My Path to Venture Capitalism
If you had known me in college, ‘Latin American Venture Capitalist’ is probably not a job you would have predicted for me. I certainly didn’t set out to be a VC when I graduated.
At Dartmouth I had a lot of interests: Nordic Ski Team, guitar player, editor of the StoneFence review. I spent Sophomore Spring on LSA in Mexico, and Junior winter in Sun Valley, ID doing a wacky ski-industry internship. I bounced around majors - Physics, then Economics - before discovering that I loved Creative Writing. Miraculously, I secured a Senior Fellowship and spent senior year writing a book of short stories about my hometown in Vermont.
The Senior Fellowship was great, but it presented a practical problem: what the hell was I going to do after graduation? The job market wasn’t exactly screaming for Creative Writing majors (especially during the 1990-91 recession). And nobody wanted to pay me to ski or play guitar.
I threw my hat in the corporate recruiting ring and, to my surprise, got a job with Bain & Co. I stayed at Bain for 2½ years and did well there, getting promoted to Consultant without an MBA. But I was desperately unhappy. The job and travel were all-consuming, and in my early 20s, I was not yet ready to spend every waking hour indoors and give up all the things I loved to do: ski, write, spend time with friends, and most of all, write and play music. So I quit Bain and moved to Sun Valley, ID for a year. In addition to skiing a lot, I played in several bands and for the first time really started to explore my songwriting. I decided to give music a serious shot.
Back to Boston I went, where my sister was in the music business and helped me get started. I played in several bands and made the rounds as a singer/songwriter. Over the next seven years I toured nationally and put out three CDs of original music, two of which received national (radio) airplay (this was pre-Facebook, YouTube, or Spotify). I was energized by the response and in 2001 I moved to San Francisco, where I was finding an enthusiastic audience. I paid the bills with a variety of high-paying / low-hours side gigs: I went back to Bain part-time for two years, I worked as an independent consultant (particularly in the environmental and technology fields), and I ghost-wrote for business publications.
I gave it my all, but after seven years, I began to feel that my musical journey had run its course. My friends were becoming surgeons and partners in law firms; meanwhile I was driving around in an old van, crashing on couches, and playing coffeeshops and folk clubs for gas money. Things were growing – but not nearly fast enough, particularly as I passed 30 (Old in the music business). Reluctantly, I had to admit that I was not going to be Dave Matthews. Although I love music for its own sake, I had a go-big-or-go-home mentality, and if I wasn’t going to be big, I thought I should go home.
So I did. In 2003, at age 34, I quit the music business. I accepted defeat.
What happened next is odd, at least for me: I knew immediately what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a Cleantech VC.
I have always been an environmentalist. In my freelance work I had consulted for environmental groups such as NRDC and E3. And living in the Bay Area I had met VCs who were exploring renewables and other cleantech fields. It was a fascinating combination, and it seemed you could have a big positive impact if one of the investee companies really scaled. You could make a decent living at it (something I craved by that point). And importantly, VC wasn’t consulting. I wanted to have a real say about how and when I worked, and I wanted to be invested (literally) in the product of my work. VC seemed a perfect balance.
But how to get into VC? It’s a cottage industry, and there are few entry-level jobs. Maybe more importantly, I had been out of the work force for seven years. I needed resume rehab!
I debated getting an MBA, but it felt redundant; my MBA was five years at Bain. Instead, I enrolled at the Yale School of Forestry, for a Masters in Environmental Management (MEM). There was zero track record of Yale Forestry graduates getting into VC. But the material looked fascinating and relevant, and the professors allowed me a lot of flexibility. I spent my time at Yale focused on climate change and the intersection of technology and energy.
Serendipity struck as I neared graduation. In addition to applying for many Associate roles in VC firms, I applied for a spot in the Kauffman Fellows Program, which was designed to match VC firms with qualified candidates. My CV landed on the desk of Anne Glover, co-founder of Amadeus Capital. Anne was herself a Yale graduate (S.O.M.) and had also started her career in Bain’s Boston office. We had a lot of people in common – I was very easy to reference!
Amadeus was looking for someone to help build its cleantech practice in London. I got the job, simultaneously became a Kauffman Fellow, and moved to London in 2006. I have been with Amadeus ever since. In 2010 I moved back to San Francisco to establish a west coast presence for the firm.
Looking back, I was right about most of the things I thought about VC in 2006. I was wrong about one big thing, however. Cleantech and venture capital turned out to be poorly suited for each other (at least the first time around), and the venture capital industry’s first foray into cleantech (2005-2010) was a disaster. Capital for cleantech dried up for a decade. As a consequence, although I am still a VC, I had to pivot to remain relevant. Now I invest primarily in Latin America (using the Spanish I learned on my LSA) in FinTech (financial services tech) and EdTech (education tech). In these fields in Latin America there are both massive markets and huge opportunities to have positive impact around financial inclusion and education. It’s not exactly what I set out to do, but it’s very satisfying.
So that’s the journey. If I were to offer advice to someone in the ‘search and seek’ phase of their career, I’d say the following:
Give yourself time to figure it out. Most people don’t really know what they want to do when they graduate college, or five or even ten years later. Have confidence in yourself, do lots of different things, and give your mind and heart time to tell you what you should be doing. And don’t be afraid to pivot (more than once if needed).
Don’t worry about how old you are. I was 37 when I took an Associate job – the bottom rung – at a VC firm. This was after I spent 5 years at Bain and earned a masters degree. There’s no shame in trying something new and coming in on the ground floor. If you picked the right field and you work hard, things will move quickly.
Do something you really care about, and never do anything just for the money. These are cliches, and like most clichés, they’re true. If you aim for a field you really care about, you’ll make more natural connections and probably find a job more easily. You’ll find the work more rewarding, whether you make money or not. You’ll have more in common with the people you work with. You’ll probably stay longer and be happier. And if the job doesn’t work out, you will have built experience in your field and probably some useful contacts to help find a better fit the next time around.
Be patient, and make a plan. Once you see where you want to be, make a realistic plan and give yourself time to get there. In my case, it was a deliberate three-year plan from decision point to becoming a cleantech VC. I spent a year practicing for the GREs and applying to schools, and two years in grad school and in various side jobs positioning myself for the VC role. I am not a patient person by nature, but I’m glad I took the time to do this properly. It was worth the wait. (I also had a lot of fun in those three years!)
Take people out to lunch, a lot. No matter what you do, build and maintain a strong network in your field of choice. It’s fun, you meet cool people, and it can pay off in unexpected ways down the line.