Around this time last year, I started writing my second book, Share Equity: Women and the Fight for Financial Power in Venture Capital. I had a reasonable plan to have a rough first draft of my ideas and insights written down by International Women’s Day, March 8, 2020 and to spend the rest of the year interviewing fund managers and investors, organizing the themes, and synthesizing my findings.
At the start of 2020, I interviewed Check Warner, co-founder and General Partner at Ada Ventures, after reading her riveting post 12 months ago about her fundraising experience, candidly drawing attention to how privilege and unearned advantage played a part.
Check was excited and passionate about the potential for her new firm to positively impact people who historically had been under-represented in the start-up ecosystem or even excluded from leading venture capital-backed businesses. But she equally felt angry when unearned entitlement and unearned advantage went ignored and unnoticed.
“I’m sharply aware that many other more talented people won’t have that opportunity [to launch a venture fund], purely by virtue of where they were born and into what circumstances,” she wrote.
I have some hypotheses about what it takes to raise a venture fund – particularly for women and non-incumbents in the industry. My reasonable writing plans started to look like ambitious plans by March 2020. Despite the global pandemic and the complexities it has brought, I’ve so far interviewed five investors (with plans to interview a couple more), two asset allocators, and the preeminent researcher of women in alternative investments. It’s by no means an academic study. I’m simply trying to capture the experiences and inspiring stories of a few women who beat the odds.
I sought to better understand what it takes to raise a fund. Within my network and extended community I hear about people aspiring to become venture capital investors, to invest in innovation and to connect founders with the resources and people they need to succeed. They are trying to do so in an economically and socially sustainable way, some with a focus on investing in underestimated, overlooked, and underrepresented entrepreneurs like themselves. They wondered how others before them overcame rejection and failure. They were looking for impactful stories about potential role models, about when others almost gave up, but pushed through and got to where they are. I wanted to share a story taking an audacious idea as far as I could, facing some of the very challenges, biases, and barriers that I was fighting to dismantle for founders, and about making the toughest decision I’ve ever had to make as a leader to abandon the pursuit of raising a new fund.
I see a lot of programs out there that are delivering skills for emerging managers – I participated in a VC program when I was far down my path – and part of me is wondering if such programs are enough. If someone ticked all the boxes, learned all the skills, gained experienced and built a track record, is that enough? Or what are the other difference-makers that have enabled non-incumbents, women in particular, to start and raise their funds?
I intended to look for patterns in the stories shared by my interviews and to synthesize the insights before sharing. I’ve already noted some of the themes, but it may come as no surprise that thinking and writing is taking longer than usual this year. In an effort to urge this book into reality, here are some highlights and excerpts from the interviews and my writing so far.
In our interview, Check noted three key difference-makers: mentors, inherent self-belief, and early exposure to the technology industry and ecosystem. I’ll say more about this in the book, but here’s an excerpt from our conversation.
BFW: There’s great self-awareness there because at any point in starting Ada, raising this fund, did you ever feel like, “I can’t do this, the barriers are too significant”? At any point, to your point, in terms of that self-belief, did you ever feel like this is really hard?
CW: Definitely, I had really bad moments. Even despite the fact that I was a lot more fortunate than a lot of people, financially I’m still under massive financial strain. It’s just so mind-blowingly expensive and that adds a layer to any kind of stress, that makes it so much harder. So I think, yeah, definitely had those moments.
But I think what’s different for me, than it would be for a lot of other people, is that I always had a safety net. I always had things that I could do as a backup if it hadn’t worked out. I think that’s what’s missing for a lot of other people. Like this is their only shot. And so they often don’t take it because they can’t afford to take that risk.
BFW: How do you feel about that, in the context of some of the entrepreneurial messaging around, “you have to be all in”? In fact I’ve seen on a number of occasions, people’s words for 2020, some pretty influential people, have been “all in”. How do you feel about that?
CW: Yes incredibly frustrating and so mind-boggling that people don’t realize. Actually I don’t want to be too judgemental about other people and where they’re at on their journey. Everyone’s on a journey and people get there at different times. I was very lucky to work with a group called Fearless Futures which is a great organization and social enterprise that does training and they talk about privilege and social justice. They taught me a lot about concepts like risk and having global scale ambitions. That’s not relevant to people who’ve never been out 20 miles outside where they were born or it’s certainly much harder to think like that. Whereas if you’re someone who’s globe-trotted from when you are a child and you were taken on all these foreign holidays and the idea of going to San Francisco or having global ambitions is totally achievable. There’s a complete chasm of understanding of that for most of the venture capital world.
Here’s to a more reasonable and less ambitious 2021, which may still include the completion of the manuscript for Share Equity (I can’t help myself to keep dreaming).