I've been threatening to do one of these for a couple months, and I figured I'd slam it out while I have some downtime in the office. I'm in my early 30s and I work at a middle-market private equity firm in the Southeastern US. I've taken a rather long, circuitous route to get here, and I'd like to share my story for two reasons: (1) show that yes, unicorns exist, you can take a non-traditional path to get into PE; but that (2) so many things had to break my way at the right time that trying to mirror my path would be a colossally bad idea.
Feel free to lob in any questions about my background, experience, choices, or current work, and I'll answer them as well as I can. Fair warning up front: if your question is some variant of "Hi Layne, I'm in high school / college / b-school / the clergy / other and I'm trying to break into PE, and my professional experience is anything other than the classic banking / PE template, what are my chances?", then I will draw on my engineering training and round to the nearest significant digit, which is zero.
Ready? Let's hop in the time machine back to the early 2000s...
I went to college to be a scientist. Fully expected to be a researcher in a lab, running experiments, doodling on whiteboards, and advancing the collective scientific field of knowledge. I majored in biomedical engineering at a top-25 non-Ivy and was a 4-year varsity athlete, so I didn't spend much time outside of the library and the locker room. Everything discussed on this site--the entire world of finance, consulting, and other related fields--didn't exist in my mind, and I didn't care. Graduated with a 3.5+ and skipped off to grad school to keep science-ing.
Here's where my plan hit a snag. I had decided, in my head, what working in the lab would be like, without bothering to observe my surroundings during any of my summer internships. Turns out working in the lab wasn't for me. Like, at all. Reading about advances in a scientific field is one thing, and beating your head against the wall for months on end to try and get experiments to turn out the way you want them to is quite another. I decided to cut off grad school at a master's and find a job.
Incredible life development #1:
I found a job. I got hired by a boutique strategy consulting firm for reasons that to this day escape me. Remember, I had never taken a business class up to this point; I just happened to find a firm that operated on a strategy of finding bright kids from any background who communicated well, and then beating the crap out of them until they developed business acumen. This was a small firm, so we did all the things you'd expect from a larger firm but with a fraction of the resources. It was a grind, and after a few years of little sleep and screaming partners, I was looking for something else.
Incredible life development #2:
A block away was a boutique IB firm. I had gone to high school with a guy who was an associate there by that time, and we frequented the same coffee shop. I mentioned I was looking for something new, and it just so happened that they were looking for an analyst with something other than a classic finance background, who could provide a different perspective on their advisory projects and in positioning their middle-market sell-side clients. You know, like a strategy consulting background. I got an interview, completely off-cycle, and got a job. I spent the first six months trying to catch up on all the finance & accounting I'd never learned in the first place, and ended up staying for two years and developing more of a classic IB toolbox.
By this time I wasn't sure that I wanted to stay in that city my entire life, and I was running out of options for landing somewhere new. I decided to pull the b-school ripcord as a way into a new recruiting pool that I otherwise wouldn't have access to. I went to a top-15, but not M7 fulltime program and recruited mainly for consulting. I was interested in private equity by this point, but as I was not at H/S/W, everyone I talked to gently informed me that I would not be finding a position in private equity, and it was best to set my sights elsewhere. So I did, got aat a major consulting firm, landed a return offer, and came back to school for my second year intending to head back into the strategy consulting world.
Incredible life development #3:
Back at school, I learned through a friend about a local middle-market PE firm. They flew under the radar and hadn't had a presence on campus, and hadn't had a real recruiting push for a few years. But they were caught in a weird spot: recent close of a fund, lots of work to be done, but awkward timing as new MBA hires wouldn't be available until springtime. They were short-staffed and looking for warm bodies.
It just so happened that I had front-loaded my credits, so I was going to be finished with my degree requirements in a year and a half. I reached out to the firm, expressed my interest, and inquired about working as an intern to help them bridge their staffing needs. They took me up on it and as my fellow classmates went back for their second-year spring, I went to work as an hourly contractor for not much more than minimum wage.
It ended up being a great fit. My experience in previous boutiques helped me with the small office environment, and my science background came in handy more than once looking at opportunities. I hustled as much as I could hustle, spent late nights, took on extra projects, and tried to work myself into a job. A few months in, the partners offered me a full-time position to stick around.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Looking back, I don't want to chalk it all up to luck. I worked hard, at a lot of places, and made choices about how to spend my time that weren't the most fun. But if any one of the "incredible life developments" breaks a different way, then I don't end up in this office.
Thanks for reading and happy to answer questions.