Though I had the coveted "Mergers and Acquisition Intern" catchphrase on my resume after my summer in corporate development, it seemed to count for little when it came to my continuing job search.
By the end of the recruiting season I was high and dry without any semblance of gainful employment. My classes seemed to get harder- the professors lightened up on the students a little during recruiting only to buckle down with a vengeance once the official season drew to an end- and the many tales of other dream-come-true offers that passed from the lips of my colleagues had a brutally demoralizing effect on me.
The impending approach of Graduation almost felt like an impending doom. The career services department did not help with their constant publication of the running "percentage of second years with an offer for full time work" statistic. (By the week before graduation those figures stood at 90something percent).
There was definitely a certain subliminal pressure lurking under the surface of things. Parents started flying in. Exams had to be completed. Papers written. And all under the constant reminder- which the dean of students office actually took the time to mass email to the students one afternoon- that failure was, literally, an option.
The buildup of pressure had two effects, really. First, it caused some of us to spend even more time out drinking. It was tradition at the business school to go out each Thursday to a bar selected randomly by the committee appointed for this purpose. Sometimes you almost felt sorry for the poor, totally unsuspecting patron of the bar. Going to be a slow Thursday. No, Tina, you don't need to come in. We only need one bartender for Thursdays. Then, between 9 and 9:30, *Wham* 150 business school students descend from the heavens like thirsty paratroopers into the French countryside.
I attended my share of these in the final days of my MBA career, but I found no solace in them. Everyone, it seemed, had scored a decent position and they were all to happy to tell you exactly where that was going to be. I, on the other hand, was going nowhere and I wasn't about to share that fact with anyone. Instead, I invented a destination. The foreign office of a respectable bank in particular. Enough to prevent sneers but obscure enough to avoid running into someone else destined for that office. I just couldn't handle being thought of as a washout or some kind of failure and at these kinds of events you were supposed to be jolly and carefree. Grade non-disclosure and graduation just around the corner was supposed to be second-semester-senior style inspiring.
Not all the effects of those last weeks were so benign. The week before finals one classmate's girlfriend shot herself in the head in his apartment building while he was out with friends. I heard that he had broken up with her a few days before after dating her for more than two years. I'm not sure what it means that he was in class the next day. It was the review session for the final.
I celebrated graduation just like everyone else. Well, perhaps with a tad less enthusiasm. They all seemed to be heading somewhere important. On the verge of realizing big dreams. I was on the verge of... not very much.
I went to visit my friend Kim in New York about a month after graduation. I was going stir crazy back home and I needed a break from the job search. She had landed a spot in the investment banking group of the bank that had been second on my list of favorites. On getting to her apartment I was stunned to find a pale and drawn looking Kim hunched over a bunch of finance textbooks. She had her degree already. Why the textbooks?
"I have to study," she replied without looking up. This was delivered totally deadpan. She was serious. "The bank has a training program and there are exams after each section." I couldn't believe it. I must have stood there for 3 minutes with my mouth open because she continued, "It's pretty tough stuff. A lot of the class is spooked out." The "class?" I looked around the room. Pizza boxes. Empty Cup'o'Noodles cups tipped on their side with forks still in them.
"Do they actually fail people or something?" I asked.
"No, they fire you." This was beyond preposterous to me. I couldn't believe people put up with a second round of "financial accounting." She continued. "Just imagine you're some French language major for undergrad and you head to business school but don't take any serious accounting classes. You're fucked. We've lost 2 people already." She'd only been at the bank for four weeks. It was true though. You could get through business school without really mastering many of the fundamental banking subjects, like statistics, accounting or financial modeling. Why you would try to go into banking after that is sort of beyond me though.
"They fire you?" I still couldn't get my arms around it.
"Yep. Well, if you were really close you can retake it. So sometimes people vanish from the classes but then mysteriously show up again after a week and a half or something. You know they almost failed and got a 'talking to.'" That sounded suspiciously like a euphemism for an abusive husband to me.
I had envisioned a week of at least a few outings to local pubs, or a night for Italian or something between old classmates. Nothing doing. Kim didn't once leave her apartment while I was there except to creep out to her mysterious, and cut-throat training program. In a strange way this turned out to be a very lucky thing for me.
I had almost given up on ever finding a suitable position. Like when you're looking for parking, the longer you look for a spot the wider the circle you drive in to find one. By the fifth lap around your neighborhood the radius of your search area is 5 blocks wide. The radius of my job search had descended into purchasing departments of middle market companies by this time.
Mostly out of despair I did something I swore I would never do. I asked my mentor from undergraduate to meet me for lunch in Manhattan to give me career advice. My pride was so battered by that point I didn't even care what anyone thought anymore. And here, an odd thing happened.
My mentor had joined the board of a private equity firm in Manhattan. This news was delivered over dinner at The Palm with almost emotionless nonchalance. "I could make an introduction maybe." I recognized the name of the firm immediately. Buyouts. The founder was famous for having started it with an interest free loan of $100,000 borrowed from a relative and creating a billion dollar private equity firm in less than a decade. Thereafter he had steadfastly refused to lend his relatives even a single thin dime. There was a price to pay, however. The firm was famous for chewing up, sucking dry, and spitting out the bones of young associates before grinding them up into powder used for absorbing the coffee spilled by the partners. Partner coffee desiccant seemed like just a dandy thing to be at that moment, however.
I shook through the entire dinner. It took me a week to work up the courage to put in a reminder call to my mentor. Sure enough, a meeting was arranged and days later I was at lunch with Ron, a former employee of the firm who had left to become President of one of the portfolio companies. Ron began to discourage me from applying for a position from the moment I sat down. I would be treated like a slave. Sent to make copies. Bind PowerPoint presentations. Hole punch. I wouldn't so much as see a client for the first three years. I didn't care. I even said so.
"Really, I don't care. I want to break into the industry." Ron was persistent. He insisted that buyouts had become commoditized enough that associates were used and exploited without any chance of making partner in the big firms, as those rolls were all but closed.
About halfway though the conversation, he brought up an alternative. A friend of his was 15 months into starting up a new buyout firm. Maybe he had an open slot. Why not join on the ground floor instead of hitching my future to a cart that had already left and was halfway to Idaho already? A startup buyout firm didn't seem very interesting to me. I was looking for experience in the industry. A big name for my resume and to gain the experience I needed to one day start a fund of my own. None of that was part of the deal.
"You're never going to get that at a larger fund," he insisted. "You'll be lucky to work on two deals in a year. And then, your involvement will consist of checking a spreadsheet or two for errors. With a new firm you'll be in the thick of it from day one. Plus this place I have in mind actually needs you. You're going to love the founder. Trust me." Before I knew it, Ron was actually refusing to make an introduction to his old employer at all. He had talked himself out of it in 75 minutes flat. Instead, that weekend I found myself in the car with Ron, who I had spent an aggregate of 85 minutes with up to then, driving up to a multi-hundred acre estate in Connecticut. And there, on the front lawn with a pair of champion whippets by his side, is where I first met my boss.