My Journey from Welfare to Venture Capital Partner
Zoe Peden’s personal story on becoming a Partner at Ananda Impact Ventures
In my experience, there’s no such thing as luck. — Obi-Wan Kenobi, Star Wars: A New Hope
New partner announcements at venture capital firms happen all the time, but encouragingly, it’s female partners who are increasingly celebrated. There are 60 female VC partners in the UK according to Sifted in 2021 and we’re currently at 15% across Europe. However, I’m still one of the small number of female founder/operators turned partner in UK venture capital, which sits at a dismal 8% according to Diversity VC.
But what this appointment actually represents and really means to me isn’t immediately obvious from my current picture or LinkedIn profile, because it’s about where I’ve come from.
I am a child of the 80s and a massive Star Wars fan. My friends call me Zobi-wan.
My female role models growing up were Margaret Thatcher and “page 3 girl” Sam Fox (think an 80s version Kim Kardashian). Pretty depressing. I got obsessed with reading the newspapers from around the age of seven and saw there was another world beyond my northern English housing estate.
My parents divorced when I was nine, and my mum, my sister and I moved in with Nana. For the next few years, we got by on benefits, free school meals and my mum’s three jobs: delivering potatoes in the day, Yellow Pages in the afternoon, and behind the bar of the local pub at night (she worked just below the number of hours allowed before they turned your benefits off). Post-1987 Black Monday Britain was bleak.
At home, there was lots of tears, frustration and anger at our often perilous financial situation. We were living from week to week, praying the washing machine did not break or the ancient car didn’t need fixing.
There were no school trips for me, but I often sold my free lunch token to get hold of some cash. I was always coming up with business ideas to try and make some money on the side. My teachers were wonderful though, and spotted that things were tough at home. Whenever there was a free subsidised place on a drama or art trip, they got my mum to write a letter to say we were “low income”.
At the age of 13 or 14, I saw the movie Wall Street with Michael Douglas (Gordon Gekko) and Charlie Sheen (Bud Fox). The female characters were a bit lame, so it Bud who resonated with me. I started to hatch my escape plan. I was getting outta Stockport!
Your focus determines your reality. — Qui-Gon Jinn, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace
On my 13th birthday, I got a paper round, and before long, I had three. I delivered this big pink newspaper to one house — I aspired to have that pink paper (Financial Times) delivered to me in the future. On my 16th birthday, I got a weekend job at Burger King. And thanks to those brilliant teachers giving me extra attention, I also did well in my exams.
I’d done my research, and discovered that after Cambridge, the London School of Economics (LSE) had the best employment record in the UK. My next goal was set. If I was to be the first person in my family to go to university, I was going to make sure I could get a job at the end of my degree, even in the middle of a recession.
One of the questions we often ask entrepreneurs is around resilience: what is the worst job you’ve ever had? Mine was in a doner kebab factory. You had to weigh the doner meat, stuff it in the pitta and put it on the conveyor belt. Fast. For seven hours. That was one of my summer jobs, at £2.50 an hour (Burger King was £2.39, so this was an improvement!). The people who worked there full-time laughed at me when I told them my aspirations to go to university and work in investment. I spent my lunch hour reading books on my own to avoid the snide comments. I also cleaned my old school (which is why I’ve got big respect for cleaners).
Money never sleeps, pal. — Gordon Gekko, Wall Street
The only reason I could entertain going to university was because I got paid to go. The late 90s were the last days of grants that covered tuition costs in the UK if you were on low income. On my first day, I joined a big queue to get my grant cheque. I was in the queue for over an hour, holding my admission letter and chatting away, when the person in front of me told me I might be in the wrong queue. I asked them to hold my place while I investigated. I walked along the line and eventually got to the front, where there were two windows. One with the big queue, which was where you paid your fees. And one with no queue, which was the grant collection window…
Thus began the next three years of life at LSE. I was too proud to go to the hardship fund and I worked in retail jobs all the way through, with my stress levels going through the roof. Stupid pride.
I kept on dreaming about Wall Street and I applied to investment banks before graduation. I passed the maths tests, but not a single one of the psychometric or general interviews. My anxiety would take over, I just didn’t feel I belonged there. Dream shattered.
After hundreds of applications and many interviews, I got a job in academic science publishing. What was interesting about this business was that it was one of the first to go heavily online, and this is where my love affair with tech started. Until I started work, I hadn’t been on a computer for more than 30 minutes at a time (there was always a queue) and I couldn’t type. Within months, I’d taken out a loan, got my own PC and started to build simple websites.
For the next decade, I digitised content and worked in product, waiting for the right moment when I could afford to quit and build my own product and have my own company. And all the while, making mental notes of how not to be an awful employer, changing jobs every two years, and feeling under-utilised.
By 2007, I was working at a charity that had a language programme which helped people with learning disabilities to communicate. Then in 2010, Steve Jobs announced the release of the iPad — and changed my world. Right before me, I saw the opportunity to build a business digitising the language programme. I flew to New York to get one of the first iPads and together with my technical co-founder, we built MyChoicePad.
The first year of my entrepreneurial journey was not without issues, as per the norm in start-up life. In addition, I went through a very painful divorce and found myself in shared accommodation in my mid-30s. Back to square one.
Eighteen months into this journey, I was a few weeks away from not knowing how to cover my rent when I won a grant from UnLtd, the foundation for social entrepreneurs. Someone believed in me. Again. After six months, I got into the first Wayra UK accelerator programme, then over the next four years, I raised angel money — a strongly female-backed round thanks to Suzanne Biegel — and then VC funding.
MyChoicePad has won global awards for both innovation and impact. It’s now over 11 years old and has helped 100,000s of children and adults to communicate. Any chips on my shoulder I’d had when I first arrived in London all those years ago had very much disappeared. I owned where I was, where I came from, and who I was going to be.
I learnt that you have to find your tribe. I made an amazing founder peer group, forged through both good times and hard times as we built our start-ups. These are my best friends still today. I was no longer alone.
Fast forward a few years, and Lennart Hergel at Ananda Impact Ventures, one of my investors, asked me if I wanted to help them source some start-ups. It turned out I was quite good at it and even found myself enjoying it. I wondered if I’d be a traitor to my fellow entrepreneurs if I moved to the other side of the fence. But my friends reassured me that I could always go back to being a founder. They also reminded me that what I represented and the diversity of my network was much needed for a healthier VC ecosystem.
And so I got my next battle to win!
To better integrate myself in this new world, I set up the FutureWorldVC community to support diverse and ethically-minded VCs on their way up to partner level. I wanted people to have the networks, knowledge and a safe place to share issues and rise up together. There are over 180 people in this community now. Having this network really helped me feel I could fit into this world of finance, the one that had rejected me earlier on. Now I could mould it to fit people from different backgrounds like my own.
My entrepreneurial career has given me financial independence. I can’t emphasise how much this has changed my whole mindset and provided the stability I didn’t have growing up. It’s also given me confidence in my role as a VC where you often need to have strong convictions based on very little data. But when you’re used to fighting, you don’t frighten easily!
I’ve learnt that venture capital is very much an art, plus a bit of science and maths. Just because I was a leader in tech and could build a product didn’t make me a good VC from day one. But it certainly gives you empathy for the start-up journey.
My own journey has been a long one, but I couldn’t have got to where I am today without the support of a whole ecosystem of people. The parents and teachers who helped me build MyChoicePad. UnLtd for being my first investor, then Wayra for accelerating me. Suzanne Biegel, who fought for me and built my angel round, and Lennart Hergel, who took me from entrepreneur to VC. My entrepreneur tribe picked me up off the floor many a time and the folks at Ananda saw my potential and backed me not once but twice. I’m also very grateful to my coach Nicole Brigandi, who I’m sure hastened by at least six months my advance to partner.
You must unlearn what you have learned. — Yoda, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
So after four years, this not-so-young Padawan has now served their apprenticeship. I’ve had my share of rejections at Investment Committee, lost deals because I wasn’t quick enough, but at the same time I’ve spotted and nurtured some amazing companies, like Nature Metrics, whose founder I met all those years back at Wayra (you can read more about that deal here). I’ve also had the privilege of sitting on a number of boards and seen founders and CEOs artfully steer their companies through the COVID nightmare.
Ananda as a firm has evolved too from when I first met them ten years ago. I’ve become more Ananda, and Ananda has become a bit more me.
What do I mean by that? A great example is how they asked me to join the partnership, surprising me with a sword wielding Jedi partner ceremony beside the Isar river in Munich. It was epic, very personal and truly special!
Making a measurable, impactful difference to this world through entrepreneurship and innovative technology at scale is what drives me and it’s what Ananda is all about. We have so many challenges to tackle in healthcare, education, climate and equality, and there’s no better feeling than building something that meets these challenges, creates impact, and changes the world in some way.
When I speak to founders, I’m looking for true grit, deep values alignment, the desire to lead where others fear to tread, strong domain knowledge, and the ability to attract the best people to join them. Like Steve Jobs said, “Here’s to the crazy ones — the square pegs in the round hole, the ones who think differently”.
And so now the next battle begins: impact venture capital taking over the VC asset class; more working class entrepreneurs and VCs; and more entrepreneurs taking the impact path. We need the best minds from all walks of life to solve the massive social and environmental problems that face us.
The leaders of the future will look and act very differently from the ones in the past. Come fight with me! — Zobi-wan, Leader of the Rebel Alliance and Jedi Partner at Ananda Impact Ventures.