Here at Recast Capital, we’re fortunate to work with incredible emerging managers in venture. To help showcase these exceptional GPs and their funds, we’ve launched “Catching Up,” a new series featuring individual profiles on the managers and funds in our community. Read on below!
Ariana Thacker is Founding Partner of Conscience VC, and participant in Recast’s second Enablement Program cohort. Ariana generously gave us the time to chat with her about her background, becoming a venture investor, how she developed her thesis, and words of wisdom for other emerging managers. Thanks, Ariana!
Recast Capital (RC): So, how did it all start?
Ariana Thacker (AT): Growing up, I was a little nerdy; I joined the Science Academy, a program in middle school that taught AP and college-level science. We were getting exposed to quite advanced physics, chemistry and biology, and I fell in love. There was even a point when I laminated my notes so I could study in the shower. Really. I had an insatiable curiosity for science and wanted to learn it all.
RC: Laminating your notes is hard core.
AT: I know. I would also buy and borrow used textbooks to teach myself; that curiosity continued through high school and eventually into college. I went to UCLA to study chemical engineering. (I was also pre-med and took additional courses in mechanical engineering.) I was given the opportunity to work in a lab focused on tissue engineering research, which was sponsored and helped pay for my degree. I was the first in my family to go to college, and had to hack paying for school on my own, which was another layer of challenge on top of a rigorous engineering program. When I graduated, my first job out of college was for a joint venture between Exxon and Shell, at a company called Aera Energy. Each morning I had a 60 minute commute to the oil patch, which was out in the desert, in a remote area from Bakersfield. It was a bit wild in hindsight, I was frequently the only woman in the room, sometimes with 50+ team members; we even were given snake chaps to wear because of rattlesnakes. It was a lot of fun.
RC: How did you make the shift into venture?
AT: While I loved the technical work in oil and gas, I began to notice that the industry tends to move really slowly; there is so much administrative burden at large companies, and the slow-pace was further compounded with the $/barrel of oil taking a nosedive. I also simply wanted to do more, and move faster. Also I began developing a perspective at this point on what I wanted my legacy to be, which didn’t quite align with a career in oil and gas. A professor in Mechanical Engineering reached out after this experience, and I joined the founding team of a startup creating a thermal energy storage solution. Although the company didn’t last, working there made me realize how much more I enjoyed engaging with founders, versus building tech. That was the biggest takeaway for me. Hindsight, this was an obvious epiphany, but keep in mind at the time start-ups weren’t in the vernacular. The sexy thing to do as an engineer was join a big tech company as a software engineer, and frankly, the least sexy was join an oil and gas company. So, after this initial start-up experience, I started a consulting firm, engaging with as many founders as possible, pro-bono initially, and eventually paid. I leveraged that experience and passion for serving founders to move further into VC, working for a lead investor at a company that focused on physical sciences and applied engineering. The firm’s focus was primarily enterprise — but I kept seeing really compelling companies with a customer-facing business model, employing technical defensibility. Growing up in Los Angeles, I also had an eye for consumer trends (and would often take active mental notes on these patterns). This started me thinking about consumer behavior and how tightly tied they are to consumer-science integration, on top of other compelling realizations on why this intersection made sense.
RC: And that became your thesis?
AT: Yes. I started off with a small initial fund with a partner, where we raised outside capital. For me this “proof of concept” fund was important to build a track record and demonstrate opportunity to LPs, as a handful of the companies were aligned with the intersection of consumer and science. I didn’t have a formal LP network, so I pitched friends who could write $10k checks, and their friends who could write $20k+ checks, liquidated everything, essentially fronted my life savings, moved into my parents’ two-bedroom apartment and worked off my bed. (The fund was an SPV with multiple companies in it, so investors toward the tail-end of that process essentially received a package of de-risked and diversified companies, which in hindsight was quite the novel offering.) During this time I was able to fully develop the reasons to support the Conscience VC thesis and build the backbone to launch a formal firm.
RC: We’d love to hear them.
AT: I typically walk my investors through around 10 compelling reasons, but to start, you get validation in the market right away, whereas in traditional, or enterprise, deep tech, science-led enterprise companies must go through immense sales cycles. (There are also so many projects out there that get stalled in the lab or don’t see their value extracted even though they have serious potential to drive significant value for its end users.) Furthermore, you don’t have real-time clarity through the process of these sales cycles, even with compelling early signals, such as an early partnership with a large company; these bigger corporations are benchmarking your tech to a host of companies you may or may not be aware of, or they’re just extracting knowledge and info with no serious attempt to commercialize your efforts. At the end of the day, it’s hard to distinguish intent — is it an intellectual experiment? It’s often hard for corporations to know the answer behind the long-term commercial viability. This dynamic makes it very difficult for early-stage investors to know whether the attraction is real and here to stay. With consumers, you don’t really have that issue. Nobody’s paying in advance or buying your product if they’re not serious about it, or deeply curious to try. So, there is clearer validation of market value. There are several more reasons to support the thesis, but that’s just one.
RC: Where does Gen Z come in?
AT: I love Gen Z as a target customer. In fact we just launched an apprenticeship program centered around Gen Z in the firm. They’re a lot more technically savvy in understanding the products they’re buying, and even the supply chain, too. For example, they’ll go find out whether a product is truly sustainable or if the company is greenwashing (or a recent term I may have coined, “sciencewashing”). They’ll watch countless TikTok and YouTube videos, read articles, and more to augment their research. We also saw a lot of this research-oriented behavior across the general population with the COVID vaccine; people were happy to make an effort to understand it, and now there are so many resources available for consumers to make smarter buying decisions. Have you also noticed the up-tick in “backed by science” copy on websites you’re buying from, or evaluating as an investor? Science with respect to consumer products has moved from the heterodoxy to the mainstream.
RC: What’s behind the name Conscience?
AT: There are three levels to it: the first is a blend of the words consumer and science. The second layer is also definitional; it’s your inner guide or knowing. And the third level, arguably the most important, is the word play on “conscious” — being truly intentional about every decision. As investors, we have responsibility to invest in a socially and ethically responsible way, not just opportunities for financial return.
RC: Any words of wisdom for first time fund managers?
AT: Something you don’t really see too often is spiritual incorporation in the workplace. I don’t mean that in a woo-woo way. I always encourage people to adopt a journaling (or meditation) practice. I’ve personally done a lot of spiritual and healing work. This type of work doesn’t really get discussed with peers, or is dismissed entirely. It’s so important to open your mind and become super clear on your intentions before diving into something big.