Unlike becoming a dentist, lawyer, or astronaut, nabbing a job in venture capital isn’t about nailing a clear-cut requirements checklist. The VC industry is notoriously relationship-driven, which has had at least one unfortunate consequence: Its internal demographics are abysmal.
The percentage of women at the top 100 venture firms has lingered in the high single digits over recent years, according to Crunchbase (the situation is nearly identical among angel investors), and fewer than 3% of investment professionals are black or Latinx. Unsurprisingly, tiny fractions of VC funding make their way into the hands of women founders and entrepreneurs of color. Still, like many of the industries it funds, venture capital is steadily diversifying, and to do that, it will need talent candidates of all backgrounds to pursue careers as investors.
Here’s how several VCs recommend breaking into the field, no matter who you are or what’s currently on your resume.
Do your research so you can apply selectively
Miriam Rivera, managing director at ULU Ventures, says venture capital is still 30 years behind the law industry today. “Back when I was starting as an attorney, minority and women partners comprised only single-digit percentages at major law firms, much like how venture firms are today,” she says. “What I did then, and recommend for anyone trying to break into venture now, is to research funds and check out their recruiting, retention, and promotion track records: Have younger people–and anyone diverse, for that matter–eventually become principals or partners at the firm?”
Rivera says it’s not necessarily a bad sign if a firm is “just starting to hire such talent,” since many are in the early stages of diversifying, but it’s important to ask, “What commitments of resources are they willing to make to develop such personnel?” Meaningful signs might include, “Participation in industry events and associations, paying for training like the Kauffman Fellows Program, and having a mechanism for the development of individual track records and investing experience,” she says.
Tap into your alumni network
It’s classic career advice, but it can work for getting into venture capital, too. Crissy Costa, an associate at Primary Venture Partners, says she started to ramp up her networking even before starting business school. Then, while pursuing her MBA, Costa says, “I made it a point to connect with alumni, with the goal of becoming more familiar and intertwined in the world of venture.” The whole idea was to play the long game, rather than approach networking as part of a one-and-done job search. “I cultivated these relationships over time and they, in turn, led me to more relationships. A lot of them happened to be fellow women who advocated on my behalf–many times, without me even knowing they were doing so,” she adds.
Follow the money
Sydney Thomas, associate and head of operations at Precursor Ventures, reached out to limited partners (LPs), the people and funds that invest in VCs, first. “Because LPs are essentially the ones who put GPs [general partners] into business, it is important to understand that critical part of the equation before you enter into any firm.”
Those conversations led to crucial insights that helped her better understand the venture firms she wound up approaching to get her foot in the door: “Who are the people investing in the firm? What are they passionate about? Does it align with your own interests? Those are the questions to find the answers to, and then approach VCs,” Thomas advises.
Talk to associates and analysts, not partners
“Don’t just find one person who can ‘warm intro’ you to a VC who is hiring–find multiple,” urges Maria Palma, vice president of business development at RRE Ventures. But if you’re struggling to locate those contacts, Palma suggests making contact with associates and analysts, pointing out that they’re usually easier to find at industry meetups than partners are.
“Often, people entering the space try to get partner meetings, which is harder to do,” she says. “The partners trust the judgment of their teams when it comes to deals and people, so don’t overlook spending time with analysts and associates in the space who are much more likely to engage with you, especially if you have interesting ideas.”
Get into a venture-backed startup
Amanda Mulay, Lerer Hippeau‘s senior talent manager, recommends jumping in with a tech startup if your ultimate goal is to work your way into venture capital. “Working for VC-backed businesses is an easy entry into the startup scene,” she says. With startup experience under your belt, you’ll “be able to better understand traction at companies when you evaluate them as an investor. That inside experience will offer an importance perspective later when you’re deciding whether or not a company would make a good potential investment.” Plus, it makes great fodder for job interviews.
Sharpen your personal brand
“The reality of it is that getting into venture is difficult,”Anarghya Vardhana, principal at Maveron, acknowledges. “People have to know who you are, and that can be done by building a strong personal brand.” Crissy Costa, for example, started a podcast called “52 Founders,” where she interviewed one entrepreneur a week for a year. “Not only was this an amazing learning experience that exposed me to virtually every corner of the tech universe, but I developed some amazing relationships through the process, and I leveraged those to inch my way closer to the venture world,” she says.
Don’t have time for a podcast? Vardhana says there’s still a lot you can do. “Refine a point of view and go nonstop to show it: tweet about it, blog about it, be on podcasts to talk about it, post comments on LinkedIn, and so on. And then, [and] this is a bonus,” she adds, “send deals to five or so firms you love that showcase your point of view even more. You don’t have to know the founders; you can simply share an up-and-coming startup you spotted on Twitter, Product Hunt, a random Medium post, and so forth.
In the interview, put your knowledge into action
“If you got the interview, I already know you’re smart,” says Matt Higgins, CEO and cofounder of RSE Ventures. What he really looks for isn’t intelligence, but the “ability to feel a trend in every fiber of your being, to sift through and separate fool’s gold from the real likely winner.” If you’ve been networking and building your personal brand, chances are you’re already doing more real legwork in the venture space than you think–all before having an official position. (“Hunting is part of the job, so do the job before you have the job,” says Vardhana.)
“Tell me how you got to the friend of your cousin Bill on LinkedIn whose brother happens to work at an interesting company,” suggests Higgins, “and that you’re grabbing coffee at Bluestone Lane next week to learn if that company plans to raise capital. That’s what’s it all about.”
Start your own fund
Finally, Miriam Rivera points out that many women and investors of color in particular are shaking up the VC field all on their own. So if you’re still struggling to break in, “You can do what many people have done after a successful career in technology, corporate venture, impact investing, or investment banking,” she says. “Start your own fund, as I did.”