The truth about running a finance society

Ibrahim Maiga asks the president of Imperial College Finance Society about his role and what he's learnt from it

Imperial College, London has about 14,000 students, and more than one in five of them belongs to the Imperial College Finance Society (ICFS). With 3,000 members, the ICFS is the university's largest student society. Yet its committee is very small, consisting of only eight very hardworking people.

Giri Kesavan and Deepka Rana, senior vice-president, spend six hours a day on society business, answering up to 200 emails, organising the 50 or so events the society will hold in any given year, and making sure potential sponsors get a quick response. The other committee members have a smaller workload of one to two hours per day.

Giri first got seriously involved in the society by running the ICFS trip to New York in his second year. It was a much smaller undertaking than his presidential duties but, he says, it allowed him to acquire the skills he needed to run for his current role.

The personal touch

The scale of any student society is inevitably dictated in part by its access to funds. The ICFS raises money through sponsorship of events, tailoring each one to the objectives of a single sponsor and offering them a range of ways to meet members, which include coffee chats, mock interviews, Christmas parties, CV drop-ins, skills sessions, site visits, and trading games. In 2012-13, the ICFS sponsor list exploded from 19 to 34. Giri thinks the ICFS achieved this growth in support by researching sponsors thoroughly and personally going to pitch to each one individually, instead of just sending proposals by email as in previous years.

But, says Giri, "the key success of this year was not getting 34 sponsors but making sure all the events were differentiated from one another, bringing out the culture of the different firms to our members and getting people interested in applying for a particular one, Once sponsors are on board they get a tailored service, and Giri and Deepka handle all contact with them personally.

Giri thinks it's helpful to have a sense of realism about what you can provide to a sponsor as a student society and to focus on what they want when approaching them for sponsorship. For this reason, he says that he's always gone into sponsor pitches with the aim of showing them exactly what they could get for their money. "That kind of attitude has enabled us to think what firms are thinking, and to think ahead of them."

Giri also thinks that it's worth pursuing links with your university. Your society could bring benefits to relevant departments and the university as a whole, and your institution might be prepared to sponsor your society, or provide other support.

A path to follow

Maybe you're not interested in running a finance society yet, but would still like to learn more about finance. What's available for you? Although each finance society is different, the core of what they do is similar. "One of the key things we set out to do," says Giri, "is to have a pathway for members to get involved [with sponsors] - from education, to commercial awareness, to awareness of what each firm requires - and then getting them the skills needed to apply to those firms."

Some students take their involvement further, setting up fully-fledged investment groups where members analyse markets and trade using virtual platforms, replicating different roles in the industry. There are few better ways to increase your commercial awareness and improve your trading skills than this kind of activity.

The ICFS, for instance, has a subsidiary investment society, its Investment Club. The Investment Club runs its own Trading Education Certificate course, "where they actually train up members through guest lectures on how to trade" says Giri. "This is mostly in markets-based trading, but this year they've opened up much more of an investment banking side to discuss M&A proposals and do mock valuations."

Balanced and accessible

Whatever your level of involvement in a finance society at university, managing your time and energy is key to success. If you're in charge, you also need to think about everybody else's enthusiasm and workload. And it all needs to be balanced with your studies. "At the start of the year everyone is super-excited," says Giri, "but when it gets tough in October and November, that's when you really need to keep up motivation and when you really know how well your team is working."

Giri recommends lots of committee outings and dinners, and focusing your society towards accessibility rather than elitism. Be approachable, engage with members on a personal level, and remember that at the end of the day the society is for its members, not its committee or president.