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A Pioneering Woman In Venture Capital On Why You Shouldn’t Have A Career Plan

Kathryn Gould took the career path less traveled–from physicist, high-tech entrepreneur, venture capitalist, and now vineyard owner.

A Pioneering Woman In Venture Capital On Why You Shouldn’t Have A Career Plan
[Photo: Flickr user mat79]

Kathryn Gould has never had a career plan. For her, the most important thing has always been getting in on great ideas early.

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In 1982, she was one of Oracle’s first 20 employees and left the company after only two years, little more than a year before it went public. “Can’t you keep a job?” she remembers her family wondering as she bounced around Silicon Valley.

Keeping a job has never been Gould’s main objective–she’s always on the hunt for great new ideas. Though she’d never been a recruiter before, Gould went on to found her own recruiting firm, helping to hire some of Silicon Valley’s top executives at the time. She knew every single company in the Valley back when it was small enough to manage that kind of mental catalog.

Just as her recruiting career was gaining traction, Gould jumped to VC funding and went on to become one of Silicon Valley’s first female venture capitalists, starting her own firm, Foundation Capital, in 1995.

After semiretirement in 2009 at the age of 55, Gould bought a vineyard in Napa Valley, and took up her longtime passions of music and flying. She’s an expert violinist and a certified pilot. Much like her career, none of it was anticipated. For Gould, not having a grand scheme is part of the process. “Nothing has been planned,” she says.

You might be under the false impression that opportunities have simply fallen into Gould’s lap. What about the floundering uncertainty of navigating career moves that we all encounter, the false starts, and struggles of getting going? “I look back on it and it all seems really easy,” she says. “But I always work my ass off. There aren’t any hurdles I can’t overcome with hard work.”

Besides running a vineyard, these days Gould has taken up advising others on how to start their own venture firms. Her pinballing career has certainly given her an excess of experience to speak from. Here are some lessons she’s learned over the years:

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Challenge Yourself Early On

For Gould, majoring in physics in college helped prime her for the challenges of her career. “I was kind of in the mode of being Marie Curie,” she says. But after getting a taste of academic life, Gould realized she was interested in business and technology rather than being trapped in the physics lab.

Still, that initial experience of studying physics made some of the challenges she encountered down the line seem relatively easy. “Physics was really hard,” she says. “More girls should major in physics.”

Don’t Plan–Instead, Decide What Matters Most To You

Gould says she never expected to take the career path she did. While her moves from engineering to marketing to recruiting to VC funding may seem arbitrary, she doesn’t see them that way.

Knowing what she valued most about her work and using that as a jumping-off point allowed her to be more adventurous in the opportunities she went after. “As long as I’m involved in creating new companies with brilliant people, the specific angle of it doesn’t really matter all that much,” she says. “I don’t think when you are doing new things that you can plan.”

The Biggest Names Don’t Always Offer The Biggest Opportunities.

When Gould moved from Chicago to Silicon Valley in the 1980s, she passed up opportunities at Intel and Apple, and instead took a job with the smallest company to make her an offer–Data Systems Design, a startup. She wanted to learn how to launch a small company off the ground.

Her decision paid off. One of Data Systems’ customers was Larry Ellison, and she eventually followed him to Oracle. “I was about working with the best possible entrepreneurs building really . . . amazing technology,” she says. “I was not interested in a big fat job in some old-line company that wasn’t going to change the world in any way.”

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If It Doesn’t Exist, Then Invent It

After opening her own recruiting firm, Gould knew she wanted to get involved in helping tech startups get the funding they needed. She joined venture capitalists at the firm Merrill, Pickard, Anderson & Eyre.

When the firm shut down and Gould was left with no place to work, she decided to take matters into her own hands and opened her own firm, Foundation Capital. “You have to listen to yourself, not the other guys,” she says. “When a company grows really fast, you’re going to learn a ton of stuff. . . . You’re out there on your own, trying to make something out of nothing.”

It’s Never Too Late To Try Something New

These days, Gould spends a lot of time figuring out how to run the vineyard she and her husband own, including bottling wine. “I’m now immersed in the farm culture,” she says. “I can drive a tractor.”

Crazy as the idea of jumping from one career focus to the next might seem to others, she doesn’t let that skepticism faze her. “Anytime I run into someone agonizing whether to go out on their own, I just tell them: ‘Go do it,'” she says. “It’s like diving into cold water holding your nose.”

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About the author

Jane Porter writes about creativity, business, technology, health, education and literature. She's a 2013 Emerging Writing Fellow with the Center For Fiction

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