By Mary A. Strother (Managing Director, Athenian Venture Partners)
Career moves are often among the biggest life decisions that we will ever make. For women, I feel this rings particularly true. It is typically not easy, and as I have found, the best opportunities are usually the most challenging to find. When the course ahead does not appear clearly charted, however, choosing “the road less traveled” is worth it.
I experienced this first hand when I decided to shift my more traditional financial marketing and investor relations (IR) career in “big business” to one focused on building startups and creating value in the alternative assets arena of venture capital (VC).
It was not a straight path at all, but one I think other women can learn from. For more than a decade, I had been engaged in financial sales, marketing, institutional and high-net-worth-individual investor relations and fundraising work with two publicly-traded companies and a large university foundation endowment. Then nearly seven years ago, I made the decision to be bold and to think like an entrepreneur.
I wanted to be part of building something with great upside potential, which would capitalize on my Fortune 500 skillset. While riskier, I ultimately knew that being “Employee #10” vs. “Employee #10,000” was where I would find the best reward. Indeed, it was not easy, but eventually, I did succeed in establishing myself in a new, entrepreneurially-based career path in venture capital.
From that long and winding road, I have identified four particular “curves” along the way where I believe my experiences may be helpful for other women who wish to navigate a similar course:
Curve #1: Network.
It’s important to network in any field, but especially when you’re looking to enter a new industry and meet the experienced professionals who could offer you a job. Because I did not possess a technical background in engineering, science or medicine, nor had I worked in private equity, I knew at the outset of my search that I needed some kind of relevant experience. This began a two-year journey volunteering my sales and marketing services to startups, interacting with angel investors and networking with VCs.
Curve #2: Accept that your big ideas may not be widely accepted.
Have a big idea about how you could change a company, or an industry? Be prepared to face some roadblocks and skepticism. For example, when networking with VCs, I had a premise that I was floating past them – one which was not readily reciprocated – that VC firms, regardless of size, should have an internal fundraising/marketing/IR function as a committed member of the team.
As an “outsider,” common sense may have told me that I ought to follow the lead of the experts in a field that requires such deep levels of technical expertise. For any number of reasons, the experts always seemed to come back to “It’s just not done that way in VC.”
Curve #3: Don’t give up on your ideas; back them up!
Just because people might not believe in your big idea right away doesn’t mean you should give up. Try thinking differently about your approach and what proof points you can use to support your argument. In my case, my conclusion developed a different twist: “IR SHOULD be done that way in VC,” and “Aren’t these guys entrepreneurs?!”
In following my own lead, I continued working my network and connecting with any VC who would listen, telling my story of why all VCs today need in-house IR, and why my skill set from other industries mapped over. In other words: they had a need, and I had a solution. (Note – For purposes here, I use IR as a term to encompass not just investor relations, but also fundraising, marketing, communications and public relations.)
Curve #4: Know your own personal risks and goals.
What is the end goal for you in entering this new field? Once you have your goals, and potential risks, laid out, this will give you even more motivation to push ahead. One of my primary goals, particularly as a woman, was equity. I believed in the venture capital model of building businesses and fueling the national economy, and I wanted a tangible piece of that.
With this reward, of course, comes risk. Building successful businesses takes time, most businesses don’t succeed, and along the way, I’m not going to be able to retire on the management fees paid during the long haul of the potentially unsuccessful company’s life cycle.
On the other hand, I still saw a no-lose situation quite clearly: I would gain the kind of experience that I simply could not get anywhere else – the kind that many people seek and never find – even if the odds were completely against me and not one portfolio company outperformed, which was statistically unlikely.
Eventually, after having boldly engaged my own “inner entrepreneur,” and after believing in the soundness of my thesis and passionately exercising a whole lot of persistence based upon that, I clicked with a VC team that shared my vision. After performing our respective due diligence on each other, and further investigating my thesis for their firm, we took the entrepreneurial leap together, I came aboard, and we created an in-house IR position.
Just over five years later, we have observed a number of other VC firms doing the same. As a bold early-adopter, we have realized dividends from satisfied limited partners (LPs), and we have impressed prospective LPs with the bold commitments we have made to institutionalize the firm. And best of all? More than one portfolio company has outperformed!
Women 2.0 readers: How have you made your way to venture capital? Let us know in the comments.
About the guest blogger: Mary A. Strother is a Managing Director at Athenian Venture Partners. She joined the Athenian team in 2007 to build and head up the firm’s Investor Relations program. This includes IR, fundraising, and marketing and PR functions. Prior to Athenian, her career spans in finance, healthcare, and higher education. She has years of financial sales, marketing, institutional and high-net-worth-individual Investor Relations and fundraising experience. Follow her on Twitter at @marystrotherVC.