Conventional wisdom in Silicon Valley is that diverse portfolios and diverse founding teams are more likely to succeed.
We believe the conventional wisdom, and also believe that we have benefitted from some of the diverse talent pools that we draw upon.
Somewhat paradoxically, our firm emerged from a fairly narrow swath of talent: our partners were all members of the same club (“TEEC”: the Tsinghua Entrepreneur and Executive Club”), which was formed in the early 2000s by a group of Tsinghua University graduates in Silicon Valley who had started successful start-ups. The TEEC Angel Fund that was built by this group had a remarkable run of success, being part of the seed round for Zoom Video (IPO-ed; now ~$100B), Ginkgo Bioworks (~$15B SPAC), Plus.ai (~$3B SPAC) and Quanergy (~$1B SPAC), in addition to other multi-billion dollar valuations achieved in the portfolio. Most of these companies were founded by entrepreneurs with a very similar background to our partners: overwhelmingly male, PhDs originally from China.
Diversity is a relative concept. In the world of US venture capital, almost no partners at top VC firms were born or raised in China, despite ~18% of US STEM PhDs being from China. So, in some ways, the TEEC Angel Fund skew towards the Chinese diaspora represented at least a contrarian investment strategy. It could not rightly be called “diverse” though.
Little by little, this has been changing. In 2018, we launched Tsingyuan Ventures, which was still largely focused on technical founders, primarily from China. We made some progress in backing companies founded by women, and have diversified somewhat from our heavy Chinese focus. We remained highly committed to technical founders and immigrant founders, which has served us well:
- Tsingyuan Fund 1 total investments: 57
- % founded by immigrants: 83% (of which, Chinese immigrants: 65%)
- % founded by PhDs: 72%
- % founded by women: 21% (approximately aligned with industry average of 20%)
Now, we are announcing the launch of Foothill Ventures. It is the result of several trends alluded to above: we have been gradually decreasing our sole focus on the Chinese diaspora, while maintaining a skew towards technical immigrants. This fund is off to an excellent start, and is clearly different in composition from Tsingyuan Fund 1:
- Foothill Ventures Fund 1 total investments: 23 (so far; we expect this fund to have 50 investments by end of 2022)
- % founded by immigrants: 84% (of which, Chinese immigrants: 48%)
- % founded by PhDs: 70%
- % founded by women: 30% (well above industry average)
Our goal is to not only have a portfolio that reflects diversity across companies, but also to have diversity within companies. We have found that PhD-led teams perform better when the founding team includes at least one member who is “management-focused”. We have also found that teams that include men and women and team members of different cultural and educational backgrounds are better suited to create lasting companies. The research on the success of cross-disciplinary teams suggests that companies that are the product of deep subject matter experts from a broad range of fields can lead to larger outcomes. Similarly, our observation of high performing teams in our portfolio suggests that the greater the internal diversity, the more likely the company is to reach “escape velocity”.
So, in the end, diversity is not really an end in itself; we believe the diversity leads to better returns, and will include this as a factor in our investment decision-making process.