An Investor’s Perspective on Immigration & Innovation: A Conversation with Julianne Zimmerman
Julianne Zimmerman is a long-time player in the Boston tech scene: she’s worked in aerospace, cleantech and venture capital, sat on the board of the MIT Enterprise Forum, and is currently the Managing Director of Reinventure Capital. She’s also one of the judges for the ILC Immigrant Entrepreneur Awards and a strong advocate for immigration. We recently picked her brain on the topics of immigration, entrepreneurship and innovation.
Ellis Project: You have a very diverse background and impressive experience. Tell us a bit about what you have done and why you love it.
Julianne Zimmerman: I have been very fortunate to have pursued a series of careers, each of which has been an adventure.
I started out as an aerospace engineer in a small company where we designed and built research apparatus for scientists all over the world to conduct their experiments in space. My colleagues and I were upstarts in an industry dominated by giant corporations, and we were very successful in serving our clients to advance scientific knowledge. On top of several other honors, I had the rare and humbling privilege of being a finalist twice in the NASA astronaut selection process. It was a great first career.
Next I became a co-founder of a clean energy company, before the cleantech wave. My colleagues and I were again upstarts in another industry dominated by giants, and this time we were working to make electric power generation cleaner and less costly. In just a few years we went from concept to a working prototype at a utility power plant, and along the way we helped change the conversation about what was possible. From there I got involved with several other startups, sometimes as an early team member; other times as an advisor, consultant, mentor, or board member. Along the way I became committed to contributing to cultivate the innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem, focusing my attention primarily on companies with technologies and business models that serve the greater good.
From there I co-founded a seed-stage venture practice, investing in companies with novel value propositions in energy, water, food, and health. I’m very proud of the companies I invested in, and all of them are still alive and operating. Most recently I joined pioneer impact investor Ed Dugger with Reinventure Capital. We are raising a $50M fund to invest early-growth-stage capital in companies led by women and people of color, a persistently overlooked entrepreneurial talent pool.
In each of my three careers so far, I have loved the mix of purpose, creative challenge, and constant learning. And I have been truly fortunate to meet incredibly brilliant and inspiring colleagues and friends along the way.
EP: Currently, you are a Managing Director at Reinventure Capital, a growth-stage equity and debt investment practice, focusing on founders of color and women. What made you start Reinventure with this focus?
JZ: I can’t take credit for starting Reinventure — that’s all Ed! But I’m delighted to have joined Ed to implement the Reinventure investment thesis. I’ve seen firsthand how women and people of color can be overlooked and undervalued by mainstream capital sources. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of not sharing common networks; there is definitely unconscious bias, and there are certainly cases where there is overt bias as well. The bad news is that there is persistent asymmetry in the way investors view women and people of color compared to white men. As Kauffman Foundation and the World Economic Forum have both noted, inequity in access to capital presents a grave national and global economic threat. The good news is that this market inefficiency is not just totally addressable; it represents a fantastic investment opportunity. I’m excited about both sides, and about working with talented but overlooked founders to grow profitable companies that matter.
EP: You have been a judge for the Immigrant Learning Center’s Immigrant Entrepreneur Awards for a number of years. How and why did you get involved with the ILC?
JZ: I don’t recall how I initially got involved, but I’m so glad I did! The Immigrant Entrepreneur Awards is a highlight of my year, and it’s a program that deserves to be nationally famous. For me, the entire experience is inspiring because I “discover” incredible entrepreneurs and companies I didn’t previously know about, and I am always freshly reminded just how much our entrepreneurial ecosystem thrives because of the continuing influx of talented innovators and community builders from all over the world.
EP: With so many talented entrepreneurs nominated every year, what criteria do you use to determine the winners?
JZ: We look for founders who have created value, innovated in their segments, and contributed to their communities. Each year the nominees are more impressive, and it is harder and harder to choose just one person to honor with the Entrepreneur of the Year award.
EP: Immigration is a controversial topic. What has made you a believer?
JZ: Facts and personal experience. We are an immigrant nation; not only are the vast majority of Americans immigrants, but study after study has shown that immigrants create way more value than they consume. Immigrant entrepreneurs in particular play a vital role in continually revitalizing our economy and our communities. Here in Boston we have an extraordinary population of immigrant entrepreneurs who have built companies that matter in every sector.
EP: Can you tell us about your experiences working with immigrant entrepreneurs?
JZ: I have worked with immigrant entrepreneurs as colleagues; I have invested in companies led by immigrant entrepreneurs; I have benefited from advice and mentoring from immigrant entrepreneurs. It has been my experience [and is more or less the unanimous conclusion of organizational researchers] that if you want to do something difficult, complicated, or where there are lots of unknowns, you want to assemble the most heterogeneous team you can. That includes education, culture, gender, language, and experience, among other things. As I mentioned earlier, immigrant entrepreneurs bring a constant influx of diverse perspectives that contribute enormously to the vitality and success of our innovation community.
EP: In recent years there has been a lot of evidence that immigration is beneficial to the economy, both through academic research and the GEIR Coalition. Why has it been so hard for the message to spread?
JZ: I don’t know that I can answer that question. But I think part of the answer is volume: there are way more voices repeating the myth every day that immigration is a drain on the economy, than there are voices sharing the actual evidence that immigration is a boon to the economy. It’s one of many reasons I would like to see the Immigrant Entrepreneur of the Year awards have a much higher profile.
EP: At Ellis, we believe that the United States should create a Startup Visa, making it easier for foreign job creators to come and build their companies. What are you thoughts on this?
JZ: In keeping with our topic of innovation and entrepreneurship, I would love to see it prototyped!