Entrepreneur and former Dorm Room Fund CEO Rei Wang talks VCs, collaborative creativity, and the need for diversity and community among startups.
As the former CEO of First Round Capital’s Dorm Room Fund and founder of startup The Grand, Rei Wang knows the entrepreneurial ecosystem inside and out. Featured in Forbes’ 30 Under 30 Class of 2018, she’s a self-described “community builder.” Her passion lies in creating opportunities for young entrepreneurs to bring their innovative ideas to market.
In this episode of “Disrupt the Continuum,” we caught up with Wang at last year’s 36|86 Entrepreneurship Festival to talk about Dorm Room Fund’s founder-friendly approach to venture capital, the unique potential of student entrepreneurs, and her vision for a more inclusive industry.
Investment by students, for students
Wang’s community-driven approach to venture capital defined her time at the helm of Dorm Room Fund, which she grew into the largest student-run venture fund in America. The fund seeks out the best student entrepreneurs across the country and invests in their projects at the earliest stages.
“We’re partnering with them as their first institutional investor,” Wang explained, “helping students build these companies from the very beginning.” She likened it to providing an “on-ramp” for pre-seed startups to transition from a university setting to the greater entrepreneurial ecosystem.
To date, Dorm Room Fund has invested in over 250 student-run startups across the country that have gone on to raise more than $400 million. This success, Wang maintained, is built upon a unique approach to venture capital. “Our aim is to make it easier for students to start companies while they are still in school,” she said.
To accomplish this, all investments look the same: a single $20,000 check and the most “founder-friendly terms” on the market. “Essentially we are saying, ‘We are here for you and we want to help you get this funding quickly’ — to hit the next milestone in their business,” Wang explained. “We just want to be able to equip them with the right tools and resources to get started, and then from there, help them grow.”
Collaboration is key
According to Wang, students are perfectly situated to innovate. “I think a lot of the most interesting ideas and innovations are coming out of universities,” she said. “They’re designed to be a place where people can gather and discuss ideas and run experiments and collaborate.”
Diverse perspectives are key to the kind of creativity that makes for a great startup, Wang told listeners: “Some of the best ideas we’ve seen at Dorm Room Fund come from an engineering student partnering with a business school student partnering with a medical school student to create a new type of device or product.”
“When you bring in people with such diverse backgrounds and points of view,” she emphasized, “that’s when you start to see interesting ideas brought to market.”
Inclusion sparks innovation
Because she believes in the power of community and collaboration, Wang is passionate about opening up the entrepreneurial ecosystem to new innovators: “It’s one of my personal missions to make sure that every single entrepreneur has access to capital and has access to the right resources and tools,” she shared.
“It can be really difficult to be an entrepreneur, especially a first-time founder,” Wang said. “It’s really helpful to be able to talk to another entrepreneur who’s already gone through that process and have them share their best practices and lessons learned with you.”
Wang was adamant that relationships are the bedrock of successful startups. As the CEO of Dorm Room Fund, she helped build a thriving network of entrepreneurs. “I think venture is actually synonymous with community,” she said.
That’s part of why Wang attends events like 36|86 — to encourage community, collaboration, and a collective drive for success. “Talent is geographically distributed everywhere — not just clustered in the Bay Area or NYC or Boston,” Wang said. “I’m here because I believe in all of the talent that’s here in the Southeast.”