Why Being a Capitol Hill Intern is the Perfect Pre-VC Job

My first office job was as an intern on Capitol Hill. (My first job was selling Cutco knives to my neighbors, but that’s another story!)

I can’t imagine a better training ground for my work in VC. Why?

  1. As a Hill intern you have to respond to every constituent email. That means sometimes 100s of e-mails a day. Yes you can build out a template, but each one needs to feel personalized. People are e-mailing you about very personal and important topics – climate change, healthcare reform, their own experience with discrimination, the list goes on. As a VC, I am now responding to 100s of e-mails a day and doing the same thing. I am creating some templates to help me shortcut the timing required to get back to every single person, but I’m also personalizing every e-mail so that the folks who reach out know it’s a person who is responding back. They’re e-mailing me asking for funding to support a company they might have put their life savings into – they deserve a response that has some care given to it.
  2. As a Hill intern, you have to manage many stakeholders all the time. When I was interning for Congresswoman Barbara Lee, the Republicans had just taken control of the House. That meant that Congresswoman Barbara Lee had to manage these new colleagues of hers, and also the expectations of her very liberal constituents who elected her. Plus she had just taken the role as Chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). This does not include the other leadership positions she had at that time – so she had to manage the relationships with the CBC on top of the other positions she held in the House. She was pulled into a hundred different directions daily. She was an amazing role model for me to watch. As a VC, it’s very similar. You have the expectations of your investors (or LPs), your co-investors, your portfolio, your teammates… Managing all of these stakeholders while also staying true to who you are and what you came into office (or into VC) to do is hard and also one of the most important responsibilities of the job.
  3. As a Hill intern, you have to play the long game. There are no metrics for success. You spend most of your day writing e-mails, drafting PR statements (I got to help draft the one Congresswoman Barbara Lee wrote after Michael Jackson died), and just generally helping. The path towards working on policy and legislation often times requires first working on consituent related problems. Congresswoman Barbara Lee is a great example – she worked for Ron Dellums for years before exploring a Congressional seat. You are required to do work that serves others before you become a decision maker. This concept of servant leadership teaches you how to stay focused on the collective instead of yourself. Which is honestly a great pre-requesite for any leadership position, but I think it has definitely served me well in VC!

What Happens To Me When I’m the Only

The first time I can remember being the Only Black girl in my class was gymnastics. My parents started me in gymnastics when I was 3 – they were determined to make me the next Dominique Dawes. I don’t remember much about that experience except that I hated gymnastics. My teacher – who was a white woman – was so hard on me. I remember one time when I was probably about 5 or 6 years old, I burst into tears because the teacher pushed me to do an umpteenth push-up. I was tired. The teacher told me to stop crying because my parents were not paying to have me go to gymnastics and cry.

The second time is dance. I have spent more time in dance than any other career in my life. I was a professional dancer from 3-15. Professional means – I spent on average 4-5 hours a day at the dance studio, traveled across the country to participate in competitions and won enough trophies to cover an entire apartment. My entire career at the dance company I danced with, my sister and I were the only Black kids. This meant exposure to extremely harmful language like – a white girl, who was my classmate, telling me that she was Blacker than I because she was better at dancing Hip Hop than I was (!!!) This also meant the mundane things like trying to get my hair in a bun or choosing “nude” tights were more complicated. So I was constantly negotiating with myself and others how I was “allowed” to operate in this space.

The third time  I can remember was in the National Charity League (NCL). It was one of those high society organizations that my mom somehow got me into. I don’t know how because we didn’t live in or near the same zip code as anyone else in the group. The group was all white girls. They lived in North County in places like La Jolla or Del Mar or Rancho Santa Fe ( if you know San Diego, you know these are the rich places to live). I lived in a weird part of the city that was standardly middle income – our neighbors were teachers, doctors and a guy who ran a dog sitting place (he was the coolest!). NCL became a place where I turned into a full-time observer because it was made clear that I was an outsider – most discussions inevitably turned to conversations about friends of theirs who went to the same Montessori middle school. So at every NCL event, I felt like the purpose of my presence was to be their audience.

Throughout college, I was the “only” a few times. A few classes at Duke, a semester abroad in Scotland, nothing really to write home about. And after college graduation, I went into the public sector where I was surrounded by an amazingly complex set of people who came from all walks of life. It’s only recently that I realized how rare that is. In the public sector, I never really feared for my own safety and I always felt taken care of. It wasn’t perfect (if it was, I’d still be there!) but I think back to that experience as extremely formative and without it I’d never be where I am today. I was forced to consider every angle of every policy – it was invigorating and played to my strengths (I am a deep thinker and love that about myself). And constantly asked to build policies that focused on the most vulnerable first. I loved that work and I was only able to do this deep thinking effectively because I was in institutions that invited vulnerable or minoritized populations into them. I was never an “only”. I was in the public sector for about 5 years before returning to school. I went to Berkeley-Haas for my MBA in 2014.

After business school, the number of times and spaces where I existed as the “only” grew exponentially. I can’t even count the number of times I have been an “only” after arriving on campus. I hadn’t given myself the space to reflect on who I become when I am the “only” until recently and I realized that I should outline exactly what the costs are to being the “only” so that I can remember them and so that others can understand.

Being the Only Black girl in places comes with a set of serious risks. The most significant one for me is – you are highly visible. Visibility is not great because it usually comes with tokenization. An example of tokenizing behavior is when the people around you no longer expect to be held accountable to individual racist acts they perform because hiring you or being associated with you absolves them from any wrongdoing. (to be clear, we live in a country where white supremacy is extremely pervasive, we all need to be vigilant against racist behavior because it is everywhere and in everyone) Instead of receiving protection yourself, you are being used as a shield to protect others around you.

Additionally, when you are highly visible, your moves are more public. Your mistakes are often more public too. You are less able to enjoy the anonymity that is sometimes required for you to have the courage to get back up after you fall down – if fewer people see you fall, there are fewer judges around to tell you how you should get back up. Because most white people live segregated lives, I assume that when I’m the only Black girl in a place, I’m also the only Black girl these white people know. That triggers, for me, a complex layer of processing I can’t fully describe; I feel an intense expectation to then become a representative of my intersectional identity instead of an actual human. A human with human emotions, wants, needs, expectations, worries, anxieties.

Work that inspired this/ vibez with this one:

  1. Economic State of Black America
  2. “We reject pedestals, queenhood, and walking ten paces behind. To be recognized as human, levelly human, is enough.” – The Combahee River Collective Statement. I love this because I think a lot of people think that being “the only” comes along with the assumption that you’re “the best”. I don’t think I’m the best and think there are a lot of people just as great. Why would I want to be somewhere that puts me on this pedestal? And doesn’t putting me on this pedestal just make it easier to fall off?
  3. “won’t you celebrate with me” – Lucille Clifton
  4. Cluster Hires” – I don’t want to offer any broad takeaways or, “here’s how to fix this” statements, but this is interesting research.
  5. Nikole Hannah-Jones’ epic statement.
  6. The work of Heather McGhee. You can check her out by reading her book
  7. The White Space

Why I Decided to Do Kauffman + How I Found the $$$ to Pay for it

I am so excited to be a part of the Kauffman Fellows Program! I did it for a variety of reasons, which I’ll try to outline here.

First, though, I want to tell you about my biggest pandemic learnings. The answer to why Kauffman starts there.

Pandemic Learnings

The pandemic gave me a lot of time and space to reflect on how I was previously operating in the world and explore how I might design a life that fits me post-pandemic. I realized that I was very reactive, almost constantly, in pre-pandemic life and I wanted to build more intention into my life. After this reflection, I started to explore what I used to do in pre-pandemic life that doesn’t suit me.

The first thing I came up with was networking. I realized I get very serious anxiety around networking in its traditional sense. Attending events, especially nighttime events, was devastating to my sleep. It takes me hours to process events because I am very hypervigilant in large groups, which means that the cost of a nighttime event is a nighttime of sleep.

The second thing that came up was my commute/working life in SF. I am based in Oakland. I love Oakland so much!! I love the new friends and communities I have been able to build because of the pandemic-induced WFH situation. I am now more deeply connected to my neighbors, local businesses + city government. I won’t give that up. My ability to live in a neighborhood whose values align so deeply with my own, to have Black neighbors, to have the kids on the street look out for me to see if I’m hanging out on my porch swing… it’s really beautiful. I now know the true opportunity cost of my commute/working life in SF. While Precursor plans to open an office eventually, I don’t expect to be there for more than a few hours on 1-2 days a week and plan to use that time specifically for team building.

There are a few reasons why I think it took me so long to realize these qualities about myself. One of them is that there is a prevailing notion in VC that younger VCs have infinite time and energy because they don’t have children, spouses, etc. This is compared to older VCs who have families and can’t possibly be expected to go to another networking dinner. I fundamentally disagree with that. Young VCs might be caring for aging parents, might be volunteering in their community, might be struggling mentally/emotionally and this expectation that their time is less valuable than older VCs’ time is dangerous.

As a result of this reflection, I decided to replace the very transactional nature of many of these coffees and lunches and happy hours with anyone who e-mails me w/ an @vcfirm.com e-mail address with an experience that gives me an opportunity to build relationships with people who are taking the time and effort to really get to know me and who are excited about improving themselves. Which brings me to Kauffman. I am so excited to join this group of folks who are building intentional relationships with each other in a way that is less transactional.

Growth Mindset

Another reason I joined Kauffman, is because while I have a really strong perspective on what types of companies I am passionate about investing in, I know that there are still things I don’t know about this business and myself. I am looking forward to using this space, as a Kauffman Fellow, to be, in many ways, a learner. There is a lot of talk about how Black women need the same opportunity to fail as white guys. I think what we also need to explore is the concept that Black women need the same opportunity to be seen as learners instead of as experts. There is so much research that shows that Black girls in education spaces are adultified. While I’m no longer a child, I think the corollary here is that as a Black woman, I’m often expected to enter new spaces and know all the things all the time – to never slip up. This is a trap. I deserve the space to be seen as a learner and to be given the grace that learners are given. I am grateful to be at a fund that gives me space to learn, make mistakes and grow within the fund. I wish that for all Black women in VC.

The Cost, Though

I want to be honest about how I paid for it. I am not rich, plus Precursor is not a $1B+ fund, so I had some really hard decisions to make.

$80,000 is the cost of Kauffman. Let’s not beat around the bush here: that price tag is really really steep. This leads to an exclusion of folks who might find the experience useful, but just can’t figure out how to make the numbers add up. Many Black people in venture are at less established funds that are unable to foot this large bill on their behalf and they don’t have access to the family wealth to put down this capital on their own. I know this to be true, not just because of the data, but because that is my story. To me, that $80K might as well be $1M. I don’t have $80K and have no way of borrowing it from family. So after I applied and got accepted, I asked for help. I reached out to people and organizations who have been supportive of me over the last 5 years and I was met with such generosity. I was able to get $10K from an 😇, $20K from a sponsor organization and $40K from Kauffman. Precursor paid the remaining $10K.

I am so lucky. I know that. I am brainstorming ways to make this experience more accessible to those who are not as lucky. More updates on that later this year! If you’re interested in collaborating on this and have ideas, let me know! You can reach me at sydney@precursorvc.com.

Thanks for reading! Looking forward to continuing to share more about my experience in the program over the coming months and years!

References and motivation to write this:

  1. Nick Caldwell’s “Happy to Be Here” YouTube clip

Meditations on Power

I have a confession to make. I have put this off as long as possible. I have skirted around this admission and have finally decided to own it. Today is the day to announce: I am a powerful woman. And, if I’m honest, I’ve always wanted to be one. I remember being young and just so angry. Angry at the way I was treated unfairly by my dance teachers, angry at my parents for controlling my every move because they were terrified of letting a Black girl loose in this world, angry at my classmates who didn’t seem to understand why I got into ivy league schools even though I had 2x amount of extracurriculars than them and also a better GPA. I was so angry so often and nobody seemed very interested in listening. The most grating (and most common) response I would get to my anger was laughter or some semblance of “isn’t she so cute”.

If I could just get them all to listen to me… I have such important things to say!

So, I devised plans in secret. I would work at a nonprofit for a while to get me closer to my dream of being in politics. Then I realized that those in power at my nonprofit were actually business people! So I decided to go into business. I got into business school, and looked around again. Who, I asked myself, is running stuff here? How do I get to actually have a say? I didn’t have to look far to find VCs. Once I got into the VC world, the question was again, what do I have to do to prove to people that I have something to say? That I have something to contribute? That my vision for the future of business is important?

At the same time, I was also trying to figure out how would I start building wealth. I decided that real estate was the surest path. So I started negotiations early with my Berkeley landlord. After spending $50K+ in rent to him, he will sell me this duplex I’ve rented out for 5 years, right? Right?? Wrong. After this multi-year plan of mine died, I had to start from scratch. I found a house that I fell in love with in Oakland, and after two excruciating months, it was mine (well really it’s the bank’s for a few more decades, but for all intents and purposes, it is mine).

Now, I find myself with decision-making authority at a $100M+ fund, a house, a garden and honestly, a life I always dreamed of. I have more than enough.

Which means, by my own definition, I’m a woman with power. Because I have been so obsessed with this goal in mind, and so consumed by feeling like I didn’t have any, I have probably thought more about this topic than most. How do I honor the trust that people gave me to have this power? How do I not hoard the power I have? How do I create more space for more people to have more power?

And because I am a woman who is so used to feeling powerless, I am not a woman with power who is fearless. I still have a lot of fear. I don’t think I have accomplished anything so far without feeling a healthy amount of fear.

This fear may stem from the fact that I have so many critiques for myself. Before anyone else has something to say about my own work or accomplishments to try to humble me, I have probably already said it to myself. So when I see other people who I think of as whole – not as mythical characters, but real people – and also in power get critiqued by others, I’m reminded of myself. I was and am that person who is critiquing, and I’m also the person in power. It’s a weird place to find yourself in.

I think of this book I’m reading – Cracking Up: Black Feminist Comedy. And so much importance is put on the audience. While the Black woman is on stage, making the jokes, the audience has the power to laugh or boo or be silent. This is particularly true at The Apollo – there was an awesome meditation on it in A Little Devil in America. When we acknowledge that our power is only – as Brene Brown put it – power with instead of power over, who do we become? How do we facilitate meaningful feedback? How do we build trust? How do we forgive even when people have taken advantage of us because they saw us as means to an end and not as humans? How do we shed all of the ridiculous expectations that come with being the first or only and recognize that much of that is a trap created for us to fall into – to become mythologized to the point of no longer being human with flaws, interests and ideas?

Writing inspiration/other people’s work that vibez with this one:

  1. I want to watch this every week honestly. Kathleen Collins is a genius: https://vimeo.com/203379245
  2. I first heard of power with vs power over in a Brene Brown podcast, but this is a more succinct summary of the description: https://sustainingcommunity.wordpress.com/2019/02/01/4-types-of-power/
  3. How do I stay aware of my own “Goliath”-ness so that I never fully become them? This speech was at my college gradution on that exact topic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3oMvVtIQuMk
  4. One of my favorite writers, Chimamanda’s recent post: This is Obscene. I have so many thoughts. Probably could be it’s own post.
  5. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quote: “Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted.” I love that this beautiful quote was buried in one of his journal entries.
  6. Weary” – Solange
  7. The Other Black Girl – Honestly I recommend the whole book, but this quote from this interview gets to the heart of why the book resonated so deeply with me: “The traits Nella would need to be a good editor – sensitivity to the world, the ability to feel and react deeply – are the opposite of what she needs to successfully navigate publishing to become an editor. I’m interested in the ways your book discusses compromising your authenticity and numbing yourself for survival.” I think this is true of VC too, the traits necessary to be a good VC require sensitivity to the world so you can feel it all and diagnose what is going on and how to plug into it. Yet VC is also a business. How do you square the two?
  8. This whole thread on Twitter…

Risk Analysis: Failed Company Early Employee vs. Founder

One of the weird things about being in VC now for almost 5 years, is that there are some topics on VC Twitter that feel like groundhogs days. They are debated in earnest at least once a year, and nobody in that conversation seems to remember or care that this happened exactly the same way a year prior. I think this probably happens in many crevices of the internet, that is just the one that I occupy most time in so I see it very plainly.

One of those groundhog day topics is the VC Twitter version of oppression olympics. It’s the discussion about what is riskier: to be an early employee or to be a founder. The funny part about this topic is that most of the people who weigh in are founders. They weigh in as if they can speak for both founders and employees even though they have only been founders. In many cases, they are airing out their own traumatic founder experience and can’t imagine someone else saying that their experience could be more (or equally) difficult. Especially if those people are their own previous employees who they paid when they were depriving themselves of any salary. I get it, being a founder is an extremely isolating, expensive, and overwhelming experience. And I don’t want to take that away from anyone.

My experience though has only been as an early employee at Pre-Seed/Seed* companies that failed. The conversation I think we aren’t having enough is how to process your work product and history after a company you worked for fails. Especially as that pertains to your own feelings of self-worth. From my perspective, in every early startup I worked for, I was underpaid, overworked, and had few (or 0) coworkers to lean on or to learn from. If I had to pick the most important part of the riskiness equation though that made the early employee role that much more risky for me is that in those roles, I didn’t actually learn any skills. Instead, because I was constantly reacting to ever changing inputs, I had to rely on what I already knew to produce some semblance of a useful output. If I didn’t know something, Google was my best friend. The expectation at an early stage company is that as the company grows, the resources it has grows. Those resources can be used to help you hire a team, to get you access to information databases, to increase your pay. But what happens if those resources never arrive?

As a non-technical early employee, so much of the work that I did at the startups I worked for was very tedious, very unsophisticated labor. The lasting impact, in many cases, was nil because things changed so constantly. You didn’t know if anything you built or created would last until the next week. In my first role, I was in charge of supporting one person on the team to help her collect data into her spreadsheet to track the sustainability of the company. Then I moved into a more R&D role to explore a product launch (the product never materialized). In my next role, at a second startup, not a single one of the projects I managed actually materialized. So after a few months of that, the CEO transitioned me into more of a sounding board/advisor role where I was basically just performing emotional labor. Even in my early days at Precursor, I spent much of my time building (and then scrapping) CRMs, and tracking down a lot of paper trails. The administrative labor was overwhelming.

The hard part too about the employee vs. founder conversation is there is a strong bias towards founders. They are the avengers, the masterminds, the leaders. So as a result, “failed founder” has a certain gravitas to it that failed employee does not.

In my work as an early employee, on the good days, what I gained was perspective. I was given a spot in a growing ecosystem that I cared a lot about and so I was able to use that vantage point to better understand how I wanted to navigate that ecosystem. On the bad days, I was so exhausted by my ever-growing workload that I was in a constant fight or flight mode – unclear where I could even fly towards…

Obviously, things turn out well in the end. The third startup – Precursor – ends up not failing, my role expands and I get to grow in my own skills and experience. But I want to be honest about my early experiences so that others know what the real cost of joining an early company can be. I am also using my new position as an investor in companies to coach founders I work with on how they can be more thoughtful about their early employees and my hope is that this next generation of early employees receive the skills, experience and knowledge they need to fly towards something amazing.

*I can’t speak to the risk/reward profile to employees who join Seed+ companies

Inspiration from this post comes from:

1) a few conversations I’ve had with our MBA interns who are thinking about that first employee role at startups

2) a few conversations I’ve had with our founders – many of whom who have been founders before, but few of whom have been early employees are failed companies before

3) Yoni’s recent post – so honest, loved it!

4) Karla’s recent post really spoke to me and this is exactly the type of leader I hope to become, which requires being honest about the work I’ve done and how it impacted me

5) Ashley Ford’s interview on Brene Brown’s podcast about her memoir. Her decision to own her own story despite whether or not it implicated others is powerful and I plan to do the same. My story is mine.

Peeling back the layers of a quick VC diligence call

As part of my day-job, I invest in founders. A lot of them happen to be women. A lot of them also happen to be Black women. I am so grateful for the opportunity and the honor that I have to invest in founders at the earliest stages of their journey. It is really an amazing experience to be able to say: “I believe in you so much that here is a six-figure check to help you build towards your dreams.” If you told me as a young Black girl growing up in San Diego, that this was my future, I would have never believed you! This is an amazing privilege and I don’t take it lightly.

For founders who are starting technology companies, I invest in their Pre-Seed round. The expectation is that the founder will, after raising their Pre-Seed round, raise follow-on financing. Their Seed round, Series A round, Series B round…, all the way to IPO.

When founders in the portfolio fundraise for a follow-on round, I often get e-mails and requests from VCs who are considering participating in that round. The questions they ask are usually focused on trying to get to the same answer: “Do I trust your judgment on this deal?” Peeling back the layers on that question is: “Was your judgment similar to mine on this deal?” In these conversations, very few people are asking me to introduce new facts to prove them wrong, instead, they’re looking for me to confirm their own ideas. Some firms even have a name for this “confirmatory due diligence”.

Peeling back the layers on this again. The questions that I get from VCs about my decision – especially given that I’m investing in the Pre-Seed stage – are often specific to the founder. Which is fair. At the time that I invest, my main bet is on the founder. VCs ask me questions like: But she’s not technical and/or she is a solo founder, how did you get comfortable investing? How do you feel about her leadership skills? Aren’t you worried that she won’t be able to build a big business?

Peeling back the layers on this again. Most often, given the racial make-up of this industry, the questions I’m asked come from a white person. Sometimes a white woman, sometimes a white man, but white all the same.

When they ask these questions about a Black woman founder to a Black woman investor, there are undertones here. There is history here.

Which leads me to the questions I’m starting to build the courage to ask in response. They are: So, is this your first investment in a Black woman? I’d love to know if these questions were explicit parts of your diligence for other investments. Have you considered how it might feel for me, a Black woman, to try and convince you (who might not have any Black female co-workers, friends or founders) to invest in a Black woman? Or how it might feel for me, a Black woman, to convince you, a white person, that we see the world in exactly the same way? How might that diminish my own confidence in my own unique perspective? How might that be tied to larger issues about how you might not see Black women as leaders, or as convincing, or as likeable, or as capable of building billion dollar companies?

The list goes on. These dynamics cannot be ignored. The world is propped up by racist institutions and we have to acknowledge this openly and honestly and its impact. If we don’t we are complicit in it.

Why I’m Reimagining America’s Healthcare System

I grew up in the healthcare system. As long as I’ve lived, my dad has been a kidney doctor. I remember spending days I took off from school for being sick in his doctor’s office and following behind him as he would greet his patients one by one at a dialysis clinic. I remember watching him take tests to continue his board certification. I remember the lovely nurses who gave me all my shots and took extra good care of me because I was Dr. Thomas’ daughter. It was fun!

I also remember the day my dad came home and told me he didn’t want me to be a doctor. He said that his work was not like it used to be. It was harder and harder to make a living and really impossible to make a life (he was on call all the time).

Despite this lifelong education in healthcare, when I got into venture, it took me a while to start getting excited about healthcare investing because I felt like there was just so much to learn. Like you couldn’t invest in healthcare unless you had spent 10+ years working full-time in a healthcare system. It reminds me of a quote in Angela Davis’ book – Freedom is a Constant Struggle – where she talks about the challenge of getting people interested in building solidarity movements for the people of Palestine. She says: “too often people feel that they are not sufficiently informed to consider themselves an advocate of justice”. And it is so sad.

How much should you really need to know to be an advocate of justice? When a system deliberately obscures how it works so much so that getting involved in it feels “overwhelming” – who does that benefit? The advocate or the status quo?

All that being said, I did start reading about the healthcare system more generally. I was introduced to An American Sickness by a friend of mine and it was such a wild read. My final conclusion was that every single piece of healthcare is intricately linked to another piece in order to reinforce the underlying system. It is impressive and really terrible for citizens. I recommend it to anyone looking for window into the healthcare system.

This inspired me to focus on companies that were building radical healthcare solutions. It bears mentioning the definition of radical which is: of, relating to, or proceeding from a root. In order to fundamentally disrupt our current healthcare system -which is generating unheard-of profits to healthcare leaders while still inflicting economic uncertainty on the masses – we have to get to the root cause of it, which for me meant investing in companies that are challenging the current system with alternative systems.

How to support Black Women emerging managers in VC

There has been a lot of ink spilled on how to support emerging managers more generally in VC. A lot of it is written by First Republic Bank’s Samir Kaji. I am really grateful for his writing and think it adds a lot of value and context to this conversation!

One thing that I think is missing from this conversation is the discussion on how to support Black Women emerging managers in VC. I think that Minda Harts writes a lot about how to support black women in the work place generally so that should also been used as a preface to this article – if you have not read The Memo by Minda Harts book, stop now and pick it up! It also adds a lot of value to this conversation and is useful context to have before engaging here.

Also for context, I am writing as experience as a Black Woman in Pre-Seed investing. What Black Women in Series A/B/C+ investing need might be different.

As an emerging manager and a Black Woman, I have been thinking really deeply on ways that I have had people show up for me to get to this point and ways that I wish people would have showed up for me. I wanted to write this down to share tips with people who are exploring ways to support other Black Women in VC. The hope is that every Black Woman in VC who comes after me has an easier ride. Because frankly, these past 4+ years have been a rollercoaster!

1. Answer their e-mails or LinkedIn messages – better yet, e-mail them!

One thing that I still have a chip on my shoulder about is the list of people who when I was first starting out in this industry did not respond to my cold e-mails or LinkedIn messages. I also still remember, fondly, those who did respond. One of those folks was Scott Belsky. I cold e-mailed Scott Belsky and he responded with a single line that included “sending my best”. And let me tell you, that was all the encouragement I needed at that moment. I was so bolstered by that because someone who I saw as “powerful and successful” took time to invest in e-mailing me back.

I wish though, when I was first getting started, that more GPs at funds e-mailed me first. I know that it is not every day that a black woman gets hired in VC, and I think it’s important that the greater VC community – including but not limited to the Black VC community – pays attention to, and celebrates those hires. My request is not even that you do something big like “grab a coffee” or “go on a walk” with that new hire. Instead, it is that you share a little bit of encouragement. These can make a world of difference. An e-mail letting folks know that you see them. Letting them know that you are wishing them well. Letting them know that you are grateful they are in this ecosystem. These are the things I hope younger Black Women in VC get from allies.

2. Support the deals they bring to the table

One of the pieces of advice I got when I first got into VC is that – succeeding in VC is relatively easy, all you need to do is “find good deals”. That advice really rubbed me the wrong way. Because in VC, who decides what is a “good deal”? As the old saying goes, one person’s trash is another man’s treasure. I think it is true especially in VC. And in early-stage VC, whoever has the purse strings gets to be the final say on whether or not that is a “good deal”. Because if folks have uniformly agreed that a deal is “bad”, then more often than not, the company does not get access to the capital they need to prove these folks wrong.

So my advice to people who have the purse strings is, critically evaluate what you think is a “good deal” vs. a “bad deal”. For many, I assume that part of the calculus of whether or not the deal you have been presented with is good vs. bad is whether or not you trust the person who has presented you the deal. Why do you trust this person’s opinion so highly? Is it useful to trust this person’s opinion so much more than others’ opinion? Especially on a company that is building a future that none of us can predict?

I think once people critically examine why they green light some deals over others, the bias will start to expose itself.

How can you offer the same benefit of the doubt to people outside of your “circle”? I think one way is to trust that they are bringing some unique insight to their deal that you are not capable of having because of your differing backgrounds. Once you acknowledge their insight, put capital behind it. Let their insights guide deals that you wouldn’t have otherwise invested in and see how they do.

When reflecting on your carrier as an ally, I hope that one of the things you factor in is not how many IPOs or shots on goal you achieved, but how many GPs have you created. How many ideas have you greenlit from URM communities? How much power have you given away in order to create a more equitable (and honestly more interesting!) world?

3. Sponsor their promotions

Over the past four years, I have had the privilege of watching more black women enter venture. I started tracking the growth of this community in 2017 here. One of the things that has been really amazing to watch is the promotion and growth that I’ve seen folks go through from Analyst to Principal. The thing that has been missing though, is the promotion to GP. In almost every case, Black women have only received a GP title if they have started their own funds. This is unsustainable. Partly because, given the wealth inequality in the US, Black women generally have 10x less capital themselves and generally less access to capital than their white male peers.

So why have I yet to see one large VC firm sponsor a black woman’s promotion to a GP? This is unsettling and worrisome to me. I am looking forward to watching this change happen sooner rather than later. A great example of what this could look like is what Jesse at Flybridge built with Lolita Taub. I think it’s such an amazing example of what sponsorship looks like and how it can leverage the skillsets of both parties to create something were 1+1=10.

Business + Big Government = New bffs?

via GIPHY

One thing the government has not done in this crisis is shy away from their responsibility to help. I’ve been impressed by their swift action to improve lives of workers and employers through the CARES Act. Startups are eligible for the Payment Protection Plan, so I’ve gotten to watch first hand how this whole experience has gone for them. From navigating which banks to apply through, to receiving the cash in the door, it’s been really wild to observe just how quick this process went!

To share some context on why I was so skeptical, my background is in government! I worked alongside the NYC Department of Education during Hurricane Sandy and saw – first-hand – how immensely slow it took FEMA to invest in the repairs necessary for life to get back to normal for many schools and families across the city. For one school in Queens, it took over 2 years for them to finally receive a FEMA payout. Another example of the failures of government in time of disaster is its lack of response to Hurricane Katrina (if you’re interested in learning more here, check out Treme on HBO which documents the failed work of FEMA and its devastating impact in New Orleans). 

So the fact that COVID-19 hit aggressively mid-May and businesses had checks in their bank account less than a month later is really unprecedented. Congress adopted the CARES Act and it was signed into law at the end of May. This created the Payment Protection Plan (PPP). With the PPP, the government essentially authorized forgivable loans of $349 billion to companies in order to allow them to continue employing their workforce despite economic uncertainty.

The CARES Act has an additional provision that allows for a work-share program where if companies have to reduce staff hours, the staff will still qualify for full unemployment benefits. It reminded me of this one article I recently read about Germany. They have a system called Kurzarbeit which essentially is a government subsidy for companies who are experiencing hardship. When companies declare Kurzarbeit, the government pays their employees a portion of their wages for them. So it seems like, with the CARES Act, the US is becoming more like its European neighbors.

This is no surprise for those who study history. It is in times of crisis that the government expands. According to the WSJ, “the pandemic may, like the Great Depression, foster structural policy change that outlasts the calamity itself.”

The PPP has left its mark on public policy for good given the strings it attached to the money it loaned to large corporations and small businesses. These institutions are all now forced to comply with additional regulations that hold them more accountable to the public. Below, I’ve outlined some of my favorites impacts the legislation has had on businesses.

Companies who accepted the PPP are prohibited from preventing their workers to unionize

  • According to the WSJ, “some companies seeking federal funds are facing restrictions on their ability to oppose attempts to unionize their workforce. One of the new laws states they should “remain neutral in any union organizing effort for the term of the loan.””

Companies who accepted the PPP are subject to audit

  • Large companies are now subject to audit by the government and all of the companies who accepted the PPP are now on a watchdog list that journalists have been keeping an extra close eye on.

Companies who accepted the PPP are restricted in executive pay

  • “Businesses receiving aid face government limits on how much they can pay their executives, and the new law says they shouldn’t “outsource or offshore jobs for the term of the loan and 2 years after completing repayment of the loan.””

The bottom line is, after experiencing such an extended period of “late stage capitalism” where it felt like business was an omnipotent agent, COVID-19 was the real test. It shifted the ground beneath our feet and tossed business off its 1st place trophy stand. I think it’s safe to say the fight is over. Business lost and the government won.

The government not only won, but they showed that they can continue to win. The fed chair recently quipped that “when it comes to this lending, we’re not going to run out of ammunition.” The government has started using its power and I’m looking forward to seeing what else they do with it. My hope is that next on the docket for government expansion is permanently strengthening our country’s safety net. We have already seen elements of this across the country as different government agencies have forgiven student loan payments and put a moratorium on evictions. NYC is leading the way with its essential workers bill of rights bill and I think as the crisis continues to stretch, more governments will adopt similar legislation. I look forward to watching government step up in this moment!

How I Built a Track Record in VC Without any Money

One of my goals is to use my voice more. That means owning things I’ve learned with hopes that it can help others. This feels very uncomfortable to me! Anyone who knows me knows that I am more of a show, not tell type of a person. But as I’ve grown more comfortable in my skin, I have realized that I must tell my own story. This gives me serious anxiety – but alas, every time you try something new, it feels unnatural and uncomfortable. So in the name of growth, I’m working through it. A few days ago, I listened to Brene Brown’s new podcast on FFTs (f*cking first times) and that gave me the extra bit of courage I needed to post this.

I hope this post is useful to any and everyone who is trying to figure out ways to demonstrate both to themselves and to others that they are great investors. Without further ado, here we go!


A few weeks ago, I was really excited to see Nate Maslak — co-founder of Ribbon Health — announce his Series A led by A16Z. I met him for the first time almost two years ago when I invited him on my podcast, “Be About It

I created the podcast to show the world that the companies that fit my thesis could be successful. 

My thesis has focused on companies that are building products that give real people more agency over their lives. This can be financial agency, time agency or mental/physical agency.

By demonstrating that my thesis worked, I would also be building my track record. 

What is a track record? It is a scorecard of your investments. It is used by LPs (your investors) to determine whether or not you are a “good investor”. Generally, “good” means that your investments continue to grow in value. 

As CEO/Founder of this podcast, I was in charge of sourcing companies, ensuring they fit my thesis, finding times to meet with these companies, coming up with thoughtful interview questions and also running all of the mechanics behind the scenes to make the podcast live. I purposefully chose founders who were Pre-Seed because that is Precursor’s focus and also because it holds the most risk. If I could demonstrate to myself and the world that I could pick Pre-Seed companies that would advance, then I must be pretty good at finding outstanding founders & companies. 

After spending over a year and countless hours on the Be About It podcast, I was privileged to share time with 15 founders — all of whom I continue to be inspired by. Here is how their companies have grown:

Season 1 (2017) Companies

2017: 7 were Pre-Seed

2019: 3 were Pre-Seed and 4 were Seed

2020: 3 were Pre-Seed and 4 were Seed

Season 2 & 3 (2018) Companies:

2018: 4 were Pre-Seed and 4 were Seed

2019: 1 was Pre-Seed, 3 were Seed, 4 were Series A and 1 shut down

2020: 1 was Pre-Seed, 1 was Seed, 5 were Series A and 1 shut down

One thing I wasn’t expecting was my own growth between my first podcast and the second. In Season 1, I learned so much and brought that into Seasons 2 & 3. You can see it clearly in the numbers — Seasons 2&3 had a higher graduation rate than Season 1. 

The portfolio continues to mature and I’m excited to add another to the Series A list with Ribbon! 

The thesis behind my podcast — to find companies building meaningful businesses that provide mass markets access to what previously was held by only a few — is the same one I hold today as I enter into a full-fledged investing role at Precursor with the ability to make my own decisions and trust my gut. 

It’s exciting to enter into this new role with this track record and I look forward to building upon it — with dollars this time — in the coming years. 


The key things that I think are important to building up your track record without money are as follows:

  1. Develop and publish a thesis on what types of companies you like and why
  2. Publicly name companies that fit this thesis
  3. Wait a few years… (I never promised this was going to be quick!)
  4. Follow-up and see if those companies are doing well! 
  5. If they’re not doing well, write an article stating what you think went wrong and start at #2 on this list again.

A few examples of people/organizations that I think have done this well are Ben Thompson at Stratechery and Scott Galloway at No Mercy/No Mallice.


I hope this inspires many of you — particularly those who might not have the accredited investor title or the VC job —  an alternative way to create your own track record ❤ 

Have you also come up with a novel way to build a track record for yourself with limited resources? Or, do you have a company you’d like me to chat with that fits my thesis?

If so, I would love to hear from you! 

You can always reach me on Twitter: @sydneypaige10 or via e-mail: sydney@precursorvc.com


Note #1: More inspiration to everyone building, striving and creating who are also worried about owning their own success 🙂


Note #2: More deep dives into the creation tools behind the Be About It podcast if you’re interested here.


Note #3: There were a few additional founders I chatted with and unfortunately their interviews never made it onto the podcast. I’m still a huge fan of them! I didn’t enter them into the calculations above since I never formally processed their interview. 


Noted #4: Due to technical difficulties, currently, only Seasons 2 and 3 of Be About It are public.