Senior Joshua “Sparky” Garcia probably didn’t expect his business education at Gonzaga to include Warren Buffett whispering stock tips in his ear. Nor did Stephanie Vogel, also a senior, likely imagine herself playfully pretending to be Buffett’s prom date.
Yet both had the chance to ham it up for the camera doing these very things with the famous billionaire investor last November when they traveled with a group of Gonzaga business students and professors to Omaha, Neb., to meet him.
“I was excited, but I had no idea what it would be like,” said Garcia, a native of Albuquerque, N.M. “It way exceeded my expectations. Warren Buffett’s energy and optimism are contagious. When he enters the room, the whole mood changes.”
Several times a year, Buffett—the octogenarian Chief Executive of Berkshire Hathaway in Omaha—invites business students from around the U.S. to Berkshire’s headquarters for a day’s visit. But getting invited by Buffett takes some ingenuity, said Dr. Todd Finkle, Pigott Professor of Entrepreneurship at Gonzaga.
“You’ve really got to get inside Warren Buffett’s head and his psyche to understand what he thinks,” said Finkle. “He doesn’t give anything away. You’ve got to earn it.”
So Finkle and his colleague, Dr. Paul Buller, had teams of students work on a corporate entrepreneurship project specifically designed to grab Buffett’s attention. The students created fun new product ideas that they could show him, hoping they could entice him to invite a group from Gonzaga for a visit.
Vogel’s team made a design for a “Warren Buffett Pinball Machine” that incorporated elements from Buffett’s personal life and interests. Gonzaga art students assisted the team with the design, said Vogel, a Denver native. In one of his earliest business ventures as a high school student, Buffett and a friend owned some pinball machines in local Omaha barber shops.
“We made a Gonzaga ‘Clue’ game,” Garcia said of his team’s project. “When you play it, you get a sense of Gonzaga’s campus and what being a student here is like.”
Finkle and Buller selected the top three ideas—the pinball game design and the “Clue” game, plus a DVD about Gonzaga—and sent them to Buffett. “Within five days,” Finkle said, “he invited us to a personal meeting in Omaha.”
Finkle had prior success securing an invitation for his students to meet Buffett when he was teaching at the University of Akron. He had published a case study about Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway in an academic journal, and to attract Buffett’s attention, he sent him a copy of it. Having grown up in Omaha with Buffett’s son Peter, Finkle said he has considered Buffett a role model for a long time.
During the visit, Buffett held a Q & A session in which students could seek wisdom and advice from the renowned “Oracle of Omaha.”
“It was exciting for me to hear how he encouraged us to follow our passions—do what you love,” said Vogel. “It was really cool hearing someone as successful as Warren Buffett say something like that.”
Buffett then took a smaller group out to lunch. “He drove us himself and asked us questions about our families and school life. That was really cool to have a one-on-one conversation about my personal life with him,” Vogel said.
The students participated in what has become a trademark at meetings with Warren Buffett: a personal photo session. Vogel and Garcia’s photos were later featured in a front-page article in The Wall Street Journal.
“That was unreal,” said Garcia. “I got an e-mail from The Wall Street Journal about wanting to interview me about my photo with Warren Buffett. Friends and family around the country saw the article and called me.”
Meeting Buffett made a lasting impression on him, said Garcia. “He’s witty, a great storyteller, incredibly sharp. He gave me a zest for life that I took home with me.”
As for those stock tips Buffett gave Garcia, his advice was pretty simple, Garcia told The Wall Street Journal. “Buy shares of Berkshire Hathaway and I will make you a very rich man,” Garcia said Buffett whispered to him.
“These students got to sit in a room with a man, who, in my opinion, is the smartest man in the world. That’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Finkle said, reflecting on the visit. “It’s not just about money. It’s his whole value-system. The students didn’t say anything about his money—they noticed his values.”