So here I am, the prodigal son returning. I haven't been on this site in some time but wanted to write this post to generate some helpful content as a way of saying thank you to Patrick and the rest of the WSO team, as their site played a direct role in my breaking into PE. I am writing this post to (1) motivate people to realize you can improve your chances of putting yourself on the right track if you make a long term plan and (2) give any advice I can to those with any questions about breaking into PE. Please ask away and I will do my best to answer.
A little background on how I went from non-traditional background into PE:
Almost 10 years ago, I just showed up to my first military base after graduating college. I was enrolled in an MBA program at a local school (not even top 100) because I didn't think it mattered, and just wanted to study business, and I was sick of engineering (which I had earned a sub-3.0 GPA in at college)
One day when I was traveling I had met an investment banker during my layover at an airport drinking at the bar. He told me about the basic career track in M&A and I was intrigued. I knew nothing about finance, or the different career verticals of IB/PE//IM etc. When I got home, I started to research it and also reached out to military vets in finance. They basically all said "banking is okay--but PE is where it's at, but it won't happen because you won't get any PE experience prior to business school." So there I was, early 20s, with a 480 GMAT,
This is when WSO really helped me the most. I talked to guys that worked in banking, worked in PE, got advice on business school applications, etc. I charted out my long term path to getting into the industry. I figured I needed to have a plan but also wanted be flexible if different opportunities came along. I figured my best shot was to kick ass at my current job and go get the best MBA I could, and then do banking with long term hopes of getting into PE at a more senior level at a more lower middle market shop.
To even get into a good MBA program, I had to do something to counter my low GPA and GMAT. I immediately dropped out of my local MBA program and just leveraged the fact that I had earned straight As in 4 basic primer courses in Accounting, Finance, Economics, and Management. I then enrolled into a Masters of Engineering program at a more reputable school in my region. I had a 2.9 undergrad GPA but went on to earn a 4.0 GPA in Mechanical Engineering in my master's program. That helped prove the story that I was capable--just not as motivated when I was an undergrad. This took me about 2 years to complete, but it was worth it.
The GMAT was another thing I needed to fix. I took it the first time not really studying for it. I bombed it with a sub-500 score. I studied like crazy after my Master's Degree was completed, and scored mid 600s--not good enough. I took it a 3rd time 30 days later, literally the day before I was leaving for a 1-year deployment to Iraq, and scored >700. Sometimes, you just need to relax and clear your head. It is a study-able exam and the range of scores I got proves that.
I still needed a story for business school essays. I wasn't going to do that in my current role as an engineer. My job was Bor-ing and had little room for leadership. I wanted to do something exciting and different, and needed some sort of an adventure. My family was pissed at me, but I volunteered for a deployment in the middle east. It was there I got to do some really exciting stuff, things that were worth writing about and gave me some actual exposure to being in a leadership role. It was here that I applied to 8 business schools. I was ultimately accepted into two M7 MBA programs. I was ecstatic. I ended up deferring my admission for a year due to military deployment reasons.
During the year between getting in and starting school, I didn't just stand still. I polished up my modeling skills, networked like crazy on LinkedIn, and was on WSO every night. I had interviewed for pre-MBA gigs at Mck/Bain/BCG, but was not successful. It was good experience though with the case interviews I had to do. I also sought out pre-MBA banking gigs as well, but that didn't work out either. Then it happened. Through WSO of all places, I met a person who knew a headhunter that was tasked with finding a recently separated military officer interested in working in PE. DISCLAIMER: this was a one-in-a-million situation, and is not repeatable, so I would not bank on this ever happening to you. I won't go into details of why they wanted a military person, but I can guarantee you that is isn't commonplace and probably won't happen again.
So there I was, 5 years after I set the goal of breaking into PE and never letting go of that dream. In that time I earned a masters, rocked the GMAT, had a year-long adventure on another side of the world, and was admitted to two top MBA program but opted to join a PE firm. Now it is 3 years later after that, and will be leaving PE to start at my MBA (a considerably better school than I was going to attend previously), with a focus on going back into PE after school.
So here is my advice for breaking into PE:
Have a plan:
Eisenhower said it best: "Plans are nothing; planning is everything." You should always have a goal in mind and a plan on how to pursue it. It is always fine to change the plan itself, and change the course of your vector, but you shouldn't ever do something without a reason for doing it. For example, a lot of people thought I was crazy that I was getting an engineering degree with an end goal of getting into PE/Finance. They didn't understand, I was early in my plan and knew that before I could get into a top MBA I had to fix my academic history. I also knew that if my plans changed, having a masters in engineering would always look good on a resume.
Don't plan on going to KKR:
The fact is, unless you are the top bucket analyst at Goldman/Morgan with a 4.0 from Harvard/Princeton (you get the idea), you aren't going to a megafund pre-MBA, and would have to pull off some sort of miracle to get there post MBA. That said, there are 3000+ middle market and lower middle market PE funds all over the US. These sorts of firms are very attainable if you have the right background. Which leads me to my next point:
Get on the right track rather than trying to skip it:
Rather than trying to break into PE from a non-traditional role, invest the time (meaning years in some cases) to enter the PE career track at the entry point most attainable. What do I mean by this? Almost everyone on this site probably knows that it works like this: Undergrad - -> Pre MBA Banking/Consulting - -> Pre MBA PE - -> MBA - -> Post MBA PE. Don't think that you are going to jump from your marketing job into PE. Ain't gonna happen. But, could you use your network to possibly get an interview at a lesser known, but reputable regional investment bank? Absolutely. Everyone knows Goldman, but how many people know BlackArch, , Lincoln, Houlihan, Middle Market, Blair, , Coker Capital, Triple Tree, etc.--the list goes on and on. If you can land a pre-MBA banking gig at a place like this, you could be 1 year away from recruiting at lower middle market PE firms for pre-MBA positions. Then you are on track.
It gets trickier the older you get. Already in business school with no experience? You are at a big disadvantage, but you could do banking/consulting post-MBA and then recruit like crazy for anything you can get on the buy side. Another opportunity you can pursue is looking abroad in developing marketing such as South America, Africa, etc. They have lower entry barriers given those with PE experience probably want to do PE in more established economies like the US and UK.
Bottom line: always do your best to enter at the pre-MBA level if possible. Here you have the most opportunity. After that, there is still a chance, but it isn't going to the under-achiever. These are guys at HBS/Stanford/Wharton with a solid PE and a really good networking ability.
Thanks guys, I welcome any questions specific to your situation.