My junior year at Notre Dame, I applied to take a finance elective called Applied Investment Management. This elective was always oversubscribed, and comprised the top finance students in their final year as undergraduates. These students would get to manage a small piece of the university endowment, under the guidance of the endowment’s staff, while being able to travel and meet with well-known investors across the country. I knew I was interested in the world of investing, and it seemed like a stepping stone to that world.
I wasn’t accepted. Over 75 students applied, and I wasn’t among the chosen 25. One line from the form turn-down email I received has stuck with me eight years later:
Put another way, many applicants are denied, not because they could not do the work, but because there were other students who applied with stronger qualifications.
This rejection, and that reason especially, still feels like a raw nerve — even more so because I’m doing that same type of investment work now.
Limited partners (and investors in general) say “no” much more than they say “yes”. It’s the job. We can’t invest in every new strategy we’re pitched, let alone every strategy we find interesting — we have to filter those several hundred down to the five or so new relationships we’ll establish each year.
I like to think I do well at that part, in providing feedback and being timely with the decision. But, a respectful no is still a no. Maybe us saying no gives back the time that otherwise would have been spent pitching us further, which is helpful — but it puts them no closer to their goal of raising a fund. In all likelihood it just becomes motivation, another chip to wear on the shoulder as they prepare their pitch for new prospective limited partners.
Rejection is a side effect of the role, but it’s not my goal: that’s to turn over every stone to find what’s next, what’s different, in private equity and venture capital. Thus, it’s strange to think I could be on the other end of someone’s motivation. And, it must be even stranger for people out there to know they’re on the end of someone else’s motivation — or my own.
In turning over those stones, limited partners try to determine whether an investor is motivated to generate carried interest from the investments they make, as opposed to generating fees from gathering assets. There are ways to actually measure this type of motivation: how much capital that investor is investing in their own fund, or even how much the broader team is contributing. Perhaps these investors are financially-motivated, but they may not have nearly the same drive they did when starting out. I want to find the investors who have that drive, to learn why they feel such a powerful need to launch their own firms, and to understand why they still feel this intense need to prove all the rejections and no’s wrong.
In doing so I’ve realized that we as limited partners don’t look inward often enough to understand our own motivations. Why do we do what we do? The “easy” returns have been chased away, and the legends have been made across the private equity, venture capital, and hedge fund worlds. The next generation of limited partners will have a very difficult time breaking through all the competitive clutter.
And so why do I do what I do? I’m not sure what else I’d be doing, frankly — like myself in the spring of 2011, I’m still interested in the world of investing. What I do know is that I can’t help but think about that raw nerve every day: being rejected for that finance elective, and how I can go about proving that no wrong, again and again and again and again.