When people ask me about my career, I simply tell them that after becoming disillusioned with non-profit work, I went to London Business School to transition to a role at an investing firm. In reality, the shift was much more complicated than that. The following is a comprehensive history of how I went from working for a nonprofit to venture capital:
Sept 2012: Though some aggressive networking (read: my Mom talking to whoever she thought would give me a job that wasn't based in Africa, where I was living) I am connected to the CIO of a U.S.-based organization that invests in emerging markets. He asks me how I would invest $100M in Africa. I pitch a single country (one where the currency later depreciated) and single commodity (Yes, I said Oil) strategy. As bad as this response was, it was not as bad as my answers to the rest of his questions. He ignores follow up mails and I decide I need to go to business school if I am going to have any chance switching industries.
Lesson Learned: No amount of networking can get you a job if you lack a basic understanding of the industry.
Sept 2013: In my first week at London Business School, I think I am going to intern at different large organizations investing in emerging markets where a few of my former colleagues work. My attempts to contact either one fail. I meet with a second year MBA student who interned there, but five seconds into my pitch he informs me with my current resume I will not pass the initial screen and I should focus on getting something with the word investing or private equity on my resume. I ignore him and decide to play to my strengths and keep networking. I apply in January and, as the second year student predicted, I do not pass the initial screen.
Lesson Learned: Transitioning from one career to another is hard. An MBA is a good start, but you need to continue to demonstrate your interest in a new field.
Jan 2014: I apply for internships at top consulting firms thinking it will help my transition to emerging market investing. These interviews do not go well. One managing partner I interview with calls me a "sellout". I tell her I am "buying in". She is not impressed by my snappy comeback.
In another interview at a consulting firm an associate offers me a job at the social enterprise he founded. I ask if the salary is comparable to role for which I am currently applying. In the end, I chose to focus on industries I'm actually interested in and forget about consulting.
Lesson Learned: It's hard to compete for elite roles at top firms against people who really want these jobs.
April 2014: With some luck, help from my classmates and a short, part-time internship at an Africa-focused merchant bank, an impact investing advisory firm offers me a summer internship. Unlike my interview years ago, I nail the question about how to deploy $100M in Africa. Overly optimistic from my recent success, I attempt to secure additional internships at other firms. None of the other firms I apply to invite me to interview.
Lesson Learned: Getting one firm to take a chance with you doesn't mean other companies are ready to do the same.
Aug 2014: With two short term stints in investing on my resume, I begin applying to large organizations investing in emerging markets again. None of them interview me. I decide, despite the fact I didn't think it was a good fit over the summer, I should spend a few years at the firm where I last interned to get more experience. I meet with the Managing Director of the firm to discuss full time opportunities and discover, not to my surprise, the fit issue was mutual.
Lesson Learned: Fit is a big deal. Not every company/role is right for every person.
Dec 2014: Through some aggressive networking (read: my Dad complaining about the prospect of me moving back home to his friends), I am put in touch with the head of a private equity firm investing in financial services companies in Africa. The founder passes me off to his chief of staff, who kindly spends 30 minutes trying to understand why someone with limited M&A experience and no exposure to commercial banking wants to work at this particular organization. Neither he nor the founder of the company respond to future mails.
Lesson Learned: Lots of people will talk to you, but it's your responsibility to get them from a conversation to a job offer.
Feb 2015: Through actual networking and no help from either of my parents, I land interviews at two firms that rejected me for summer internships. My interview at the first company goes ok, but there is no follow up. My interview at the second company goes very well, but I have issues with the modeling test. Though I have spent two years improving my abilities in Excel and PPT with a Mac, I have forgotten all of the PC shortcuts. I waste vast amounts of time reconfirming the Net Present Value in the exercise is actually negative and produce a few poorly formatted slides to present to the managing directors. I hear a week later the company has chosen someone else for the role.
Lesson Learned: People in finance use PCs. Mac are great if you work at a startup, but if you want a "real" job, learn MS Office on a PC.
March 2015: I apply for a post-graduate internship at a private equity firm in Africa. The interview goes well and I am offered the position. However, my girlfriend does not seem happy about me moving to Africa. So I begin looking for jobs in Seattle, where she has a full time offer at Microsoft.
Lesson Learned: If you're not willing to actually move to a place away from people you care about, then don't waste everyone's time by applying for jobs in those locations.
May 2015: Through actual (read: non-parental) networking again, I interview at a large, well-known foundation in Seattle and am flown in for the final round. The job isn't really want I want to do, but it pays well and is where I want to live when I graduate from business school. The interview is all day. Even though it is for a strategy role and most of the team is former management consultants, I am told by the recruiter there will be no case interviews. All three of the former management consultants who interview me give me cases. As 8-hour jet-lag begins to take effect, I meet with the person who will ultimately make the decision and who brought me to Seattle. Unfortunately, he doesn't remember our previous conversation and asks me all the same questions he had asked me over the phone. I am thrown off guard. The last interview of the day when I can barely keep my eyes open is with a former consultant who gives me a slightly more advanced case question than I am ready for: solve poverty. The recruiter calls me a few days later and tells me it isn't a fit.
Lesson Learned: If a former management consultant interviews you, no matter what anyone says, they will give you a case study. Be ready.
June 2015: I find an interesting role at an investment firm in Seattle. I reach out to the hiring director via LinkedIn and we have a good conversation. She puts me in touch with HR. The recruiter's first interview question in the subsequent interview is how many energy investments have I made. After stalling for a bit, I respond with "zero". The recruiter tells me she'll keep me in mind for other roles.
Lesson Learned: Same as the first Africa focused private equity firm I interviewed for: plenty of people will talk to you, fewer will give you jobs.
July 2015: A week before I am supposed to fly to Africa for the internship I previously secured I am offered a different post graduate internship at a new company in Seattle that is the perfect blend of my interest in finance and impact investment. I am excited! I tell my girlfriend at the time (now fiancee) who references Clueless and reminds me "two internships don't equal a job".
Lesson Learned: Girls don't love supporting their boyfriends, especially if you have not dated that long.
Sept 2015: After a few months of putting my best professional foot forward in my internship, I am offered a full time job. I am ecstatic, not only because I have finally made the transition I have been trying to make for 3 years, but I can now afford to live in the apartment I have signed a lease for, something that would have been difficult on my intern salary.
Lesson Learned: Unless you're very fortunate, doing what you want professionally is going to be hard. Don't get discouraged. I made a lot of mistakes over three years of trying to transition from a non-profit to venture capital, but each one got me closer to my ultimate goal.
Isaac Gross is an investment manager at Capria, the first global accelerator for impact fund managers. Isaac has spent his career in the impact sector at organizations such as the Dalberg and the Clinton Foundation. Working with the Clinton Foundation he managed a $10 million HIV medication donation in West Africa. At Dalberg, he evaluated impact funds with $50+ million assets under management. Isaac has an MBA from London Business School and a BS with Honors from Brown University.