Crashing Events and Guerrilla Networking
February 4, 2016
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In 2010, I crashed my first career event at Princeton University. I certainly was not an Ivy Leaguer, neither by pedigree, nor by intellectual grunt. It was a fortunate, but largely accidental mistake that had a large impact on my mindset going forward. That was during my sophomore year – all that I had done up to that time was study, run track, and split my remaining hours among a few hobbies. At some point in the late fall, it abruptly hit me that undergrad wasn’t strictly about getting a 4.0 GPA (at least not for me), nor was it a final respite before a life of drudgery. College was a means to an end, even if it could be enjoyed along the way. That end was a good starting job, and it became apparent that I needed to get my ass in gear if I was going to secure one. Around this time, I figured out what I enjoyed (no… not copious masturbation and xBox), financial markets. As I learned about the different ways that a person could participate in that world, I started hearing about bankers and traders, analysts and technicians. I tried to find out who hired for these roles, and began looking for companies that recruited new college grads.

 

This was circa 2010, and the economy was on shaky footing by most measures. Many thought that we were heading back toward a contraction and there were a lot of people out of work or underemployed. Aside from a slow jobs recovery, and a number of fiscal setbacks, the sentiment was risk averse and glum. Financial services were hit hard in ’08, and this I discovered made recruiting exceptionally difficult. At the time, I also had no knowledge of anyone in the financial business, only that my dad sold some printing to a mutual fund company and he thought  that stock analysts could make good money if they were lucky (perhaps even good). I didn’t know what an investment bank was, and wondered why the news bashed wealthy bankers when our local loan officer didn’t seem like he was up to anything devious. No one explained to me why Wall Street was a thing, so all I was going off of were a few soundbites overheard on the television and morsels of information garnered from the newspaper.
After some research online, and the recommendation of a fellow econ major of two websites (http://www.wallstreetoasis.com/    and     http://www.mergersandinquisitions.com/), the pieces started falling together. By the way – if you have any interest in learning about finance, markets, or the good – bad – and douchy of Wall street, check out WSO, bar none the best industry resource online for career related questions. M&I, the second site, has a few killer resources as well, including resume building, interview prep, sit downs with professionals, and financial modeling courses. I started to figure out the stereotypes and profiles of the different positions at banks, hedge funds, and other firms. I discovered the divides between bankers and traders, buy side and sell side, regulators and capitalists. The way it was presented gave the impression of a vibrant ecosystem where different groups had their own distinct “vibe”, and had different paths to the top. Common among all the various functions was some form of business savvy – not pure genius, but a mix of smarts, cunning, and social intelligence. I wanted to learn more – but the path forward was unclear. Still, I needed to try something.
After applying online for summer internships at no fewer than twenty-five companies, it felt like I had just asked half of my high school class to prom and no one was in much of a rush to be my date. Human nature promptly kicked in – and I was all sorts of self conscious. Was I doing something wrong? Did my resume need to be “cooler”, with some grand narrative? Was I coming off as too informal? Or was there some mold that I needed to fit? In hindsight, these were perfectly normal doubts to have and I’m happy that I pushed myself out of a comfort bubble. This allowed me to test my convictions about whether this would be a good fit for me.
I think that the conventional wisdom to “be oneself” is thorny advice at very least. The self is an abstraction, and changes over time. My “true self” might not want to wear pants tomorrow, but there are inherent restrictions when choosing to live in society. Likewise, hypocrisy runs rampant among those who tender these words, as they discount constructs like politeness and compromise in favor for something far less practical, and inevitably unavoidable. Authenticity is rare and valuable, but I find it perfectly acceptable if someone wants to expand their horizons and remain open to changes from new environments. The growing pains of fitting in are part of a process where we test whether we want to remain or change.
Of course, the number one thing I was told was to “be myself” – but the catch was that “I” was not getting any results. The weeks went on and the automated rejection letters continued to pour in. I understood that I shouldn’t be dishonest or fake my way into a world that would not be a natural fit anyway – but I had decided that this career path seemed interesting, and that I needed to change my approach somehow.
For better or worse, I chose brute force. I applied to more companies and received more rejection letters. However, I was now over the fear of applying, or trying to appear perfect. It was through trying to fit in and to play the system that I realized my attempts were basically futile, and this actually helped to galvanize my self concept. I began to figure out what I wanted to be about, my MO you might say. My rejection became part of my story (I didn’t even have a story before), and it conveyed scrappy persistence. While I was proud of my effort, the goal wasn’t to get rejected. Yet, it just felt good to tell myself, “I don’t give a damn if I’m told no 1,000 times, I’m not coming away empty handed.” Later on, this underdog story played in my favor big time, especially since it went against the grain of the overachieving, braggadocios culture of finance and big business. But that wasn’t until a little later – this was still 2010, when I knew even less than the little that I know now.
After sufficient rejection, it finally sunk into my skull that it was time to try something new. By my judgement, the one thing missing from the equation was any sort of interaction with the other side of the table. All I was getting was the same type of cover your ass HR email, regretting to inform me that I was not currently an optimal reflection of the firm’s present needs. As mentioned though, I did not know anyone in this business. But, I accidentally clicked on a link with an advertised meetup for one of the big American banks. What I didn’t realize was that the link was to the Princeton University website, and that the event was closed – for Princeton students only. I took the address, date and time down, and put it in my mental calendar.
About a week later, I had an opportunity to wear my only suit for the first time since my cousin’s wedding a couple of years before. I put on a clunky pair of loafers and ironed up an American Eagle polo shirt. I’m not exercising poetic license – I actually looked like a goon. Still, I didn’t top my friend, who two years later beat hundreds of applicants for a top engineering job wearing a $4 Goodwill suit to his final interview.
Left: Me     Right: The Competition
Being in the NY/NJ area, I arrived at Princeton within an hour and parked my car on campus. I was actually a bit nervous at this point. I thought that I might be on the hot seat inside, or worse even, that I would not have a chance to talk to anyone – floating around the room awkwardly like a lingering specter. As I got closer to the building, I started seeing more and more students converging on the doors of the Nassau Inn. It seemed like every guy was six foot three, with a well tailored suit, and a white dress shirt. The ladies brought their A game as well, in prim pantsuits, or knee skirt and blouse. Here I was, with what felt like a target on my back walking among future executives and dignitaries. Despite so many rejection emails, it hadn’t sunk in that my competition was a pool of 2300+ SAT scorers, Rhode Scholars, and non profit founders. If it had, then I would have probably not shown up.
My first obstacle was the reception desk, where I realized that people were showing their student IDs to gain an admission tag. I was starting to sweat at this point. As the line moved forward, I fumbled for some sort of excuse, while simultaneously planning to walk back to my car and leave. In a moment of confusion, not fully aware of what I was doing, I told the woman at the desk that I must have left my ID back in my car. She told me I could go grab it and then she’d check me in. I instinctively pulled out my phone and put it up to my ear, pretending to talk to an imaginary friend. Once the security guard and receptionist were distracted by a new round of students, I grabbed a sticky tag off of an end table, wrote my name on it, and walked past the preoccupied guard into the main room.
Inside, there was no alcohol, but I could have used a cold one at that point. I was in, but now I needed to actually figure out how to navigate the room without knowing anyone. One of the first things that I noticed was that everybody seemed to know each other. I heard a group of girls talking about their plans to go to Montreal for winter break, and a couple of guys talking about back home in Los Angeles. It was strange since I attended a public school, where despite 90% of the student body being from in-state, I knew very few people well, even by my sophomore year. I essentially hung out with my track team, some people from my classes, and a few others that were introduced through friends. There was certainly no vacationing, and very few who I could trace back to my high school days and before. It was apparent that I wasn’t going to join these circles easily, so I shuffled along.
LURKERS, YOU'VE BEEN WARNED. lurkers gonna lurk lets make this a new meme. GONNA. He lurks in the darkness... For your souls...
The next dynamic that I picked up on was the clustering of college students around professionals from the bank. At the center was a grand poobah, either a banker, or some senior member of the firm. To reiterate, I only vaguely knew how much a senior banker could make in a year, so it was a bit of a wonder that these yuppies were all up in the bankers’ guts. As the night progressed, and a few hor d’oeuvres made it down my esophagus, I got over my fear of entering the fray. I walked up to a circle, where nobody was prepared to give up their territory. For being so “high society”, the scene reeked of instinctual competition, as if, the girl I bumped shoulders with had just urinated on the ground where she stood to deter an interloper. Somehow, I missed all the cues, and tried to squeeze my way in. Now that I was within earshot, I listened to a series of questions that sounded trite and cliche, even on my first time hearing them. “What would you recommend a college student do to get ahead? What is the best part of working at JP Morgan? How did you get into banking?”
I was so new to this, that I hadn’t learned the waltz that so many dance at these events. I was awkward, out of place, and I suppose that worked to my advantage. Realizing that I was an outsider allowed me to relax as the night went on. I did start by trying to do what everyone else was doing – even asking one of those ridiculously bland questions. After all, there must have been a reason that they asked such questions, and all laughed in a particular way at a particular joke. So after some warming up, it finally became apparent how low the stakes actually were for me. I had already been rejected by this company, and I didn’t know a single person in the room. I was basically a ghost. If I knocked someone’s drink over, who was I to them? It’s not like I’d see them in class on Tuesday. If I made a lame comment, it would not be remembered. This freed me up from the self imposed pressure that I would have endured had I known the people around me.
About two hours in, the room began to empty out. The first in line had asked all of their trite questions and the outsiders had deferred to the head honchos for long enough. Now I actually had a chance to walk up to these men and women to find out what I actually wanted to know. The first woman that I got to have a real conversation with was an engineer before she left for finance, underwriting bonds for some of the largest governments in the world. The financing facilitated the building of bridges, roads, public payroll, and other influential projects. We started going back and forth, and I was getting to hear all sorts of stories about her experience of courting foreign officials, and the escapades that ensued. It was very cool stuff.
The cadence of our conversation naturally led her to ask about my background. While before, I had tried to act like a Princeton student, it was late enough that my cover could be blown. I told her that I showed up to this event and basically walked in because I had no clue what I was doing. That really seemed to strike a chord with her. She told me that as a female engineering student there wasn’t much of a blueprint in the 80’s, and she had to find ways to break above a certain level at first before her reputation commanded some respect. She gave me some tips on how to get in touch with people for coffee interviews, and what not to ask these folks. She explained that there were certain blacklisted questions and phrases that are landmines in career building. For one, she told me about how everyone wants to know about money and salary, but if you ask, it’s seen as a deal breaker. Despite the superficial people throughout the profession, some illusion was always maintained that newbies were not going into the business for the money.
A couple of other useful pointers and we parted ways. She gave me the first networking business card that I ever received (I have nearly a shoe box full now). At the time, I thought I had the direct line to a captain of the industry, but the assumptions about the difficulty of networking were quickly tested and overruled. By the end of the night, I had talked to about a dozen leaders from different areas of the bank. Some could not have cared less about me or my story, while a few others gave me their contact info and told me to keep plugging away – that something was going to work out. One of the tips they gave me was about inertia. An object at rest stays at rest, and I needed to get in motion with some sort of experience. They told me the type of firm that would recruit someone with my background and that these smaller firms were looked upon favorably throughout the industry. I have to thank them, because this materialized into my first internship a few months later where I worked with some great people, learned a lot, and made over $10,000 part time over a semester.
Once I got started, things got easier, and I caught the bug for going to these events, and avoiding the cliche overachievers like the plague. I became better and better at working these rooms until I had more internship opportunities and than time, and could set my standards even higher. Within a year, I was cold emailing/calling hedge fund managers (see http://hustlewithgrit.com/2015/08/03/emailabillionaire/), and arranging impromptu meetings with politicians in Washington – not because I was so much as a blip on anybody’s radar, but because it was fun, and each additional person I met was another potential mutual connection in my future meetings. Aside from the practicality of the matter, many of these contacts became friends and valuable allies who I still keep in touch with. I know about their families and kids, I’ve met up with them for dinner and been introduced to other people. Most important to me, I can now reach out to more people than ever when I have a close friend or family member looking for a job or advice, and this ability to help is incredibly rewarding.
The continued refinement of my guerrilla networking served as so much more than a shallow ego boost (though it did well at that too). I was able to convince security guards to let me up into the offices of investment funds to drop off my resume and make a pitch in person. I was able to crash events without signing up and quickly get to meeting people inside of them. I even got a reputation for building contacts quickly in my first job out of college, despite not being in a sales role. This allowed me to be one of two people on my team that got to travel around the country to industry conferences to help build a book of associates for our product.
You don’t need to be well connected or a schmoozer to get into the rising underdog mindset. You don’t need to be smart, or have an illustrious past to get started at breaking into the field you love. You certainly don’t have to be good looking or rich to ask a celebrity out for coffee. And you don’t need to wait for one more promotion, or another notch on your belt before you begin to hustle.