Life seemed pretty dismal in June. Like many of my ilk I had been lusting after a position in "private equity," to many the Holy Grail of finance endeavors, since before even applying to business school. It is hard to explain to the unwashed the draw those simple words pull on a young and somewhat naive finance mind with. Even their rhyme and meter serve to build a shining image and marketing sheen the likes of which DeBeers might envy. "Private" smacks of smoky back room deals and silent professionals all "in the know" before the rest of the street. "Equity"? Well, it just sounds better than "debt" doesn't it?
Demand for positions in private equity outstrips by orders of magnitude the supply available to hopeful business students. One sage advisor consolingly told me that for every private equity position available there were nearly 2,500 applicants. I have no idea where this figure came from but it was delivered with such authority that it gained instant credibility in my mind. Most employers in the field, he added, were looking for investment banking experience. Perhaps a tenure in the "Dungeons of Investment Banking Analysis" would be the best stepping stone to a private equity position, he suggested. Given my dismal record to that point in securing the interest of, or even a response from, a single private equity firm, I took his advice to heart. What the hell else was I going to do?
And so I was on the path to a, hopefully brief, career in the mergers and acquisitions department of a large investment banking firm. Still, I kept my eye out for private equity slots that turned up and threw a carefully polished resume at every opening I thought I saw.
It is one thing to have little or no success in running for the gold medal, but failing even to place in the qualifying rounds at the state level is another blow entirely. So it was that, despite all my earnest, even desperate, efforts, I had managed to slip through the entirety of recruiting season- shades of prostitution, dress up in your best garb, sell yourself to an older man (or occasional woman) for 30 minutes, then on to the next John- without even a serious nibble from any of the major investment banks on which I had by then mortgaged my future (and probably the future of my children given the direction the interest rates on my loans were heading). Consulting, in which I had no interest at all, was beginning to look like an important option.
BankWeek was just a ragged version of the New York Marathon, only it took place in the dead of winter with the participants in dress shoes and business suits. LondonQuest would have been more fun, but it was called EuroTrek by then and a brief tenure as the significant other of a Marin County dilettante meant that I now possessed an, admittedly illogical, blind and raging hate for the many Stanford grads that seemed to haunt the proceedings. I'll tell them what they can do with their on-campus golf course, believe me. Not that I really had any faith in securing a position by that point anyhow.
Most of us had an uphill battle in the effort to convince skeptical European recruiters that we were actually committed to remaining on the continent beyond the few years it would take to visit every nearby pub and still manage to ski in St. Moritz a few times. They could smell an MBA tourist at 50 meters. I suspect that no one believed my honest protestations that I wanted to remain in Europe long-term. Then again, I'm not sure how honest they were in the first place since my endgame was a spot in a buyout firm. In any event, even if they did believe me, they certainly didn't express themselves in the form of offer letters.
My deepening disillusionment is easy to quantify by example. I met Cindy, a smartish and quite elegant looking fellow hopeful during EuroTrek. Well, I first saw her at EuroTrek. I didn't really meet her until the aftermath of EuroTrek. For some reason I didn't really seem to know anyone well at EuroTrek in the first place. I don't think I was particularly alone in this as we all spent a lot of time in the first few days sitting or standing around in presentations not talking to each other and waiting for the chance to verbally demonstrate how witty and sharp we were at the expense of our peers. Of course, appearing to be distinctly witty proved difficult when visiting banks staffed primarily with Londoners and it was important to apply at least a thin veneer over your barely contained hostility for anyone who might stand in the way of your clumsy efforts at flattery.
I was near to drifting off in the back row of one such presentation, delivered by a somewhat beleaguered looking VP in pinstripes and hearing for the sixth time in three days how "entrepreneurial" the bank's culture was, when I caught a misplaced hand out of the corner of my eye. Cindy, looking as prim and proper as any eager MBA student from almost any angle, was none the less, being tactilely entertained by the equally formal appearing, chiseled featured Richard seated immediately next to her. They must not have had any idea I was behind them, or that the angle afforded me far too revealing a view of their extracurricular activity. For a minute I was stunned into staring. Then I was offended. How dare they debase this critical process? What a poor example it would set if they were caught. All of us would suffer reputationally. Then something occurred to me. In some fundamental way, these recruiting events are a farce. Only the terminally dour, or intensely desperate, could take them entirely seriously. No one cares about witty comments. In a world where the wrong tie can ruin your chances it was folly to think that these employers were looking for unique and interesting. They are looking for worker bees. Worker bees with the potential to be managing directors one day, sure, but today, worker bees. It was definitely an employer's market.
Taking things a bit less seriously might not have improved anyone's chances, but it sure made it easier to endure the process. EuroTrek wound down slowly and towards the end I found myself standing at the bar in some club somewhere talking to a fellow hopeful. The conversation had drifted to a review of the blandest company presentation when, across the room in a not-so-dark corner I recognized Cindy, lips clamped on the mouth of the still pinstripe clad, beleaguered looking VP. Richard was nowhere in sight. Later I would learn that she had been offered an associate position in the M&A group at the VP's bank.
Would it surprise you to learn that she was a Stanford grad?