My First Mentor

I am still on cloud nine from meeting so many new friends after my last post: the List of Black Women in VC! Multiple women shared that it was inspiring to read about others who have come before them. You can’t be what you can’t see. And in that list, I showed them many versions of who they could become.

This got me thinking, who was that person for me? Who did I see as an investor who gave me the chutzpah to believe I could do it too?

It was my mom.

A masters-in-education-holding, eldest-daughter-of-12-siblings, born-and-raised-in-West-Virginia-in-the-60s black woman. She is the definition of grit before it was cool.

She is also an investor and founder of The Nicodemus Investment Club. What she intended to build is laid clear in the name.

Nicodemus is one of the last standing western communities in Kansas created by freed-slaves as a “Promise Land” after the end of the civil war.

She gathered other black parents in San Diego who were interested in investing and for over two decades, they have met the first Saturday of every month.

A few basic ground rules have kept it successful over the past 20 years:

Missing a meeting hits your pocketbook. $20/missed meeting!
Sell high. At the beginning of the meeting, they review the current portfolio. If any one stock has doubled since it’s original investment, they sell it.
Do your homework. Stock pitching is a critical part of each meeting. In advance of the meeting, one person is tasked with completing research on a stock and bringing their recommendation to the members.
Democracy Matters. During the meeting, they spend a lot of time debating the stock brought to the floor. If the majority of the members decide against purchasing the stock at the end of debate, it’s a no go.

Growing up, I attended these investment club meetings every month. From when I could barely read, to when I was babysitting the other kids in the group (we were not allowed to invest, just learn) to when I stopped by to say hello to the folks who helped raise me. I never realized that it would have such an impact on my career choice.

I’m so grateful that it did!

The List of Black Women in VC

A compilation of black women who work in the venture capital ecosystem

When I first arrived into the venture community, my first instinct was to find my people.

The List of Black Women in VCWhen I first arrived into the venture community, my first instinct was to find my people. As an outsider in this new, foreign space, it was important that I build a sub-community within venture in which I felt safe.

So, I started building the Women of Color in VC network with Siri Srinivas. Since our first dinner last November, I have had the privilege of getting to know so many amazing women.

However, in this post, I want to highlight the black women in venture. We are here and the numbers are growing.

It is important that we recognize, listen to and encourage these women as we look towards building an inclusive venture ecosystem.

I’m hoping this list can be particularly helpful for:

Startups building boards

VCs adding new GPs or Venture Partners

Conference Organizers developing rosters of panelists and keynote speakers

I look forward to seeing these amazing women represented more in the venture capital community and growing this list exponentially in the years to come.

Investors

Kesha Cash — Managing Partner, Impact America Fund

Lisa Lambert — Managing Partner, The Westly Group

Daphne Dufresne — Managing Partner, GenNx360 Capital Partners

Tracy Gray — Managing Partner, The 22 Capital Group

Arlan Hamilton —Managing Partner, Backstage Capital

Shauntel Poulson — General Partner, Reach Capital

Karen Kerr — Senior Managing Director, GE Ventures

Lisa Coca — Managing Director, GE Ventures

Richelle Parham — Partner, Camden Partners

Danielle Morris — Partner, Jumpstart

Monique Woodard — Venture Partner, 500 Startups

Anne Richie — Venture Partner, Jumpstart

Ulili Onovakpuri —Principal, Kapor Capital & Venture Partner, Fresco Capital

Brittany Davis — Principal, Hello Angels

Nicole Walker — Principal, Baird Capital Ventures

Gloria Ware — Principal, Jumpstart

Stefanie Thomas —Senior Associate, Impact America Fund

Megan Maloney — Associate, General Catalyst

Jillian Williams — Associate, Anthemis Group

Sydney Thomas — Associate, Precursor Ventures

Adina Tecklu — Analyst, Canaan

Sydney Sykes — Analyst, NEA

Sonya Powell — Analyst, Jumpstart

Ita Ekpoudom — EIR, Plum Alley Investments

Candice Mathews — Executive Director, Hillman Accelerator

Roxann Stafford — Director of Programs, Matter.VC

Lauren Booker Allen — Senior Manager, Omidyar Network

Kimberly Marshall — Senior Program Officer (Tech Investments), Gates Foundation

Ebony Pope — Senior Manager, Village Capital

Marilyn Waite — Senior Manager, Village Capital

Diane Henry — Angel

Lauren Bias — Angel

Kathryn Finney — Angel

Gayle Jennings O’Byrne — Angel

Lorine Pendleton — Angel

Lisa Skeete Tatum — Angel

Operators

Saydeah Howard — SVP of Talent and Venture Services, IVP

Mandela Schumacher-Hodge — Portfolio Services Director, Kapor

Onyedikachi Achilike — Program Manager, Newark Venture Partners

Abyah Wynn — VP, Trimantium Capital

Timmeko Love — Business Development, Mayo Clinic Ventures

Kendall Sherman —Community Manager, Flybridge

Natanya Montgomery — Knowledge Coordinator, First Round

Did I miss someone? Please let me know! You can reach me here: sydney@precursorvc.com

Timeout — Why did I want to become a VC again?

It has been a week in the Valley for the books.

As all of the industry’s ugliness comes to light, I am forced to call a time out and reflect on why I wanted to be in this business in the first place. Underneath the surface of this question, lays an even bigger question: What does a successful VC look like to me?

From my discussions with GPs, it seems like everyone has their own definition. To some, a successful VC is the one who has the fancy startups next to their name on their Twitter handle (i.e. early investor in @Uber). To others, a successful VC is one who took their learnings from their time at a16z and applied it to start their own company. And to a few, a successful VC is one who built a generation of companies that will contribute to a more healthy workforce.

To me, I have realized that so much of what I want out of being a VC is not the picking, not the glamour and glitz, it’s the boring, unsexy part of being an ecosystem builder. This may in large part be a function of my background. Working across almost 5 different industries — federal government, local government, philanthropy, CPG, startups and now VC — will do that to you. I see implicit connections that require fluency in the language of different institutions.

This fluency inspires me to build bigger, larger, more stable bridges, than narrow silos.

That doesn’t mean that picking great companies doesn’t matter. If you want to stay in business past Fund I, it definitely does! But I refuse to pick companies or entrepreneurs who are not as committed to building the type of VC ecosystem that is required for it to flourish — diverse, empathetic even when it hurts and driven to do things the right way, not the fast way.

My thoughts are that these are the kinds of people who, once successful, will remember what being without power felt like so well that they never corrupt themselves with it.

I’m excited to see what happens as the bad actors are excluded from the party, leaving space open for the many different types of VCs to finally get their invitations. The ones who are here not just for the power, but for far more interesting, nuanced and inspiring reasons.

What does an associate actually do?

Now I’ve really got to figure out what’s going on.

Prior to joining Precursor Ventures, my research into Venture Capital had focused on the high level — I followed partners, kept up to date on trends and explored startups I thought were interesting.

In informational interviews with associates I focused too much on questions like, “How did you get this job?”, “What should I prepare for in the interview?”and not enough on questions like, “What do you do all day?”

Once I got the job ( ?) and started asking my peers the third question, I realized the answer varies widely across firms. This is especially true when you take into account the size of the firm. Associates at firms that employ 100s of people have positions that look much different than those at firms that employ <5 people (like ours!)

So I’m going to focus on what associates at firms with <5 people do. As a startup, my role ebbs and flows with the needs of the organization. Overall though, associate roles at small firms can be bucketed into three areas: ops, sourcing, diligence.

Operations

In a company with fewer than 5 people, we mirror a lot of the companies we back in that, we are essentially a startup ourselves. So what is operations? Think bizops and you’re about there. In most small firms, the major functions like Finance, Design, Web Development are outsourced and it is the associate’s role to consult, review and improve these areas.

However, the breadth of the operations work can be expansive — from exploring investor CRM systems to building community efforts for the portfolio.

Sourcing

Associates are often tasked with searching for startups that the firm might be interested in investing in. In order to accomplish this, we need to first get a strong pulse of the markets the firm invests in. That means taking many meetings with people who have different vantage points of the same market — founders, other VCs, experts and customers.

Diligence

Once the startup is found, a lot of research has to be complete in order figure out if the startup has the potential to become a dragon or unicorn. In the Pre-Seed stage, the majority of that research is done on the people and the ideas, not the numbers. So we take time to dig into the founders’ history — who knows them well? How do they rise to challenges? What do their relationships with their co-founders look like? — in order to build a strong understanding of their ability to execute against their vision. We also dig into the ideas by asking questions like, “Are there customers searching for this solution already?”

If I had to pick one thing I didn’t realize would be a big part of my job though, it would be networking. Venture Capital is such a small industry that it still operates a little bit like a club. In order to get in, you have to make yourself known and be known. If you’re an extrovert (like me) that can be a lot of fun!

I hope this was helpful and would love to get your feedback. What did you think?

Learn Something. Pass it on.

I have been in venture capital for almost 10 months. I am still learning, all the time, and want to leave a few breadcrumbs about all the things I’m soaking up as a self-proclaimed VC newbie.

I’m doing this for two reasons:

  1. There is no channel available to learn alongside someone else in VC. I did my research early on before entering into this world — from reading Feld Thoughts to listening to 20 Minute VC. But this information concentrates on VC legends. Where are the voices from those who are still in the stages of becoming? What are they learning? I want to contribute to that conversation.
  2. There are many idiosyncrasies about venture capital that people don’t talk about until you’re “in the circle”. I don’t want to perpetuate this hoarding of knowledge. Through this blog, I hope to lower the barrier to entry for the next guy/gal interested in VC.

So, who is my blog for?

  1. Entrepreneurs who want to know what happens behind the curtains in VC;
  2. Students and career switchers who want to learn if this career is for them;
  3. And for me, so I actually track everything I’m learning.

I plan to get these out every couple of weeks. First blog is coming next week — yay!

If you’re interested in keeping up, please subscribe. And please leave me feedback, comments and questions! The key piece of this is that I’m still learning so I will get some things wrong. I’m looking to you to challenge me.

I hope you enjoy + I’ll talk with you soon!

What I Learned from Breaking the 52 Cups of Coffee Rule in Half the Time

When I heard about the book, 52 Cups of Coffee by Megan Gebhart, the first thing that came to my mind was: That’s Exactly What I Do.

For those who are unfamiliar, in her book 52 Cups of Coffee, Megan explores the insights she gathered from over a year of learning from strangers. Each week that year, Megan had at least one cup of coffee with a person she didn’t know.

I have spent my business school career discovering what I want to do when I grow up. After discovering that where I did my summer internship was not the right fit, I went back to the drawing board. And this time, I committed to doing an extremely thorough search. I know there are worlds of opportunities that I haven’t discovered yet and I didn’t want to leave any stone unturned.

So I signed up for LinkedIn Premium and got to inMail-ing. If I thought your background, current job and/or story was interesting I wanted to talk to you. I set up coffee chat after coffee chat learning stories about people at Google.org to Safeway to LeapFrog to The Westly Group.

In total, I’ve had 55 coffee chats in over 7 months.

My biggest takeaways?

You Will Have More than 1 Dream Company

Have you ever taken the Myers Briggs test? Well I am an isfj with a capital F. I don’t do anything if it doesn’t feel just right. So for me, joining a company that I believe in is absolutely paramount. Through my coffee chats, I discovered that I am passionate about the opportunity to impact the next generation of businesses through joining a venture capital (VC) firm.

When I first explored this space, I thought this was a very small community so I shouldn’t get too excited about a real chance to work at a real VC. Not true. Once I began talking with people, I discovered that every “dream company” of mine, had a sister I didn’t know about. From The Westly Group, I learned about Collaborative Fund. From Collaborative Fund, I learned about First Round Capital. From First Round Capital, I learned about Omidyar Network. The list goes on.

What I’m trying to say to career and job switchers out there is: find a company you believe in. Connect with people who work there. If you fall in love with it, awesome. If you get a job there, perfect. If you don’t, use that passion and those connections to continue to explore other companies that are doing similar work — there are more options than you know!

There’s No Right Way of Doing Things

To be fair, I have been told this for years. But then I got to b-school and was told there is a rule book for everything. My first dream job was to get into the mission-driven Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) space. So I was told, if you want to go into the mission-driven CPG space, first intern at an established CPG as an Assistant Brand Manager Intern, then once you get the offer stay in that company until you at least make Brand Manager (but no longer than 5 years), then consider exploring mission-driven CPGs.

I didn’t like these rules so I decided to find alternative ways of getting the same result.

And luckily for me, the world of work is changing. Some of the people I talked with had fallen into their line of work by accident and it was only once they got there that they realized they loved it. Others followed a traditional path for 20+ years until their dream job in a different career finally opened up. Then there were the few idealists who (shocker) sounded a little more like me. They had an idea — that seemed to others a bit wacky and unrealistic — pursued it fearlessly and eventually succeeded.

The one commonality? All of them ended up where they wanted to be.

Sometimes You Just Won’t Click — And That’s Ok

Throughout this journey, I had plenty of conversations that didn’t go so great.

In these scenarios it was always one of two things. 1) I was distracted and didn’t come prepared enough. Or 2) The person I was talking with was really busy and/or not that interested in talking with me.

I tried my hardest to make #1 extremely a rare occurrence. Unfortunately #2 was more frequent. However, neither 1 or 2 ever happened when I met with the person face-to-face. It’s so much easier to build an authentic connection with whoever you’re talking to when you’re meeting in person.

But I also learned to become ok with the fact that sometimes I just didn’t connect. One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned is that not everyone is going to like you. But you need to like yourself. So be authentic every time you show up.