Alumni Spotlight: Alex Yi (MBA'19)
Updated: Dec 16, 2020
Over the last two months, we had the opportunity to sit down with various QUAAF alumni from the graduating classes of 2012 to 2019 to learn about their experiences and hear about their journey to where they are today. This initiative has produced incredible insight into how various members of the team learned essential new skills, gained invaluable exposure, and personal advice on how to make the most of our short time at Smith. We are proud to be sharing the years of wisdom and experience of our alumni.
For our very first alumni #SpotlightSaturday, we will be featuring Alex Yi, Queen's MBA 2019, who broke into the Private Equity industry during his time at Smith. To find out more about his experience at Novacap, and how being CIO of QUAAF opened up new opportunities for him, read on.
After graduating, you immediately got a job in Private Equity, which is notoriously difficult – what’s your secret?
When I first came to Queen's, I took a career test; which gauges your skillset and interests based on your personality and work preferences, and the top two for me were private equity and venture capital. At that time, I had no confidence in getting into Private Equity as I didn’t have the traditional PE background, but it was something that I wanted to do. I always liked investing, identifying large macro trends and formulating business strategy. In Canada, there aren’t very many Private Equity firms around. Typically the route to PE is to do investment banking for a year or two first, and then get in after that. As CIO of QUAAF, and by just being in QUAAF, I had a lot of opportunities come up - it has a way of putting your resume at the top of the pile. There was a point where I had something like 11 interviews lined up in one week! I was in the final stages of interviewing for a few of the firms: a hedge fund, a co-investment private equity fund and investment banking at a Big 5 bank in Calgary.
Even though the other opportunities were full-time and Novacap was an internship, when I went to the interview and heard about what Novacap does and that it was raising a Financial Services buyout fund, I decided that I would take this internship over any other full-time offer because ultimately PE was a sector that I wanted to be in and I felt like given my financial services background, I’d have a shot at getting a full time position. The interview was actually for a Senior Analyst role, but I knew I had a low probability of success because everyone else had a few years of IB experience with transactional experience. I told the interviewer that even though I had unrelated experience, I wanted a foot in the door and was willing to start as an intern regardless of full-time prospects. I had taken Blair Robertson’s investment banking course and that was very practical and applicable, which I found to be very helpful during the internship. When an Analyst opportunity opened up, I converted the internship into a full-time position, and then got promoted to Senior Analyst recently, and have come full circle to the position I originally interviewed for.
How has the last year been different at Novacap from what you thought it would be, or is it everything that you wanted?
I really like my job. I’ve always been a financial services guy, having worked and started a business in the sector and it’s always been a sector I’ve been passionate about. If you’re doing something that you enjoy and that you’re passionate about, you’re not thinking about the hours but rather achieving the outcomes. 80, 100 hours a week doesn’t matter when you’re working to achieve something. The day to day is very fast paced and you’re expected to perform, but everything you do has large impact, it’s a very fulfilling job and I really enjoy it.
How has your time in QUAAF impacted your Queen’s experience and overall career growth?
QUAAF is a game-changer. A lot of us came into the MBA with no finance experience or background, but in QUAAF you look at all sorts of asset classes, mostly focused on hedge funds and direct investing, but we also look at some private asset classes as well.
Most of our class have now graduated and gone into asset management, private equity, investment banking, treasury functions at a bank. If you contribute and take advantage of the opportunities that QUAAF provides, you have a pretty good chance of meeting your career goals. If you went back through the years and looked up the previous executive teams, many have had exceptional career growth.
QUAAF is a game-changer.
Certainly, QUAAF opens a lot of doors. It’s not just the finance learning experience, although learning the technicals is a big part of it for sure. The leadership experience you gain is unrivaled, at our age, it’s rare that one will have the opportunity to lead a large team. If you’re part of the executive team, it’s leading an organization with 40-50 portfolio managers, operations associates and analysts. You really become the driver of organizational effectiveness. You have to keep the team motivated and operations running smoothly, make good investments, maintain communications with all the stakeholders, the Board, and work with Queen’s on an operations budget. It’s definitely a great experience in that sense.
Has the QUAAF experience helped you stay connected with the colleagues you worked with, even after graduating and leaving?
Yeah for sure, those of us in QUAAF developed lifelong friendships now. We’ve stayed in touch ever since. We all work or live in the downtown core, so it’s easy to catch up, grab a drink, and just stay connected.
What drew you to QUAAF specifically, or Queen’s in general?
When I was looking at MBA programs, I wanted to do one in Toronto, so I had three options: Ivey, Schulich, or Queen’s. Queen’s was the only school to have an investment club at the Master’s level, while the others only had them at the Undergraduate level. It seemed like the students involved in the club all did very well career-wise, so that was the differentiator for me when choosing a program – QUAAF was it. I remember before starting at Queen’s, QUAAF was hosting an event and it was there that I met the guys running the club at that time. I asked about their experience, what kind of exposure they were getting and got great feedback and thought “I’m going to Queen’s”.
How do you think QUAAF and Smith experience was able to differentiate you or give you an advantage in recruiting processes?
The Master’s programs are all 1-year programs, it’s difficult enough to do 2 years of coursework in 1 year, and for some in the Toronto programs, many have a full-time job too. The fact that you’re able to participate in a highly demanding club such as QUAAF all the while balancing other academic work will help highlight yourself as a well-rounded and hardworking candidate. The Smith network is also huge so that helps a lot. I had great mentorship which is something that’s unique to QUAAF. Peter Copestake taught me everything about leadership, and Rees Barnett taught me how to think about investments critically as the CIO.
What lessons did you learn from being part of the leadership team of QUAAF?
I would say I learned that being a self-starter and always pushing for change and improvement is crucial to success (if you don’t show up as the executive team, then no one will). Jasmine,￼ the COO at the time, did a great job at mobilizing the team and keeping everyone involved. We had quite a few smash hit events, even if it’s a small task, there was always some way she was able to involve the team to get them to feel like they’ve contributed. Because of her ideas of adding other Master’s programs to QUAAF, the opportunity at QUAAF is now available to all Queen’s Master’s students.
What advice would you give current QUAAF members, or any Queen’s Master’s students in general, on how to make the most of their time at Smith?
Be a self-starter, push for change, take your experience seriously and make the most of it.
Be a self-starter, push for change, take your experience seriously and make the most of it. You will make lifelong friends and the legacy you create will have lasting impact on the fund and the people who come after you. It’s no different as if you were running another organization. I also personally think how you treat your experience at QUAAF is a reflection of your character. In QUAAF, it tends to get busy towards the end of the year as the recruitment season starts. I always admired the dedication of our core group who were able to make QUAAF a smashing success all the way until the end. Nicholas Dasie (TD Treasury) and Justin Young (Monitor Deloitte) never compromised on the high-quality macro updates. Colin Greenwood (BMO Investment Banking) and Mickey Ganguly (CIBC Asset Management) were the first to find jobs, but only worked even harder after to get us the best industry speakers and a killer yearbook. Rodolfo Merino (Scotia Audit) and John McHughan (TD LDP) were always available when their analysts needed support and guidance. Nirali Joshi (RBC Risk) never missed a meeting. My best friend Edward Elsamah (Capco) and my now fiancé Jasmine Zhou (TD Commercial Banking) were great ambassadors for QUAAF and were always there every step of the way. Peter Copestake and Rees Barnett were the best mentors one could ask for. We beat the market by hundreds of basis points, held multiple full attendance events, introduced new Master’s programs, all found jobs and had tons of fun along the way.