From his enthusiasm, you’d think Columbia MBA Patrick Chang was discussing the lineup for his favorite music festival–for B-school students with an interest in venture capital and private equity it might as well be. Chang and Rick Zullo, both second years and co-presidents of Columbia Business School’s Private Equity and Venture Capital Club, are the driving force behind what promises to be the B-school’s largest Private Equity and Venture Capital Conference to date. February 28, 2014, marks the event’s 20th anniversary and the first time it will be held off campus (at the Sheraton New York)–the move means the student-run gathering can welcome up to 1,000 attendees, up from 800 last year, and attract an even more impressive roster of speakers and panelists.
Chang’s excitement about the speaker list is understandable, even after PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel backed out. The headlining guests include Alan Patricof of Greycroft Partners, Leon Black of Apollo Global Management, David Blitzer of Blackstone, Eric Young of Canaan Partners, New Enterprise Associate’s Peter Barris, and Columbia Business School alum Mark Dzialga of General Atlantic.
Chang and Zullo selected the conference theme, “Driving Entrepreneurial Thinking in the World of Investing,” to highlight New York City’s tech boom and the accompanying startup surge. “The entrepreneurship theme really stuck out at us,” Chang explains. “Usually these conferences are about the road to recovery or investing in unclear territory; we wanted to put a positive spin on it but also tie it back to entrepreneurship in New York.” Under this premise, the conference planners hope to tackle a trifecta of topics, including: investing in entrepreneurs, understanding how to create value like an entrepreneur, and exploring the role of general partners as entrepreneurs.
Chang says the emphasis on the investor as an entrepreneur sets Columbia’s 2014 conference apart from similar gatherings held at U Penn’s Wharton School and Harvard Business School (both institutions are also celebrating their 20th private equity and venture capital conferences this year). He’s particularly enthused about the “Entrepreneurship as an Investor” panel, which explores VC firms not only as financial resources but also as sources of management insight and human capital. The panelists are all VC founders, ranging from Starvest’s Laura Sachar and True Ventures founder Jon Callaghan. “What’s really exciting is to get to hear from VCs who have to think like entrepreneurs because they’re starting their own funds,” Chang says. “There are a lot of generic topics on VC and PE, but this one is completely different.”
The conference isn’t cheap–students can expect to shell out $250 for a ticket, while professionals pay $475. The steep rate reflects the caliber of the speakers and the larger, swankier venue, according to Chang. So far, they’ve sold some 700 tickets, and Chang is confident it will be a sell-out crowd. “We’re really excited, it’s one of the best lineups in the history of the conference,” he says. Rather than simply a school event, his goal is to make it as professional and instructive as the mega-conferences hosted by SuperReturn International and Dow Jones.
For Chang, the 2014 theme also captures a more systemic shift on Columbia’s campus. “So much has changed with Columbia Business School lately; we launched a new branding campaign, ‘At the Very Center of Business,’ and it reflects that Columbia is in a prime location for business,” he says. “We’ve seen the development of the tech industry coincide with that of great universities before. Stanford benefited as Silicon Valley took off in the late 70s and early 80s and exploded in the late 90s. Harvard and MIT were much the same with the enterprise software and biotech movements in Boston in the 80s. Now its Columbia’s turn. The rise of Silicon Alley is real, and we plan to take advantage of that.”
Columbia’s close proximity to financial firms is a real boon too, according to Chang. “Being in New York, we also have a unique experience where we can actually work in a lot of top firms,” he says. Chang is a prime example–he puts in time at both Bain Capital Ventures and Foundation Capital and still manages to squeeze in his studies and the conference preparations. While he’s keen to carve out a career in venture capital after graduation, he points out that it’s a tough field to break into. However, he hopes that by putting on events such as Columbia’s Private Equity and Venture Capital Conference he can help MBAs like himself get their foot in the door.