Deena Shakir is a Partner at Lux Capital, where she invests in transformative technologies streamlining analog industries and improving lives and livelihoods. She is particularly interested in entrepreneurs building breakthrough companies enabling human and environmental health, access, and productivity.
Since joining Lux in late 2019, Deena has led their investment in Mos, a technology platform seeking to make college more affordable. She also led their investment in Shiru, a company that leverages computational design to create enhanced proteins to help feed the world sustainably, where she is also a board director; and Neo, which simplifies SMB accounting to unlock scientific innovation. Deena has also joined as an observer on the board of directors of RDMD, a data platform for rare disease drug development.
Before joining Lux, Deena was a Partner at GV (formerly Google Ventures). She previously led strategic partnerships for early-stage products in healthcare, research, machine intelligence and search at Google and also directed social impact investments at Google.org. Deena was a Presidential Management Fellow at the U.S. Department of State under Secretary Clinton, where she helped launch President Obama’s first Global Entrepreneurship Summit in 2010. She serves on the Boards of several non-profits, including Tarjimly, TechWadi, and AMIDEAST. She is a Kauffman Fellow, a Council on Foreign Relations Term Member, and a Forbes Contributor. Financially independent since the age of 18, Deena self-funded her undergraduate and graduate degrees through a variety of merit scholarships and side hustles, including co-founding her first internet company while still in college. Deena earned a joint BA in Social Studies and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from Harvard (where she delivered the graduation address) and an MA from Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service.
In this interview, Deena shares her early career path, her transition into technology and venture capital, and her advice to emerging venture capitalists.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Sri Muppidi: You’ve held several interesting roles across policy, journalism, technology, and venture capital. Can you tell me about your early career in public service?
Deena Shakir: I’m a Bay Area native and a child of Iraqi immigrants, and the bildungsroman began in those early years. I was in high school when 9/11 and the war on Iraq took place, and both of these experiences were transformative for me. As an American young woman who is of Iraqi heritage and Muslim faith, I felt these heretofore seamless parts of my fluid identity were at once seemingly at odds with one another. That hyphenated existence led me to pursue an academic and eventually professional path in pursuit of a future without 9/11s or wars in Iraq, where intersectionality is celebrated and where economic and social realities precluded the desperation that might lead to such unfortunate events..
I ended up studying Social Studies and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard, where I also worked a number of jobs at a time and earned enough merit scholarships to fund my degree independently. Most of my classmates went on to pursue careers on Wall Street or in consulting, but I opted to follow the passion informed by my early days. One summer, in between the first and second year of graduate school, I was interning for the BBC’s Washington bureau and helped cover President Obama’s canonical speech in Cairo in 2009. President Obama spoke about new beginnings in the Muslim world and discussed how technology and entrepreneurship could help pave a new wave of development and diplomacy.
That was a watershed moment for me — and one when I realized I wanted to be a part of this movement, more than writing about it. I ended up getting a President Management Fellowship out of graduate school, starting off at USAID and later in Secretary Clinton’s office at the State Department. I spent a few years there, helped launch the Global Entrepreneurship Summit (a directive of the Cairo speech) and an initiative supporting diaspora entrepreneurship. And then, the “Arab Spring” happened. That was another pivotal moment, where I was witnessing the power of technology to literally change lives on the ground. By no means do I oversimplify the resistance movements as purely technological, but it became clear to me that we were truly in the midst of a fourth industrial revolution — that technology was streamlining not only social networks and enterprise productivity, but actually enabling grassroots change in a way that was previously unthinkable. I felt so inspired and motivated, and I knew I wanted to go back to my roots in Silicon Valley, to learn how to launch and build a product. I had also been spending a lot of time coming out to the Bay Area as part of my directive at the State Department, and I could tell that it was being a new mecca — a center of gravity for change beyond what had previously been relegated to a separate sector. Making that transition from the public sector to high tech was one of the hardest pivots I’ve ever had to make.
We were truly in the midst of a fourth industrial revolution — that technology was streamlining not only social networks and enterprise productivity, but actually enabling grassroots change in a way that was previously unthinkable.
Sri: Why was the transition so difficult? How did you position yourself to make that transition?
Deena: The natural ‘role’ (if such a thing exists) for someone joining a tech company out of the DC world is in a policy or PR role. But I knew I wanted to work in product, to understand how products are built, launched, and scaled. It was a very deliberate but difficult transition, and one that required tenacity and a thick skin.
I initially thought I could try to make the transition while continuing to work at the State Department, but I realized very quickly that the process was going to be difficult and intensive. There was no way that I could do both at the same time, so I quit my job. I did some consulting on the side to pay the bills, but besides that, I was committed 24/7 to finding this product role.
Sri: Can you tell me more about the job hunt process?
Deena: I was very methodological with my approach. I had this massive spreadsheet of exactly who I was going to initially approach. Then each one of those people would lead to five or six other meetings. And those would lead to more. The more conversations I had, the better I understood what I wanted, how to frame my narrative, and where I might be a fit.
I had this massive spreadsheet of exactly who I was going to initially approach. Then each one of those people would lead to five or six other meetings.
I learned to be persistent and persuasive, and I had to develop a thick skin throughout this process. I got rejected time and time again. I was told that I didn’t have the right background since I hadn’t worked in consulting or gone to business school. I had gone to Harvard, but I didn’t look like a “typical” Harvard person. I was a child of immigrants and paid for college myself; I had studied Social Studies and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. I was actually rejected when I first applied — without so much as a phone screen — for the very role I ended up being recruited for a few weeks later at Google. At that point, I was almost ready to accept another offer at another well-known tech company, but ultimately ended up choosing the role at Google. It was a hard transition, but the process resulted in the right fit at the right time, and it was that much more rewarding.
I got rejected time and time again. I was told that I didn’t have the right background since I hadn’t worked in consulting or had gone to business school.
Sri: Covid-19 has drastically impacted the economy and so many people have lost their jobs and internships as a result. Do you have any tangible tips for those on the job hunt?
- Be very specific and intentional when you’re reaching out to people. Don’t say you want to “pick their brain” or “talk about the tech landscape.” Instead, be clear about what you want from that person and why you chose that person. The more context you can provide in an initial email or request for intro, the better.
- Make it easy to help you. If you want an intro to someone, draft an email that your contact can easily forward along with little effort.
- In advance of your meeting with someone, send them some questions so they have some time to think about it. Send them your LinkedIn or resume, and perhaps share the types of jobs that you’re looking at. If you’ve already met with others from that company, mention who you’ve already spoken with. Don’t expect or demand someone’s time without putting in the work yourself.
- Follow up. No matter how well-intentioned someone is, you never know how much they have on their plate. They may have completely missed the email, so a well-timed and gentle follow up may go a long way.
If you want an intro to someone, draft an email that your contact can easily hit forward.
Sri: So you worked at Google for a few years before moving into venture capital. What was that transition like?
Deena: At Google, I was lucky enough to work on many early-stage products. This was pre-Alphabet, and I had the privilege of working on a team called “New Business Development,” where we would be responsible for some of the earliest and most frontier moonshots in the company — including initiatives such as Loon, Waymo, Verily, etc. After a few years, including helping build Google’s first HIPAA compliant product, it was becoming clear to me that big tech wasn’t necessarily going to be solving some of the world’s most challenging problems. I was coming across entrepreneurs with far fewer resources and smaller teams than those I had been working with who were able to have a tremendous impact on their industries.
I was able to source some of these companies to my friends in venture, and learned that I had a good eye for early-stage products and found joy in working with founders. I had always thought about venture as more of a long term destination, but I realized that I was enjoying the journey of it. Once I sought out to make yet another transition, it turned out to be even more challenging than moving into tech from policy. There wasn’t much of a ‘process,’ and priorities, headcount, etc. were fairly opaque. Unlike trying to get a role at Google — where there was a clear job description, level, etc — my experience in venture was a little more opaque. Thankfully, organizations like All Raise are effectively working to increase transparency and introduce more process in venture hiring, but unfortunately my move into venture was before All Raise had officially launched.
Sri: What does recruiting at the partner-level look like in venture?
Deena: At GV, I did not join as an investing partner; I helped lead the partnerships team and spent most of my time with companies in the portfolio post-investment — supporting them with commercial partnerships, follow on investments, strategic support on BD efforts.
A few years into that — and having also built up a small angel portfolio, my investment theses began to crystallize. I was exploring options internally and externally, and the industry was finally starting to recognize the value and imperative of female investing partners. I actually had a number of recruiters reach out to me directly to recruit me for investing partner roles. I was very close to potentially accepting a couple of opportunities. Lux wasn’t one of those who had engaged a recruiter, but a partner, who’s a longtime personal friend of mine, heard through the grapevine that I was talking with other firms.
He asked me to come in and speak with the rest of the Lux team before making a decision. After my very first meeting with Peter, Lux’s co-founder who manages the West Coast office, it became so abundantly clear to me just how differentiated Lux was as a firm. So many things about my previous experiences — from government to Google — seemed at face value to be unconventional for venture. Lux prides itself on the unconventional and the contrarian. These experiences make me a better investor, and they saw that. I also connected deeply on a personal level with all the partners; I felt like I could naturally bring my whole self — including being a mother of two young children — to my experience. I remember calling my husband after that first meeting, not having an offer or anything at that point, telling him that I think I found my home.
It’s been about a year now, and it’s been so much fun.
Sri: What are your tips for emerging VCs?
- Make space for thesis development, especially if you’re starting off your career in venture capital. It’s important to take time to think ahead and be proactive about the types of companies you want to work with.
- Develop your co-investor network. I’ve been very proud of the co-investors I was able to bring into the deals that I’ve done.
- Be a good person. Karma matters in this industry. Even though this is a very competitive and cutthroat industry, I think it’s important to be kind, empathetic, and honest. Your reputation is really all you have.
Be a good person. Karma really matters in this industry. Even though this is a very competitive and cutthroat industry, I think it’s important to be kind, empathetic, and honest. Your reputation is really all you have.
Sri: What are you reading, listening or watching right now?
Read: Range by David Epstein
Watch: Dead to Me
Sri Muppidi is a Contributing Writer at All Raise. She’s an investor at Sierra Ventures and focuses on early-stage investments in enterprise and emerging tech. During quarantine, Sri has been spending her time writing, hiking, and teaching design thinking to womxn at The Loop. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.