As part of the Republic Venture Partner program, we’re highlighting our Venture Partners to learn more about their investment strategies and paths to venture capital. We recently spoke with Jaisa Minor of New Voices Fund, Brittany Davis of Backstage Capital, Ilse Calderon of OVO Fund, and Namrata Banerjee of Alumni Ventures Group about their approach to VC, where they see the industry going, and what they do when they’re not at the office.
Interview has been condensed and edited.
How did you get into VC?
Brittany Davis: I began my career in finance. Then, I went to Harvard Business School to understand why there are not more successful entrepreneurs and tech leaders that look like me — and what could my role be in changing this picture? I looked at the successful, fastest-growing companies at the time (Google, Facebook, et. al.) and noticed they are mostly led by white men.
I realized that if we continued with this status quo, we would go into the ‘20s, ‘30s, and beyond with the same disparity. Yet, I knew there are plenty of women and people of color developing products and companies that we should pay attention to. So, I became an entrepreneur myself, and while I had some solid wins, I ultimately failed.
What struck me the most on this journey was how many amazing entrepreneurs I met and worked with that struggled to access venture capital. Oftentimes, it was not because their business was lacking, but that they didn’t have access to the right person at the right fund to even get the opportunity to gain funding. Or, even worse, it was clear that they didn’t fit the image of what a VC has decided is what will be successful. I realized I had to change what was happening on the other side of the table. So, I began connecting the dots for entrepreneurs, the friends and founders of color I knew. That put me on a path to working in VC, and I have been sourcing investments and supporting entrepreneurs ever since.
Jaisa Minor: I built relationships in the ecosystem and focused on the needs of founders.
Namrata Banerjee: Last year, I went to a women in business event not knowing what to expect. I happened to sit across from this wonderful person who shared with me her journey into VC. At that time, I was working on my startup. I wasn’t thinking of VC, so it ended up being just a wonderful conversation. As I was wrapping up work on my startup earlier this year, an advisor suggested venture capital as a career move.
I got my break through Berkeley’s network. Over the years, I worked on multiple products, advised startups, and worked at an incubator. There’s been a tremendous amount of learning, which made me effective at my job.
Ilse Calderon: My first stint in VC was a summer internship at another early stage VC fund. Then, after I graduated from college, I worked at Silicon Valley Bank for almost a year. While SVB was primarily venture debt, it helped understand the start-up ecosystem better and form relationships with venture capitalists. While interviewing, I ultimately joined my fund because I saw the opportunity to learn an incredible amount from the fund's partner.
What is it like being a woman of color in VC?
Minor: It is a challenging yet phenomenal opportunity to be a trailblazer at the forefront of redefining the narrative on what defines an investor.
Banerjee: I feel we are more grounded, more self-aware, more empathetic, more open to sharing and building on each other’s work. I am excited to have the privilege to contribute to a new brand of women VC, and beyond excited to create a great track record of deals and investments.
Calderon: The venture capital community is fairly small. Consequently, the women of color VC community is even smaller. However, I found that this community is by far more welcoming and less transactional than the larger VC community.
Davis: While there are not many of us, it’s an encouraging time as there are more women of color becoming emerging managers and starting venture funds.
What are the major characteristics you look for in a startup?
Calderon: A founder-market fit, a ten-times better solution, and an incredibly passionate founder.
Banerjee: The team, first and foremost. What experience do they have? What comfy job they left to start on this journey? How much work have they done to deeply understand their customers and the solution they want to create? Have they experienced failure before? Is it a balanced team of engineers and business?
The second is problem-solution fit and the market. Are they working on something large and urgent and is the market big? Do they have traction?
Lastly, how can our VC firm help them? Can we help them with resources, staffing, business growth? What can we provide of value?
Minor: I look for a defined validated product, a founder-market fit, and an alignment with the New Voices Fund strategic expertise.
Davis: A strong founder, a founder-market fit, [and] a big idea/market opportunity.
What is an area you’re looking at that few are paying attention to?
Minor: Millennial parenthood, climate change, and sustainable beauty, [along with] bias in AI.
Banerjee: I believe in looking at innovation from a Maslow’s hierarchy point of view. What basic human needs require innovation? I recently looked at startups that are making progress in innovation in consumer goods and fixing inefficiencies in manufacturing supply chains and lifestyle. This is especially interesting when you try to look for models that support sustainable practices.
Davis: I’m particularly keeping tabs on femtech, as well as products and services for the aging population.
Calderon: . Consumer start-ups with an authentic appeal to the US hispanic market. Most consumer start-ups are going after the same consumer: white women living in coastal areas of the United States. However, I’m more interested in start-ups solving real needs of a segment of the 52 million of hispanics living in the U.S.
How do you balance your personal life with the grilling life of a VC?
Banerjee: I try to plan things in advance. I started to block time for advising, referrals, and due diligence. I block one day a week as a no-meeting day so I can quietly work. Given that a number of VC events take place in evenings, my husband contributes quite a lot. I can't do what I am able to do without the support system.
Calderon: I actually think my personal life is quite intertwined with my VC life. Given that in VC, one is "always on," and I see that as an advantage.
Davis: I make a point to unplug and get enough sleep — especially on the weekends
What causes do you care about, and how are they permeated through your work as a VC?
Davis: I’m very passionate about inclusion in tech and VC, as well as wealth generation for women and minorities.
Minor: Tech inequality and the digital divide are heavy in my mind during my work as a VC. I believe it's time to evolve from asking the question What problem does this solve? to focusing on Who is harmed/excluded by this solution?
Banerjee: As the startup and venture ecosystem stands today, only the well-connected have a higher chance of survival. My hope is to contribute to making this ecosystem more accessible and open. I look at my day to day job as being of service to entrepreneurs. If there is a good product and a good team behind that product, I try my best to get them funded. If they don’t match our investment thesis, I try to connect them to two-to-three venture firms that might be a good fit for them. This takes time out of my schedule, but I try my best.
Calderon: Broadly speaking, I genuinely care about causes surrounding issues of education and equality. For example, in the ed-tech world, it's easy to dismiss a solution as too difficult due to the complexity around acquiring customers. Yet when evaluating a company, I like to place emphasis on the impact it can have in the best case scenario. It's important for me to see the high level of impact a solution can have.
What do you see is the biggest difference between private and public markets?
Minor: The private market is better for innovation and true impact through business models. The current structure and incentives of the public market are driven by profit instead of people.
Davis: Most investors are excluded from the private markets, but have the potential to generate the highest returns, although more risky than public market investments.
Calderon: To me, one of the biggest differences is the level of risk. Additionally, access to capital and achieving liquidity can be rather difficult in a private market than in a public market.
Banerjee: The biggest advantage of private market, to me, is the relative ability to innovate quickly. As a private company, you can set your goals, pivot when you need to. Public companies are under scrutiny and heavier regulations; both elements can take a toll.
What would you say to other women trying to get into VC?
Davis: Go for it!
Minor: Understand why you want this and use it as the foundation that drives your decisions.
Calderon: Use it to your advantage! You will be far more successful this way.
Banerjee: Don't be afraid to walk up to someone to ask for advice. Most people are very happy to share their journey. Follow VC news — build up your knowledge little by little. Invest with your time, money, and energy.
When you have the time, what’s your favorite TV show to binge watch?
Minor: Queen of the South.
Banerjee: Most recently? Succession.
Davis: Orange is the New Black.
Calderon: Bachelor in Paradise.
What’s a mobile app you can’t live without?
Calderon: Maps. I'm terrible with directions.