Behind the scenes of the exclusive Alternative Investments Conference

by Jack Beeching

Picture credit: Film Farmers Ltd.

It’s the afternoon of February the fourteenth. I’m sitting at a champagne-coloured table in the ballroom of Mayfair’s Marriott Hotel. In front of me, rows of navy-suited student delegates are listening to a panel on credit investing, with variable enthusiasm.

This is the annual Alternative Investments Conference (AIC), the first of which was in 2005. According to the brochure, it’s “the world’s largest student conference on private equity, hedge funds, and venture capital”. For students interested in finance, the conference is a big deal. Although it’s organised by an LSE society, over 40 universities from around the world are represented. These delegates have undergone a competitive application process, paid over £100 for their tickets, and in many cases travelled from abroad. Why?

The conference’s stated aims are to facilitate education, networking, and recruitment. Each of these is a distinct draw. Firstly, there are the speakers and workshops: influential managers and executives from vaunted firms such as BlackRock talk about their careers and experiences. Then there are the delegates themselves. AIC is an opportunity to connect with like-minded, ambitious students from all over the globe. This has immense appeal for students anticipating a career in alternatives. Finally, there’s recruitment. The conference is largely funded by an array of corporate sponsors, from Goldman Sachs at the ‘platinum’ level, to Bain Capital at ‘silver’. For these corporations, the conference is pitched as an opportunity to connect with ambitious students; AIC purports to attract their ‘ideal candidates’.

I arrive early on the conference’s second day, in time for a quick breakfast with other delegates before the 9am welcome address. The AIC logo is projected onto the stage as the co-presidents, David Bredin and Ramon Wang, outline the society’s values of “integrity, excellence, curiosity” from a podium. It’s time for the first keynote speech: a ‘fireside chat’ with Jonathan Mueller, from Onex. As he talks private equity with a Bloomberg reporter, I take a look at the delegates. Some are making notes, listening attentively. As many are on the phones – I notice a few on Instagram. Despite the conference’s professional sheen, there are moments when I’m reminded that this is a room full of students.

The fourth speaker of the morning is Richard Mashaal, and I notice the ballroom perk up. He’s (in)famous in the financial world for making $700m for his hedge fund from the Gamestop frenzy. Mashaal earns a muted laugh when comparing Elon Musk tweeting ‘Gamestop’ to “God giving Moses the 10 commandments…how do you top that?”. He answers some questions, and we go to lunch.

The speakers certainly add to the event’s prestige, but I get the sense that, for many, the networking and recruitment opportunities take priority: “I come for the people,” an international delegate told me. The break times facilitate this. Going for a coffee, I notice a recruiter speaking to a handful of delegates, and other students swapping phone numbers. A panellist from Gain.pro, a firm that provides private market insights, told me that he, as a student, attended AIC for three years in a row. Now working in the industry, a dozen of his professional contacts were made in the 2016 conference alone. The previous evening, as many of you celebrated Valentine’s Day, students at the Marriott were descending on the Goldman Sachs booth at the AlC recruitment fair.

I had the chance to sit down with David and Ramon properly after the conference. Every committee member I’d spoken to prior had referred to AIS as a “family”, a description that the co-presidents enthusiastically agreed with. The society’s executive committee recruited 25 team members at the beginning of the year from a pool of 150. Throughout the year, they’ve organised barbecues, football games, and birthday parties to motivate themselves for the daunting amount of work that the conference required. “Let’s be real, we’re 20-21 years old. Yes, we’re ambitious; yes, we want to go far; but at the same time we want to enjoy ourselves,” David told me.

AIC 2022 took a lot of work: last year’s conference was an online-only event, rebranded as ‘AIC Conversations’. Consequently, the committee this year lacked crucial experience. “It was something of a gamble,” David admitted, estimating that he and Ramon had sent “literally 1000 emails” to potential firms and speakers over the summer. There were moments when, faced with a seemingly impossible deadline, the exec considered cancelling the conference altogether. For example, 90 per cent of delegate applications materialised only three weeks before the last sign-up date. This was down to a last-minute change in strategy which required the entire committee to work for days on end getting the word out. Their work didn’t stop until the evening of the fifteenth. During the conference, I recall seeing stressed-out committee members rushing about, putting out fires (my co-reporter compared it to a “family restaurant”).

One of AIC’s stated values is ‘excellence’, and access to the conference is accordingly competitive. Around 4000 students apply for only 300 places. Each applicant is screened by Dartmouth Partners, a professional recruitment agency. For firms, this rigour is a large part of the appeal: they sponsor the conference under the assumption that they’ll have the chance to recruit the best and brightest. This raises questions about inclusivity. Even if an applicant is successful, they must still pay £119 for their ticket, alongside accommodation and travel expenses, which are substantial if coming from abroad. Realistically, this isn’t accessible for many students. Moreover, the conference’s sponsors are often keen to recruit “graduates with excellent results from a leading university”, as put by one panellist. However, both co-presidents emphatically reject this potential tension between exclusivity and inclusivity. “At the end of the day, we want the best delegates… We’re agnostic in terms of background,” they told me.

To its credit, the committee has taken steps to widen access. They’ve worked alongside non-profits such as SEO London and 10,000 Black Interns to encourage applications from marginalised groups. 25 delegates had their tickets and expenses covered by sponsors via the ‘opportunity scholarship’ program. There’s also a quota for female delegates (40 per cent). “In an ideal world it would be 50-50, but the reality is that there are a lot more men applying to the conference, and to be in finance,” David said. Next year, the committee hopes to work with the Women Societies Alliance to improve female representation. In 2018, 46 per cent of financial services employees were women, falling to 15 per cent at the executive level. It’s notable that, of the 40+ speakers at AIC 2022, only 10 were women.

The co-presidents are cautiously optimistic about the future of AIC. They’ve launched a number of new initiatives this year, including an online delegate platform for students to keep in touch post-conference. Next year, the current presidents will remain on as co-chairs, in an advisory role to ensure the torch is passed. The fact that they’re willing to devote their entire university career to this speaks for itself. A current chair, Paul Gasser, told me that being a part of AIC has been the best thing he’s done at LSE, and that he’s “learned more from it than all [his] classes”. I’ve been impressed by the society. The commitment and care that they all have for this conference is inspiring – and necessary, given all the work it takes to make it a reality.

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