my performance before that.
More importantly, though, I completed a dissertation on an emerging market, which made me more interested in the region and gave me something I could speak to in my “story.”
Q: OK, so did you actually complete any banking or finance internships while at university?
A: No – it was a non-target school so it was completely off the radar of banks. I did a few internships in media, politics, and for non-profits and got exposed to well-known names like that.
You might brush off media internships as “not prestigious,” but I gained access to lots of CEOs, MDs, and other important people since their database had direct lines for everyone.
I figured out midway through university that I wanted to work in finance, but I was going to a non-target school and only had average grades, so I knew that I would need to get out there and pound the pavement.
I’m not sure how it is in the US, but in London if your applications are not perfect you will not get interviews.
Q: Right, so can you walk us through how you went about networking and how you leveraged all those connections from your media and politics internships?
A: Sure. Through those internships I found a few mentors who were not directly in finance, but who were extremely well-connected in the UK – that made it much easier to get past gatekeepers.
I went out to literally every finance-related event in London and met everyone there, asking for referrals and getting introductions along the way. I even cold-called plenty of firms – plenty of places said no, but a few were open to it and told me to come in and talk anyway. I even networked via a part-time retail job I had and managed to meet bankers there.
What drove me was how plenty of people said I wasn’t “good enough” – not all bankers are brutal and malicious, but I met quite a few who were. So I wanted to prove them all wrong.
Q: Yeah, I think Sylvester Stallone was driven by similar forces back before the first Rocky movie was made. What was your strategy in terms of which level of banker to contact, and what was the result of all your networking?
A: I didn’t discriminate much by level – I met lots of VPs and MDs, and found they still made time for me even though I was coming from a lesser-known school. I even had lunch with CEOs of well-known firms in related industries.
I took the usual informational interview approach and pretty much everyone I met said that I’d have to network harder and be fierce about wanting the job more than everyone else. They also helped a lot with rewriting my CV, and through all this networking I was getting lots of interviews.
But this was also at the height of the recession and the interviews weren’t converting well – so I decided to take a different approach and applied to a Master’s program at LSE instead.
Networking at LSE
Q: Quite a step up from the non-target university you attended. What did you do when you got there, and how was the networking environment different?
A: The program helped me re-brand myself, and my networking efforts exploded since I now had much easier access to CEOs, MDs, and Partners.
I’d meet someone who came in to give a talk, get their card, and set up a meeting immediately afterward – I was averaging 4-5 meetings per week and met senior guys at banks, PE firms, and even media companies.
One thing that surprised me was that most LSE students were pathetic at networking.
Even people who had interned at Goldman Sachs and other top banks had no clue how to talk to people at events, request a follow-up meeting, or anything – some of the students were impressive but overall I learned that you really shouldn’t overestimate the competition.
The average student there has attended private schools his/her entire life so he/she is “well-trained” but not necessarily effective in the real world.
LSE also runs the annual LSE Alternative Investments Conference, which costs money to attend but is worth it 10x over if you use it properly and get solid contacts there. The focus is more on hedge funds and private equity, but everyone knows bankers and there’s a lot of overlap.
Even while at LSE, I still got rejected quite a lot but then things turned around after exams and I landed over a dozen interviews right before I accepted my current job at a combined asset management / M&A firm.
By that time I had amassed over 1,000 contacts from the past 2 years of networking.
Q: Wow. Normally I tell readers that once you go beyond 50-100 it’s hard to even keep track of everyone – how did you manage to get that kind of Rolodex?
A: I could go on for hours about networking, but we don’t have that kind of time so I’ll summarize my tips as follows:
Know As Much As Possible About Bankers
I spent a lot of time getting to know people and writing down literally anything important from each meeting and logging it on my computer. Even in my current job I’m still going through these connections, which impresses my bosses quite a bit.
I also created a Google News Alert for every contact I met – that way if someone closed a deal I could send a congratulatory email or phone call. It takes 2 minutes and people really appreciate it.
Be Nice to Assistants
When you’re requesting informational interviews, always email first and then call to follow-up – you will likely speak with their assistant, and she will give you a list of dates they’re available.
If you’re rude to the assistant none of your emails or calls will get through. If you’re extremely nice to them, you will have a much higher hit rate.
Have Interests Outside of Finance
Yes, everyone wants to be the next big rainmaker and make the Financial Times headlines but you better have at least one thing you are passionate about outside of finance when you meet people.
You never know when the guy you’re meeting might be a keen deep sea diver outside his day job – so pay attention to “throwaway comments” that bankers make and latch onto them.
I would even ask CEOs if they were married or had kids and how they balanced work and family time.
I was passionate about non-profit and charity work so I always brought that one up when I met with bankers and used it as my “interesting fact.”
Ask for Referrals / Find People You Know
After every meeting I would always ask if there’s anyone else the person thought I should speak with – and before I got official interviews, I combed through the entire firm site and looked for anyone I knew personally, and then found out who interviewed people there and so on.
I also used websites such as www.investegate.co.uk that covered financial services companies – sometimes they had the details of brokers there and I would call directly to see if I could speak with them.
1,000 contacts is a lot, but I always thought of it as networking for the long-term and not just to get a job. It does get very difficult to maintain relationships with that many people, so they’ll definitely be less personal if you want that many contacts.
The most connected woman in the UK has 40,000+ contacts and is doing well, although she also has a team of 8 managing her network.
Q: A lot of readers believe that networking “doesn’t work” in the UK or in other regions outside the US because the recruiting process is more formal elsewhere. Your story disproves this one, but I’m guessing there are still some differences when networking in the UK – what are they?
A: The tactics are not much different – just follow everything I described above.
This is purely anecdotal, but I think the main differences were what they looked for in candidates – they wanted someone who had:
- Completed A-Level Mathematics.
- Studied something other than economics or finance.
- Outside interests and solid work experience.
#2 surprised me but a lot of bankers mentioned that they preferred to look at people with different academic backgrounds; in the UK A-Levels are huge so I definitely found #1 to be true.
Overall I just treated networking like socializing and talked about as much non-finance-related stuff as possible – these guys work so hard that they’re happy to shoot the breeze about the latest football game or go for a drink.
I also avoided pissing people off – if someone said no, I left. I didn’t go back to leads who were not going to help because there were plenty of others who would. Finding one person to be your “mentor” is also a great idea because then his/her entire address book is open to you.
Q: You mentioned that you completed a Master’s program focused on an emerging market rather than the usual choice of finance, accounting, or economics. How much did that help, and was it effective even though you didn’t study abroad there?
A: It made me stand out a lot because it was an interesting degree and people always asked, “Why?” Plus, I could talk all about that region in-depth and that was way more interesting than being just another MSc Finance guy.
There’s a lot of academic snobbery over what you study, but if you go to a place like LSE and want to do banking, it doesn’t matter much – as long as you don’t pick gender studies.
Studying abroad would have been cool, but as you’ve written before, you can’t just waltz in and start working in a country, and you need to be a native speaker in most cases to use a language for business.
Asset Management Meets M&A
Q: Can you tell us about your new role at the asset management / M&A firm? I’ve gotten tons of questions on asset management but haven’t been able to give solid answers about the work itself and day-in-the-life accounts. What do you do each day?
A: My role is much closer to M&A than it is to asset management – we work with a lot of asset and investment management firms, though, so I do get to spend time talking to fund managers at those places.
I spent time on the usual tasks you do in M&A: pitch books, writing monthly fact sheets and investor reports, cold-calling / sourcing deals, financial modeling, and so on. I go to around 3-4 client meetings per day with our sales guy.
In addition to this we’re building a giant database in order to comb the city for future investment. I’ve already at this stage worked on raising several million pounds for the firm and I’ve only been here a few months.
I also do some investor relations work and build up the image of the firm, and go along with the CEO when he speaks with Bloomberg or FT.
Next year I may go abroad for the roadshows since we’re thinking of expanding in places like HK, Zurich, and NYC.
Q: What about the perpetual questions of pay and exit opportunities?
A: Without giving specifics, pay is slightly less than what the usual banking graduate schemes offer due to the nature of the firm and the specific deal I have set up – it will change in the future, but that’s where I’m at right now.
Other people who have worked here have gone onto:
- Other finance companies – equity research, private wealth management, hedge funds.
- INSEAD, LBS, or Barcelona for business school.
- Other industries altogether.
Q: You mentioned that your firm does both asset management and M&A work – how does that impact the work environment and the pay/advancement opportunities? Did you aim for this type of firm for a specific reason?
A: The work environment is nice and there’s plenty of room for advancement since it’s a relatively small firm – AUM under £1bn, with a goal to expand upwards of 10x.
I didn’t pick a combined asset management / M&A firm for a specific reason, but I wanted more of a “family”-style office because I wanted a life outside of work. I knew that at a bulge bracket bank or a mega-fund like KKR or Blackstone I would never get that.
The CEO here plays tennis all the time and everyone does something outside work, so it’s easy to hear about interesting stories from everyone here. They also acknowledged in interviews that they respected personal ambitions even if they’re unrelated to finance.
So I didn’t really “aim” for this type of firm, but it turned out to be the perfect fit for me.
Q: What are your future plans now that you’ve defied the odds to break into finance? Are you planning to stay there for a few years or move to another industry?
A: I’m planning to stay at my current firm for the long-term – my colleagues are great and I have no reason to leave since the working conditions and hours are quite good.
I will probably stay here for 3-4 years, and then maybe move somewhere else in finance such as a middle-market bank in an Associate role. At that point I might move up the ladder or go to something else like VC until I reach the MD-level. Then I’d want to set up a charity such as ARK (Absolute Returns for Kids) and focus on solving social problems and improving social mobility in the UK.
Of course, I also want to do a lot of traveling as well and see the world.
Q: Great. Thanks for your time – learned a lot about networking and how the London scene is different from other countries.
A: No problem.