I would candidly accept that academics was never my forte. In fact I had poor grades (ranked among bottom 10%) in my undergraduate engineering school (NSIT). As expected, I could not meet the eligibility criteria (based on undergraduate grades) for most of the recruiters on campus. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I had already anticipated this outcome before the recruitment season started and I knew I would have to make the most of the opportunities that would come my way. Eventually towards the fag end of the placement season, I managed to land a tech consulting role at Sapient Global Markets. Here, I would like to underscore the importance of sincerity of one’s efforts and the importance of motivation. I went the extra mile and did my homework about the company and the role on offer. This played a huge role in my selection, despite an abysmal undergraduate score.
A one-year stint at Sapient, followed by a stint at a major investment bank, coupled with CFA Level I allowed me to explore the various verticals within the financial services sector. This was possible because different roles require different skill sets. I did a lot of interviews with professionals who were already in that field, understood what they really liked and disliked about their roles. My take on industry/role transitioning would be to ‘Explore roles, do informational interviews, understand skill sets required and bridge the skill set gap’ and this will hold you in good stead; as they say `well begun is half done´
Riding on these strategies, I applied and converted BlackRock. I worked in their Financial Markets Advisory. I consider this as the first turning point in my career as I got to work in some of the most challenging projects at the firm. I served clients spanning the entire breadth of the financial services industry across EMEA & US regions. I was fortunate enough to listen to BlackRock´s CEO Larry Fink in person and he underscored the importance of learning irrespective of one’s age or seniority in the organization. Abiding by what he said, I chose to be ` a lifelong student of the markets´.
Learning means different to different people and I categorize it into four main buckets. (In no particular order)
Firstly, on knowledge. I never allowed myself to get comfortable and till date continue to build upon my knowledge (through certifications, CFA Level II) although these certifications would never guarantee a job.
Next in line is Skill set. I must highlight the need to understand and develop skills that differentiate great performers from average professionals. In the context of financial services, it is mostly about financial modelling, financial databases and tools, and experiencing deal making. Next I touch upon “Exposure”. I never isolated myself from the team I worked for and gained exposure by interacting with a lot of people, teams outside my direct line of work. I also attended a lot of internal teach-ins. Lastly, on the importance of “Strong Foundation”. Career is not a race but a marathon, so develop a solid foundation which you can leverage from a long term perspective(most of us are guilty of not doing this).
Few years into the job, I wanted to make the transition into Venture Capital. When I did information interviews with people already in the role, I figured out the lack of key professional traits: entrepreneurial experience, a non-target school for VC funds and not being a part of a feeder industry for VC roles i.e. consulting or startups. Once I knew what I lacked, I realized I could not change two of these three factors (I could still gain entrepreneurial experience). Back in university, I was a part of the student career office and I absolutely loved what I did. I was already helping folks from university with their first job post their post-graduation, I formally launched Employment Catalyst. Here, I leveraged the connections I had built during my time at the career office. Unexpectedly, this initiative helped me hire 15 people in all from Sapient & BlackRock, it helped me build a brand internally within the company. I could engage with my network to close 20+ additional roles (mostly with startups). Though Employment Catalyst was not a full time registered company, it helped me showcase my entrepreneurial spirit. It further helped me connect with people in the startup ecosystem, an exposure which was very relevant for VC roles. As luck may have it, the VC firm which I applied to was new to investing in India and this knowledge was very helpful to me.
The second defining moment came when the only Spanish fund in India, my current employer Axon Partners Group was hiring for their fund dedicated to the Indian market. As proactive as I am, I reached to my friends in Madrid to understand the Spanish work culture, their tradition. In addition, I reached out to my mentor who was working for a leading VC fund back then.
I believe that I would not have been able to transition into VC, had I not received his guidance. He helped me establish a strategy for each partner review and worked with me to help me showcase specific personality traits that VCs generally look for. Consequently, I had 3 fantastic interviews with the partners and was almost confident of getting a job offer. However, destiny had other plans for me. I must admit I was very disappointed as this great opportunity slipped from my hands. I continued to work closely with my mentor and identified more opportunities with Indian funds, but unfortunately none of them yielded success. I had a feeling that I might be contacted again should they hire for the India office, and played a gamble by learning Spanish- a gamble which paid off.
After a 2-year unsuccessful VC job search, I was on the verge of giving up and was about to move to plan B. But, after almost 2 years the selected candidate left the firm and the fund gave me another chance.This was the third defining moment. This happened because of multiple reasons- my love for their culture which was evident as I had completed Spanish till level A2, the excellent rapport with the partners which I built by sending them deal flow, and my undying love for VC. After I joined Axon, I came to know about the posting of the opening on IIMJobs. The recruiter had received more than 1000 applications within 48 hours of the job posting (considering the job location was Madrid).
This group has a very lean structure which is very rare in the VC world. Each region or country where the group invests (India, Spain & LatAm – Mexico, Colombia), has one or two Investment Managers who manage the fund under the guidance of the partners. It is unique in the sense that you get to work with the partners across the cycle: Fundraising, Investment Screening & Capital Deployment and Portfolio Management eventually leading to exits from the portfolio companies. The role allows me to represent the fund on the board of all the existing portfolio companies.
My vision is to engage with European & Indian stakeholders (both public & private institutions) in the VC/Startup ecosystem to catalyze growth & investments and foster cross-fertilization of talent & ideas.
Specific preparation tips and insights for Venture Capital interviews-
- Always differentiate yourself. If possible, seek an internal referral through an employee, ex-employee or a portfolio company.
- Develop a strong thought process, read the trends, make a judgement call on where the future is and bet on people who can do it.
- If you want to grab a VC´s attention, you can share the following with a partner or a member of the Investment Team (responsible for hiring decisions)- a sample study or an analysis of a sector that you like, your insights on a startup that you like, a list of startups that you would invest in along with appropriate reasons for your decision.
I would like to conclude this post with a summary of my learning so far. First, if I knew that I could do what I do right now as a college kid, I’d find it very daunting because I couldn’t have thought of a possible way to make it to where I am today. I couldn’t have predicted my journey till here because there was never any comprehensive vision or plan behind it. I attribute some of it to luck, some of it to talent, and some of it was just because of being in the right place, at the right time. Second, most of the skills I now count as essential to my career, were developed out of my genuine interest. They often didn’t have an immediate professional application but these skills have made me successful today. For example, while in junior year in university I taught myself to write research papers based on the projects I was working on, for international conferences. Back then, I had no idea that this skill would help me tremendously in my professional path, when I had to write research reports or develop an investment thesis for the fund.
I could list so many more things here- how the connections I made in college, on flights and at conferences helped me built my career. How the lessons I learnt by managing corporate recruiters for my university´s career office, translated to networking with a purpose. How on more than one occasion, a random conversation led me to get an interview invite. Looking back now, I realize that each random piece of work pushed me forward in surprising ways.
If there’s any advice that I have for those struggling and experiencing the same level of anxiety as I experienced, it will be to pull random bits of experience from different corners of your life and see what they’ve taught you. Your experiences, connections, and opportunities can easily cut across industries- don’t confine yourself to just the job or the industry that you’re currently in. I have no idea where I’m going next, but I’m sure it’s going to be just as random as it has been in the past.