Have gender mixed firms: Having all male or all female firms makes it feel like people are different. Having more balanced firms leads to things feeling more normal.
As part of my series about “the five things we need to do to close the VC gender gap” I had the pleasure of interviewing Michelle Volz, investor and entrepreneur. Michelle has worked in a variety of Silicon Valley startups including big-data company Palantir and cybersecurity platform Synack. She was also on the founding team of Haus, a real estate marketplace funded by Uber co-founder Garrett Camp where she ran product and built a marketplace from scratch. She is currently working on a stealth startup in the health and wellness space. In her free time, she does ultramarathons and recently became the fastest woman ever to run a marathon in Antarctica. Michelle is an investor in Portfolia’s FemTech fund, a fund that focuses on emerging technologies, products and services improving women’s health and wellness throughout their lives.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” that brought you to this career path?
I have always been interested in technology and how it can improve health and wellness. In college, I created my own major which was focused on entrepreneurship and how it could be applied to healthcare and general wellness. After working in startups for years and finding success, I wanted to start giving back, but didn’t have much experience in investing. I was introduced to people at Portfolia, an investing community and a family of venture investing funds. They had a FemTech fund that focused on companies building products and solutions for women’s health. I spoke more with the team at Portfolia and loved that I’d be able to participate in a fund in an area I cared about while also learning more about how investing works. Through the fund, I was able to get access to resources and tools to help me learn more about venture capital and investing without having to switch careers or dedicate my life to it. It’s also been a great way to expand my network as the other investors in the fund are all successful and talented individuals.
Can you share a story of your most successful Angel or VC investment? In your opinion, what was its main lesson?
One of the first investments out of the FemTech fund was for Future Family, a company working to make fertility care accessible and affordable to all. We invested as part of their $10MM Series A and since then the company has grown tremendously and recently launched an affordable membership for fertility coaching. To me, this is an example of how there are big opportunities in areas that have historically had little venture capital funding, such as women’s fertility.
Can you share a story of an Angel or VC funding “failure” of yours? Is there a lesson or take away that you took out of that that our readers can learn from?
I’m still fairly new to the investing game so I don’t have any major funding failures that I know of yet, but I’m sure I will make some decisions that I will learn from along the way. In my last role, I was part of a studio that invested in startups and saw a few early-stage companies receive a lot of funding for having a compelling concept, but never make it off the ground. A big reason was the companies spent a lot of time building a product before finding product- market fit, which is very expensive and depletes their funds before they get a chance to learn. My takeaway was that investors should encourage early-stage startups to really go after product market fit with the least amount of tech investment they can get away with, because that allows for the startup to find the right opportunity and then use their funding to grow that opportunity.
Was there a company that you turned down, but now regret? Can you share the story? What lesson did you learn from that?
Again, not yet, but I’m sure I’ll see some crop up in the next 5–10 years.
Ok let’s jump to the main focus of our interview. According to this article in Fortune, only 2.2% of VC dollars went to women in 2018. Can you share with our readers what your firm is doing to help close the VC gender gap?
I think what Portfolia is doing is a great and novel way to close the VC gender gap. I’ve been able to learn so much about how Venture Capital works without starting in it full time, plus I’ve gotten to be involved in real investment decisions and processes. The other investors in the fund are mostly women in a similar position, and it’s been awesome to share in learnings together and build our network of support. If I did want to transition to VC full-time, I would feel much better equipped and more confident.
The other thing that I think this particular fund is doing well is investing in women’s health startups, which are often run by women. It is critical that there be VCs who understand the physical and emotional issues that these women’s health startups are trying to solve to ensure that they receive the necessary funding to be successful.
Can you recommend 5 things that need to be done on a broader societal level to close the VC gender gap.
- Open up opportunities: So many VC roles are never published and come from network connections, which often means that people looking to break into VC don’t even get a chance to show that they are interested and capable. Firms that publicize open jobs may get candidates from different backgrounds and have a more diverse pipeline.
- Support women entrepreneurs: Successful entrepreneurs can and often do become investors, so supporting women at the entrepreneurial level can help broaden the VC pool in the coming years and decades.
- Have gender mixed firms: Having all male or all female firms makes it feel like people are different. Having more balanced firms leads to things feeling more normal.
- Create non-standard opportunities: Organizations like Portfolia or other investment funds allow women or anyone to participate in non-traditional ways.
- Refrain from pointing out that people are “female”: Every time we call out that someone is a “female investor” or “female entrepreneur”, then we are reinforcing that there is something different about them. If we normalize women in these roles, then it will feel like less of an anomaly when they are in them.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Support new companies. Starting a company is such a challenge and takes someone with incredible bravery and resilience. Founders hear no a lot and I think some people stop working on great ideas because they can’t get through some of the early rough patches. If you have a friend or someone in your network starting something, offer to help give feedback or test their products or services. A little encouragement or feedback can go a long way in the early days and it may be the difference between the entrepreneur pushing through or giving up.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“A failure is not always a mistake, it may just be the best one can do under the circumstances. The real mistake is to stop trying.” — B.F. Skinner
I think that so many people are afraid of failing, myself included. That fear will often lead to never starting something or avoiding risks. I’ve worked hard to change my mental model around failure and treat them as experiments to learn from. Some of my greatest insights when building companies have come from trying something big that did not turn out the way we expected but taught us something we never would have learned otherwise. “Failures” can often lead to the biggest breakthroughs and successes.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
I would love to sit down with Serena Williams and Alexis Ohanian. Serena is obviously an incredible athlete and competitor, and has begun making some brilliant investments and entered the tech world. Alexis started a successful tech company and then transitioned into becoming an investor, and they’ve both entered the world of parenthood which has been fun to follow from a distance. They are the ultimate powerhouse couple and inspiration.
This was really meaningful! Thank you so much for your time.