warren buffett spends one weekend a year meeting with thousands of shareholders at the annual meeting of his company, berkshire hathaway inc. brkb +0.99% but several fridays a year, mr. buffett entertains business students from all over the country who descend on omaha, neb., to pick the billionaire investor's brain.
at these visits, students spend two hours quizzing mr. buffett on any subject they choose, tour local businesses owned by berkshire and lunch with the investor at one of his favorite restaurants, with mr. buffett picking up the tab. at the end of the event, each attendee takes a turn getting mr. buffett to strike a funny pose for a picture, giving them a unique memento to take home.
mr. buffett is a busy man. so why bother?
"i'm training investors and managers," mr. buffett said an interview. "if you're 22 or 23, you're forming ideas about what you want to do with your life. if i talked to a bunch of 60 year olds, they just want predictions and amusement." he wants to help young people think about "how they want to live their lives," he said, and show them they can have fun doing what they like.
some 60 years ago, mr. buffett figured out how to think about investing after spending time with the late benjamin graham, a legendary value investor who taught a weekly class at columbia university and detailed his investment philosophy in books. "graham changed my life and if i [hadn't met] him, my life would probably be different," mr. buffett says.
since 1951, the year he took a dale carnegie public speaking class, mr. buffett has carved out time to teach in some form or other. he used to give speeches at colleges in omaha and cities where he had business meetings. but when demands from schools piled up, he figured he could meet more students by having them come to him. in recent years, the trips have occasionally included groups from overseas, including china and india. more than 200 universities have requested visits, and some have waited years for a spot. each school sends 20 students, and mr. buffett requires that at least a third be female. he typically takes eight universities per visit.
the students' questions can be quite personal.
"has there ever been a time in your life when you weren't so positive and wanted to give up?" angela pasquarello, a 24-year-old senior from the university of massachusetts asked during a gathering last november. "how did you overcome that negativity?"
mr. buffett said he was unhappy for a period during his early teens, when his father, a u.s. congressman, moved the family to washington, d.c. "i behaved pretty badly," he said. "you get off the track occasionally, but it does not change my attitude to life."
"there are 7 billion people in the world and everyone has their own ticket," he said, adding that only five out of every 100 people are born in the united states. "would you want to give up your ticket and pick another from a hundred? if you don't want to play that game, you're saying you're among the luckiest 1% of humanity."
ms. pasquarello, whose question was prompted by the struggles college students face in figuring out what they want to do, says the way mr. buffett used numbers to answer her question struck a chord. "i've told many people what he said. it made me realize how lucky we are," she adds.
that day, mr. buffett also fielded questions about the future of innovation and products made in america, the u.s. political process, the state of municipal finances and how so-called value investing principles have changed over the years. (his answer to that last question: "they haven't really.")
he also doled out personal advice, telling the students to surround themselves with people better than they are and be the kinds of employees they would want to hire. and on investing, he told them to "remember the stock market is there to serve you and not to instruct you."
mr. buffett prefers that students ask what's really on their minds, and says letters he's gotten from students after the trips often focus on how the discussions have been helpful to them.
one of the most memorable questions he got was in 2005, when a university of chicago student asked, "do you have to be a bitch on wheels ... to get to the highest level in business?"
the questioner, verna grayce chao, says she noticed at the time that many women in top jobs were viewed as hard-nosed and harsh. mr. buffett said that perception could be a result of women having to deal with different pressures from men, and added: "i have certainly seen more male bastards on wheels in my life."
now 35 years old, ms. chao is a director of marketing at dell inc.'s dell +3.06%worldwide health-care and life sciences business. "as i've progressed in my career, i'm always thinking of how to be a strong leader without compromising who i am," she says.