WWCode Conversations #55: Women Who Code Leaders Discuss Venture Capital

Written by WWCode HQ

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Alaina Percival, CEO and Co-founder of Women Who Code, sits down with Candice Morgan, Board Member with Women Who Code and Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Partner at Google Ventures. They discuss the importance of venture capital options for diverse women founders, some of the unexpected obstacles that can arise when founding a company, and ways to find the right funding partners.

Alaina Percival, CEO, and Co-founder of Women Who Code sits down with Candice Morgan, Board Member with Women Who Code and Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Partner at Google Ventures. They discuss the importance of venture capital options for diverse women founders, some of the unexpected obstacles that can arise when founding a company, and ways to find the right funding partners.

Tell us about your role at Google Ventures.

As the head of ED&I, I work on key initiatives. One is supporting our portfolio. We have over 450 portfolio companies as a firm. We have $8 Billion in assets under management. I advise our founders and our teams on how to build an inclusive culture early, an inclusive product, and how to connect with a diverse set of customers and stakeholders. I also focus on our investment in the pipeline of entrepreneurs, making sure we connect with fund managers and entrepreneurs across under-represented backgrounds as part of our flow. Finally, I work internally on who we hire and the partnerships that we make across the venture capital ecosystem.

Can you just tell us a little bit about why this work is important and also specifically for diverse women founders?

I came from leading Inclusion and Diversity at Pinterest. The opportunity to unlock and work with very talented women, non-binary, other gender minority, and ethnic minority founders across all backgrounds, and help them build and scale large businesses are tremendous. The obstacles that abound in trying to build a business are also tremendous. There are some very specific obstacles that under-represented groups may face. It’s important to pay attention to the process and make it as equitable as possible. That’s what I hope to make an impact on.

What are some of the great qualities that you’ve seen in diverse founders?

I was speaking to a few different founders in our portfolio and interestingly, they were all under-represented. I work with all founders in our portfolio that are trying to build really inclusive, highly engaged cultures. Of these three founders that I connected with, the first was someone who grew up in a very underprivileged neighborhood, with underprivileged circumstances. They ended up studying engineering and becoming an incredible graphic designer and building a company as a result. They hadn’t seen that path but created it. The sense of both being pioneering, seeing what’s out there, and thinking really big, even though you didn’t have a role model that you were able to model off of is incredible. It takes a tremendous amount of grit, dreaming really big, believing, and having the self-efficacy for those things.

Another founder that I spoke with yesterday is from South America and also came from an extremely underprivileged background. They came to the US, not speaking English, and figured out their way through the education system with very limited resources. Now they are running an incredible enterprise software company that is growing by the minute. I had the pleasure of spending an hour understanding his life story. I was impressed with how he was almost fearless in doing things he had never done before.

The other founder is building an incredible digital health company. She has been very intentional about the way she is designing the company. She doesn’t believe in hierarchy for hierarchy’s sake. Her team was talking about how they think about obvious leadership. There needs to be clarity for the goals and the vision of the company, but a lot of times things get attached to hierarchy.

What are some of the obstacles that go into building a company that founders don’t necessarily think about when they’re getting started? What should we be thinking about as some of our members might be thinking about becoming founders themselves?

A founder is pouring blood, sweat, and tears into bringing their vision into reality. They’re waking up, breathing, sleeping, and dreaming of this incredible problem that they’re solving, a piece of technology, or a service. It’s pretty all-consuming. They’re thinking about how to stay afloat, how to raise sufficient capital to keep going and the current macroeconomic environment. There’s advice you read every day about making sure you don’t have too much burn, don’t over-hire, etcetera. I think that in moving very quickly and trying to grow a large business in a competitive space, thinking about product market fit, that early culture is key.

I was talking to a founder who was very deliberate around the first set of technical talent that they hired and making sure that it was a diverse group of folks. From a diversity perspective, being very deliberate about the early people that you bring in and their networks is important. How you set the cultural tone of what you want to build and how you communicate that to people is important. I run into founders that have incredible integrity and standards for people in their business but don’t know how to communicate that out in a certain way. Setting up a mission, vision, a set of values, and how you’re going to live and practice those values in your company as you scale, are just a couple of things that are really important in the culture you’re building.

How can founders build core values and mission early so that they are able to build and maintain a business that is coming from a place of strength early on?

I encounter founders who want to create a workplace different from things that they’ve experienced. Sometimes that manifests as wanting to move fast and without bureaucracy and a lot of overhead. They want everyone to feel a sense of belonging and inclusion. They want the experience within the company to not be dependent on background or demographic status. We will lead our founders through some mission and vision exercises. They’ll generally have a mission for the company and we work backward. How do we achieve that mission and equity within that mission? What are you doing to make sure that your product or service is something that removes barriers for people? How are you making sure that you’re bringing employees together for engagement? I’ve been consistently impressed with the values that emanate from Women Who Code, but I know that it’s not just osmosis, it’s by design.

Can you speak to finding the right funding partners and what that might mean for our founders or potential founders within Women Who Code?

It’s a rigorous process. I have so much respect for business leaders and founders that are continuing to fund and grow their businesses. It takes work, thoughtfulness, and a bit of chemistry with some of your funders as well. The first thing to note is that in the earliest stages of funding a venture, the earliest source of funding is usually bootstrapped. It’s savings, it’s friends and family, it’s having the time to work on that venture and start building that product or program. There’s also a need for resources on how to build businesses. There are the basics of incorporating your business and where and how. There’s money management and the connections that you need to other funders to talent sources, mentors, and advisors. A root cause of inequity is that people are using their own money and their friends and family’s money.

The first question is, what kind of funding do I need? Only a tiny percentage of businesses are venture capital backed. There are other ways of funding and growing companies. Venture capital is not always the best fit for certain types of businesses. In some cases, it’s looking at government grants. In the US, in certain states, there are different types of grants. In other countries also, there are different types of small business grants to look out for. When I talk to founders who have decided to bootstrap through later stages, it’s because they are focused on building their product and building their technology before scaling up the team and in growth. They might want to focus on creative control before having a board of advisors that are funding and getting input on the businesses.

It doesn’t always make sense to build through venture funding. There are non-dilutive capital grants. There are business accelerator programs. There are corporate funds that give non-dilutive capital that then doesn’t become a part of ownership. It’s important to look into all of those options and decide which is right for you. Venture does offer a quick scale to a large amount of funding, especially in businesses that are going to multiply significantly over time and where you need a lot of that capital upfront to even get to the next stage of growth.

Now you want to get connected with individuals who are putting capital into your organization. Who’s in your network? Your super angels are putting in 25K plus checks. They’re higher net worth individuals. How do you connect with some of these super angels? Look at companies that you admire that are in your space. Find the people that are funding those businesses. They’re going to be your source to further sources of funding.

Now you’re moving into your seed funding. You’re focused on getting those bigger checks of a few million dollars. For the last couple of years, the market has been very frothy so it’s hard to say what is seed, but you’re generally talking about one to five million dollars. You’ve got to get into venture capital firms if that’s the route that you’re going. How do you get connections to those firms? Those angel connections that you’ve started to make, any accelerators or founder communities that you’ve joined can help point you in the right direction of firms that invest in your area. It’s important that there’s a chemistry between the investor and the founder, you’re going to be working with this person for years.

Do you have any other pro tips for the people who are coming up against some of those inequities of not already having the connection, not having the rich relatives to be able to write the big checks?

There are certain communities that have been specifically geared towards founders who might be under-represented and partners that you can connect with. One of the organizations that has been around for some years now is All Raise. All Raise is focused on women in venture. They have a very active founder community. They create founder cohorts. We’re sponsored, as many firms are, where you can connect with other founders in your industry and get important intel. They also have a very strong investor, women in investing component, so that’s one such community. Digital Undivided is a community going earlier stage. They do kind of micro-funding, where they do pitch competitions and that sort of thing. They’re focused on women of color. I really admire what they’re doing. They are not just focused on companies that are going to be venture-backed forever. They have tentacles in a lot of different places.

There are so many online founder communities too. People are also using tools like Twitter spaces, Clubhouse, and other meet-up groups. There are so many meet-up programs, discord rooms, etcetera, where you can meet other founders. There are founder studios. Do some research on some of your different communities and geographies. There are groups like Black VC and Latinx PC, which are more focused on the investor community.

What role do you think community plays in a founder’s journey?

It’s very important to have a community you can relate to and people who can support you through the highs and the lows. Community keeps you sane. As a practitioner in diversity, I feel like I have a squad and a community that can relate to my challenges and ambition. Don’t underestimate the importance of community.

Can you just speak about how to build a strong community and network?

There are people that you need to know that can help you operate. The difference between network and community is that a network you can lean on and reach out to. Whether it’s advice or something transactional, it’s important. Your community is the people that you can really emote with. Those are the people you can call when things are challenging. Ideally, you have that type of relationship with your investors and advisors. As businesses shift, you might have a core product, but your audience needs to shift or needs to be different. You need to adapt. You need someone that you could go through ideas with, who isn’t going to judge your ideas as silly or far-fetched. You need people you can deeply trust and be vulnerable with. It includes your personal networks, it can be your friends, it doesn’t have to be people on the same boat as you. You do want a mix of people who can relate and that you can trust.

In our community, we have people from all different levels in their careers. How can some people be getting involved without being a founder?

It’s exciting to see more operators moving into and learning about the investing space. I’m on the Steering Committee of Black VC. They have a Black Venture Institute for operators to spend a couple of intensive weeks learning about investing. Most of those folks become angel investors or they’ve done some light angel investing. Some of them want to move into investing full-time, so they’re learning about the financial side of investing, the company’s story, and how to evaluate companies. I’m seeing more information courses. There’s a course called Ripple X. They have free information where you can learn about investing. There’s a wonderful consultant we work with, his name is Zach Brower. He does a lot in teaching about investing in financial modeling and understanding compensation in the space.

Companies are always hiring and need referrals. They need to connect and tap into communities. I try to connect our founders into diverse communities. Organizations like Women Who Code are amazing. Connecting globally with technical talent was really important. We can all be part of this ecosystem.

What is your pro tip for diverse founders?

Despite all the headlines and the news out there about the economy and people drawing back, we witnessed something really incredible over the last couple of years. The momentum around the diversity conversation has waxed and waned, but there are more under-represented fund managers and board members than we’ve ever seen before. That means more potential community and capital. There have never been more opportunities for someone. There’s not been a better time to find and connect with people that want to help you on your journey.

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