I’m in public relations, an industry known to be dominated by women. We work with the companies backed by a number of venture capital firms, an industry known to be dominated by men. And not just by a little–by a lot. One thorough study last year found that just 7% of the partners at the leading 100 VC firms are women.
Years ago, I’d find myself stepping into one of those firms’ offices or scanning the crowd at an investor conference and would feel a sharp pang: “Oh, damn. It’s the opposite in this world.” Happily, that feeling hits me less often these days. Change has been painfully slow, but it’s happening as more investors back female founders, more tech insiders tout the profitability of companies with real gender diversity, and more women simply start their own funds.
Today, I’m meeting more women partners than ever, seeing more women appearing on firms’ websites, and now just expect that if there’s a panel of investors at an industry event, it will be at least 50/50 men and women. How’d some of these ladies manage to break into investing, despite its notorious reputation for being less than hospitable to women? I asked a handful to find out–here’s what they told me.
Helen Zelman Boniske, founding partner of Lemnos Labs, surveyed the Silicon Valley landscape and realized she and her cofounder had unique transferrable experience. “Previously he had built lasers and missiles in the U.S. Air Force, and I worked in the front office of the Arizona Diamondbacks.”
Those may sound like unlikely skill sets for VCs, but the two saw an opening for them. “As two mechanical engineering grads who didn’t want to build an app and [had] nowhere to go to start a hardware company, it became our mission to back hardware startups we knew we could help,” says Zelman Boniske. So they relocated to the Bay Area in 2010 and eventually raised a $20 million fund. Lemnos Labs opened four years later and has since invested in 38 companies and counting.
Like Zelman Boniske, Arianna Simpson also joined up with a trusted copilot to launch a fund. She’d gotten to know Tikhon Bernstam, a Y Combinator alum turned fund manager by working on “a number of informal bitcoin-related projects together” over several years, Simpson explains. “He had an exceptional angel track record, and I was prominent in the bitcoin circuit. When he put the wheels in motion for a new fund, it was an obvious ‘yes’ to partner up.”
She adds, “The trend of super angels launching funds is a great opportunity for young, hungry folks to get into venture.” Simpson’s new fund closed $52 million in 2016.
“I connected with a former colleague and landed a summer internship” at Scale Venture Parnters, says Cack Wilhelm. Now a principal at the firm, she approached her “five weeks on the job as a 24/7 interview.”
“And my weird angle to help stand out?” says Wilhelm. “I ran for Nike for two years”–as a professional athlete in track and cross-country–“and pre-answered any questions of, ‘Is she competitive? Does she strive to win?'”
From there, Wilhelm went on to two other fields, all of which made for a unique background as a VC. “I collected finance experience as an investment banker,” she says, “and collected operational experience as a sales rep at Oracle and Cloudera.”
Jess Kwan, an associate with Archer Gray, has always stuck with what she loved. She worked in creative development and production in the film industry before joining her firm. It was a natural fit. “Archer Gray both produces films and invests in early-stage media technology startups, so this position allowed me to leverage my network and experience in one media space into being a strategically valuable investor in another.”
Kwan adds, “I didn’t go to business school, but working in film taught me to be comfortable with a mix of creative, ‘big-picture’ thinking and practical business decisions. That has served me well in VC.”
VC firms aren’t all in the Bay Area. “I didn’t know many people in L.A. at all,” says Chang Xu, now an associate at Upfront, but she knew she wanted to live there without leaving the startup scene. Having cofounded one herself, she knew how important relationships were.
So, using her entrepreneurial experience to kick off conversations, Xu began to build a local network. “To get your foot in the door,” she advises, “get a warm intro to a VC and have a good conversation over coffee about the industry you love, trends you see, your investment thesis, and a couple startups to check out.” Those connections invariably lead to others.
Sarah Moret also wanted to set down roots in Los Angeles. With almost a year of investment experience under her belt after a stint at Formation8, one of the hottest VC firms in Silicon Valley, she, too, started to network in L.A. The city is “quickly growing into a tech epicenter,” Moret says, and it wasn’t long before she learned about CrossCut, where she’s now an investment associate.
At first, “The partners weren’t looking to hire anyone, but I had a good mix of skills that complemented the partnership,” and she eventually became the firm’s first female investor.
Women in venture capital lead to even more women in venture capital. Anarghya Vardhana, senior associate at Maveron, points out that another woman, Rebecca Kaden, is general partner at the firm. “There are very few women GPs, and for me as a young investor early in my career, it meant a lot to have Rebecca befriend me and mentor me early on.”
When Vardhana was looking to get into the VC world, she says, “seeing [Kaden] as a leader in the firm meant a lot. And any firm looking to hire women onto their team could probably do so by actually having women on their team. That made a difference for me.”
Beck Bamberger founded BAM Communications in 2008 and writes regularly for Forbes and the Huffington Post about entrepreneurship, public relations, and culture.
Update: A previous version of this article misstated where Cack Wilhelm had interned and the number of startups Chang Xu had cofounded. Both errors have been corrected.