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Landing a private equity job might not be as difficult as running a four-minute mile or swimming across the English Channel, but it can be quite a formidable challenge. To many who love finance (and large paychecks), a private equity position is a dream job. And the majority of PE firms only hire when they’re fundraising or otherwise expanding. Still, getting a PE job can be done—and Samuel Smith is living proof that a combination of hard work, good grades, a little luck, and a lot of networking will eventually add up to a job in the PE industry. Below, in Smiths’s words, is how he landed a coveted private equity job.
SAMUEL SMITH: First, let me give you my background. I graduated from Columbia University with a bachelor’s degree in finance and am pursuing an MBA. I’m currently employed as an analyst at a Private Equity International 300 firm that specializes in the energy sector.
As an undergraduate, the first step I took to improve my chances of landing a job was to start networking. I created an account on LinkedIn and began following private equity firms and joining PE groups such as the Hedge Fund, Private Equity & Alternative Investments Networking Group. This helped me learn a lot more about which companies were fundraising, which companies typically hired summer associates, and other facts. I also reached out to recruiters and employees of some of the PE firms in my area of interest (energy). I didn’t ask for a job or an internship, but instead just requested an information interview. I sent out probably 25 requests, and a few people were nice enough to talk to me on the phone or via e-mail.
One managing partner (MP) met with me for 15 minutes in his office. I came to the office interview well prepared. I researched the firm, and knew about its recent fundraising efforts, its industry sector (energy), and key players in the firm. I was ready to offer an opinion on LBO candidates in the firm’s sector if the MP asked—and he did ask. I’m not sure if my opinions were on the mark, but the MP seemed impressed that I’d done such thorough research.
At the end of the informational interview, the MP gave me some excellent advice: a good way of breaking into the PE industry was to either first gain experience by working for two or three years at an investment bank or landing a job or an internship in the finance department of a portfolio company of a PE firm. So that’s what I did.
First, I landed a summer internship as a finance department associate at a portfolio company. One of my LinkedIn group contacts mentioned that his company was launching an internship program, so I applied. After graduation, I applied for analyst positions at investment banks. No luck at first, but after a lot of hard work, I was offered a position by a well-known New York-based investment bank. This bank provided investment advice to many PE firms, and I was able to hone my skills and gain valuable experience as a team member on several major deals.
Everything was going well, but I still hadn’t met my goal: landing a job in the PE industry.
During this time, I enrolled in Columbia’s MBA program and continued to network on LinkedIn, talk to my professors about job opportunities, and learn as much as I could about the PE industry. One of my professors suggested that I join the business school’s Private Equity & Venture Capital Club and volunteer at its annual Private Equity & Venture Capital Conference. She said it was a great way to work closely with bigwigs in the PE industry. And, of course, attending the conference was an excellent way to learn more about the industry, discover new job-search strategies, and network with my classmates and professionals in the field. (Note: the club itself is also great because it offers other professional development events and an internship program, as well as hosts and participates in various private equity competitions on campus and around the country.)
Long story short: I volunteered at the conference and met several general partners who were speaking at the event. And here’s where the luck I mentioned earlier comes in. One of the speakers was the GP who gave me an informational interview a few years back. He remembered me right away. I updated him on my educational and career activities since we last talked. He was very encouraging, but said that his firm wasn’t hiring currently. After the event ended, I sent the GP a thank you note along with my business card and pretty much thought that was it. But two weeks later, the GP called me to let me know that a colleague at another firm was seeking an MBA hire for an entry-level position. Several interviews later, I was offered a job!
So the takeaway from my story is that you need to make networking almost a job to get a position in the PE industry. You also need a little luck and good timing, which is how many well-known PE professionals have broken into the industry.
The above was adapted from the new Vault Career Guide to Private Equity.
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