Venture Capitalists, circa 2032

Introducing VC to a group of 14-year-olds at Comp Sci High Enrollment Day

This Saturday was Enrollment Day for Comp Sci High, a new charter high school opening its doors in the Bronx that I’m on the board of. On August 20, we’ll open our doors for the very first time, welcoming 110 freshmen. Since we’re cultivating an environment that introduces these individuals to industry professionals, we focused on networking during the Enrollment Day. At this session, while parents registered students and filled out all requisite paperwork, the students were tasked with filling out a “Networking Bingo” card in exchange for a Comp Sci High hoodie. (Yes, they have QR codes on the back.)

Each card contained descriptors of characteristics or jobs that industry professionals held around the room. Things like “Loves to dance” or “Plays a musical instrument.” We also had “Works at Google,” “Has contributed to an open source project,” and “Lives in the Bronx.” But up on the top right, one square from center was a phrase that only one person in the room met the criteria for: “Works for a venture capital firm.”

I saw that card and I cringed.

It’s not that I don’t associate my job as a part of my identity. In fact, it’s very much the opposite. But even though I’ve now been working in this industry for more than two years, there’s still something about the whole idea that I might be “a venture capitalist” that makes me uneasy.

In many ways, venture capital still feels like such a loaded term to me. To someone outside of the industry, VCs can imply a lot of things: Money. Greed. Arrogance. Aloofness. Inaccessibility. The 1%. Being a shark just to win deals. Cutting out when the going gets tough. Being only out for yourself. Having a lack of empathy.

And even while I know that we certainly are not doing those things (particularly where I work), I also recognize that among certain populations, there are still a lot of negative connotations associated with our industry that I generally just try to avoid. I never want to get written off before I have a chance to try to form a connection with someone else.

When people ask what I do, I never say that I’m a VC. Typically I just say, “I work in tech.” When pressed, I’ll add that I work for a venture capital firm that invests in tech companies. To me, this is significant. Once I misspoke at a cocktail party networking event and someone corrected me asking, “So you’re a VC too?” and I replied, “Yeah, I’m a VC” then choked a little on my wine. I realized that in over two years of working at USV, it was the first time I had actually articulated that phrase out loud. I don’t think I’ve said it since.

The Comp Sci High Enrollment Day presented an interesting and mildly cathartic challenge for me: Explain what I do to 75 individual 14-year-olds who are about as far from the traditional, fresh-out-of-Stanford founder profile as you might imagine. Piece of cake, right?

Personally speaking, at age 14, I for sure had never heard of venture capital. I don’t even think I understood it at age 24, while working for a venture-backed startup. Honestly I’m still not sure I’m explaining it correctly now.

So to kick things off with the students, I tried to get a sense of whether or not any of them had actually seen Shark Tank.

“How about I describe what I do, and you look at your card and try to figure out what bingo box that fits into. Deal?”
“Okay.”
“Alright. So my company gives money to people who have awesome ideas for new businesses that they want to start. Then we make money when those businesses are successful. What do you think that is?”

This strategy failed to work.

“Ummmmm…charity?” someone might guess. “A lender?”

Even after explaining what venture capital firms do, many students would prompt me on other questions on what my job might be, as an attempt to fill in more bingo boxes.

“So are you a teacher?”
“No.”
“Oh. So…..do you work at Google?”
“Nope. This thing I told you about earlier — venture capital — that’s my only job.”
“Oh,” they would reply, albeit a little confused. “Okay, thanks.”

It’s reasonable that this would have been hard to comprehend. What exactly is my job? Talking to lots of people? Making introductions? Being a cheerleader? It helped when I could drop the name of a company that they may have heard of.

“Have you heard of Kickstarter?” I’d try.
“Ummm….maybe! I think so?”
“Okay, what about Etsy?”
“Oh, I know Etsy!” a mom volunteered. “I have a shop on Etsy!”
“That’s amazing,” I encouraged. “Etsy is an example of the kind of company that we helped to start more than 10 years ago.”

(This particular conversation then morphed into a 5-minute tip session on how to make the most of their seller services platform and develop a bigger social media following.)

In the end, I landed on the following formula for explaining my work:

“Have you ever had an idea for a business that you might want to start someday?”

Typically I’d get a few nods. A few students even had ideas: A sneaker company, an idea for a video game, a store.

“Great,” I’d reply. “So as a venture capital firm, I could give you $1 million to start your sneaker company. And maybe, in 10 years, your company grows so big that Nike wants to buy you for $10 million. Once that happens, you would make $8 million for selling your company, and we would make $2 million for helping you start it. Make sense?”

And there you have the grossest over-simplification of venture capital in the world. Sorry, everyone.

A couple of the sharp students followed up with this question: “But what happens if my company doesn’t succeed? Do we have to pay you back?”

“That’s a fantastic question,” I would say. “No. If your company fails and you don’t have the money to pay us back, then we lose our money. Sometimes that happens too.”

“Oh,” they’d say, looking a little relieved. “That’s cool.”

As more and more students filled out their bingo cards, I realized that I was introducing a new term into the vocabulary of dozens of students at an incredible impressionable time in their lives. Could this actually spur somebody’s interest to start a company one day? Would anybody go home and Google this more? Did any of them actually understand what the hell I was talking about?

But one observation stood out to me most of all: The students in that room look nothing like most of my peers in the VC industry or like the founders that I interact with in my day-to-day. What would it mean to introduce the concept of venture capital to a group of students who may not otherwise ever have had the opportunity to interact with this career option or networking opportunity? In 10 years, when these 14-year-olds are 24-year-olds, how will this early exposure impact the diversity that we see among first-time founders or entry-level analysts at VC firms?

Clearly it’s too soon to say what the butterfly effect might be of this short exercise. But it is interesting to consider the possible future outcomes of how this industry might shift and adapt over time, inviting in participants who may never before have considered this to be an option.

And it’s also given me an excuse to get better at explaining my job. I think I almost get it.