"Fix the ecosystem, not women"
(COS: In advance of our NY event, we're interested to learn about you as an individual:
What we you doing before investing?)
My graduate work in the Midwest was researching women’s participation in markets. So it was logical that I studied the markets in Silicon Valley and started getting involved in entrepreneurship and angel investing once I moved here in 1991. You just kind of fall into participating as an investor when you’re in Silicon Valley.
(COS: Growing up you had some unusual movement. Anything you think would be of interest for our audience?)
I don’t know that any of it translates to venture capital, but it sure translates into who I am as an investor. I spent my youngest years in Ethiopia – my parents did famine relief, and my sister and I grew up in a rural village in Ethiopia at the time of the first famine in the late 60s and early 70s. Then in middle school moved to Honduras, because my parents were still doing their aid work – my dad’s a doctor, my mom’s a nurse – and then in high school spent some time in Thailand, similarly because they were doing that type of work. So I think that gives me a more global perspective than ‘the average bean’. And how it affects my investing is I tend to look at companies who are (1) solving really big problems, and really interesting problems, and (2) I’m not wed to one geography as I contemplate investing.
(COS: I saw in another interview that you’re “committed to dancing”! And I wanted to see if you would compare that spirit to anything in your investment world.)
Sure, I think that dancing is a great way to spend time away from working 24-7. I think a lot of investors, specifically in Silicon Valley, look to working 24-7, and they kind of demand that of their entrepreneurs as well. Dancing reflects a balance that I more actively believe in, which is I actually believe in downtime and being human, and taking that downtime doing things you enjoy other than work.
(COS: Is there a #1 thing you advise to startups on a regular basis?)
No! There’s not one single thing. But I do have a piece of advice for all startups. I am a real believer in the ‘dogfood’ that Astia generates, in other words I believe in the power of inclusive teams. I am continually struck by entrepreneurs who haven’t thought about building the best or more robust team, and my advice to entrepreneurs is (1) solve the big problem, and (2) do it with a really strong team. I do believe that inclusive teams outperform non-inclusive teams. And by ‘perform’ I mean perform for their investors, and perform as businesses, better. The first piece about solving a real problem: I am an investor who isn’t interested in following the pack and investing in the next same social media, whatever it is. I believe that my role on this planet, as an investor, as an entrepreneur and all the things I am, is really to make the world better than where I found it. And I do look at my investments as a means of achieving that goal. So I’m always giving entrepreneurs the advice to use their strengths and skills to the best of their ability, to really have a transformational effect on society.
(COS: You’ve spoken at length, obviously having a great focus on women in the investment world. Is there something bite-sized you might share?)
Sure. I’m a heretic, a myth-buster. I don’t believe in what people tell me, I instead believe in the data. And my soundbyte is: There’s actually an abundant pipeline of deals that have women in them. The myth that exists out there is that there isn’t an abundant pipeline, that there’s somehow a pipeline issue, that we have to get women into a stem, or whatever to fix the women. We have to fix the pipeline. As investors, that’s our work: How do we reach the best investment opportunities? And the best investment opportunities may not be immediately in our grasp, for various reasons. So my pithy answer to the market is: Fix the ecosystem, not women.
(COS: How could you compare the issue of racial diversity or divide in the investing world?)
Diversity is an issue broadly in Silicon Valley and quite similar to the gender issue. Business networks, just like social networks, divide along gender and race because we tend to cluster with people that are very much like ourselves. It’s the obligation and the opportunity for the investor to move outside of comfort zone to try and find best-in-class entrepreneurs. In my case, I’m white and female, so it’s my work to make sure I know men who are not white. And that’s me being the best investor can be, and recognizing that my networks tend to be limited by who I am and looking for people who speak like I do, look like I do and come from a similar economic background. So we see similar things happening for race as it does for gender. There are some subtle differences that are unique to gender. But I think for the purposes of what we’re talking about, they’re actually more similar than dissimilar.
(COS: Any message you’d like to pass along in advance of Capital On Stage NYC?)
I’m really looking forward to it. I love entrepreneurs, they’re fantastic to work with. But they’re really only as exciting as the innovation they choose to bring. So, I’m really looking forward to seeing some very innovative and truly pushing-the-envelope opportunities.
Founders looking for Funding can still apply here to attend Capital On Stage New York on October 30.
Charles Blass (@lovevolv) is a language, media and people catalyst based in Zurich.