The Next Generation of VC: Meet Piva Capital’s 2020 Summer Associates

Adzmel Adznan
Aug 4, 2020 · 8 min read
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Meet Meng, Jonathan & Roxanne

When we launched our first fund back in December 2019, Managing Partner and CEO Ricardo Angel and I were very intentional about building a strong, diverse team to help us carry out our mission to invest in the new era of industry and energy. People, after all, are the greatest assets of any organization in any industry — venture capital is no exception.

What’s equally important, however, is to create opportunities for the younger generations to learn and develop skills. We should always be thinking about how best to prime the next generation of investors and not only arm them with a core understanding of the current landscape, but nurture the new ideas, strategies, and values that will shape the future.

This is precisely why we created Piva Capital’s Summer Associate Program (SAP) earlier this year. Our goal was to provide a broad-based knowledge (and hands-on experience) of venture-investing, particularly in the industrial and energy space, to first-year MBA candidates looking to build a career in venture capital. The program is designed to empower Summer Associates to confidently lead the foundational activities that shape a unique investment thesis, learn the typical operations and how to contribute to the overall success of a VC firm, as well as develop a personal network in the tech and open innovation ecosystem here in Silicon Valley.

However, one thing we didn’t anticipate was a global pandemic that would thrust business and society as a whole into an ongoing state of social distance and remote work (for those who are able). As the world continues to grapple with COVID-19, we feel fortunate to be in an industry that can adapt to the “new normal” and believe our Summer Associate Program is no different. While originally intended to be in-person, Piva’s SAP went remote just like everything else during this time — giving our Summer Associates across the country a crash course in VC in the age of COVID.

Today, we’re a few months into the program and have greatly enjoyed working with the investors of tomorrow. But don’t take it from me — let’s hear from our Summer Associates on their experiences and thoughts on remote-work in the VC industry during this interesting period of their lives.

Meet Piva Capital’s 2020 Class of Summer Associates

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Mengzhen Lei, MIT Sloan School of Management

“Raised in China, I first moved to Europe to complete my education and graduated cum laude from Uppsala University in Sweden with a finance degree. After moving to Australia for a year to work at an investment fund, I joined Shell and rotated through various strategy and finance roles in the Netherlands, India and Italy and most recently drove investments in solar and storage projects in Europe. The renewable power division was in its early days when I first joined and that was when I found my passion working in a fast-moving, startup-like environment and in cleantech. I arrived at MIT Sloan eager to learn cutting-edge innovation in technology and to work with great entrepreneurs in the U.S. The summer internship at Piva met both of my goals!”

Jonathan Hess, Stanford Graduate School of Business

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“I’m from Alabama, where I gained an appreciation for the environment and the need to preserve it on countless backpacking and canoeing trips. My interest in finance took me from the University of Alabama to Barclays Investment Bank’s Leveraged Finance Group in New York. I learned the fundamentals of successful TMT businesses there, but realized I wanted to get closer to founders and tech companies as they were being built. It was at Stanford Business School, where I’m currently working towards a joint MBA and MS in Environmental Resources, that I put the pieces together. Getting involved in Stanford’s startup ecosystem, while also spending my time digging into clean energy’s incredible business potential, showed me that it is possible to support and build companies while also doing good by the environment. I learned firms like Piva Capital combine it all through cleantech venture investing — and I knew exactly what I wanted to do.”

Roxanne Tully, Harvard Business School

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“I grew up in the Midwest, and spent much of my youth hiking, biking, skiing and sailing. My early inclination for spending time in nature developed into an insatiable curiosity for how things work. I pursued a degree in mechanical engineering at Tuft University, where I explored how to apply my engineering skills to environmental and societal challenges: from robotics, to wind-turbine design, to water filtration and distribution. I loved building mechanical systems from the ground up and continued this passion throughout my career in product development and manufacturing. I chose to go for my MBA with a goal of exploring how to finance and scale breakthrough technologies to make a positive, global impact on climate.”

Q: What are some key lessons learned from the experience thus far?

Mengzhen: The most enjoyable part of working in VC for me is always getting exposure to new technologies and industries which greatly satisfies my natural curiosity. At the same time, I’ve come to realize that constant learning means that I’ll often be in a position where I may know less about the tech or sector than the entrepreneur. The ability to ask constructive questions, speak honestly without prior knowledge and have a framework to reach conviction despite the unknowns has become the most important skills to develop.

It’s not enough to simply feel excited or bearish about a certain company or technology. You have to learn discipline in organizing your thoughts and better articulate the why and why not. This has pushed me to do deeper thinking and learn systematically rather than my previous learning habits, which were mostly analytical and gradual. I believe that being a good investor doesn’t mean you need to be the smartest or the most knowledgeable person in the room. The most valuable skills are being able to listen attentively, identify the most mission-critical questions to ask and articulate your arguments for discussion. My biggest takeaway — stay humble and stay true.

Jonathan: I’ve learned an incredible amount about venture investing in just a few short weeks — and I’m only just beginning to realize how much more there is to know. I’ve learned to look at more than just key financial metrics and business model characteristics, searching for qualities in founders themselves. Something I wasn’t expecting this summer was having the opportunity to help think through the fund’s strategy. Since Piva is on Fund I, we’ve had the chance to play an active role in deciding what the portfolio should look like and which companies, investors, and trends we want to align ourselves with — it’s entrepreneurial, in a way, and very exciting.

Of course, the big surprise for all of us was COVID turning the world upside down. The effects are something we talk about constantly, whether evaluating companies, forming industry views, coordinating work remotely as a deal team, or just trying to organize virtual social time. Thankfully, Piva is a super collaborative culture and a group of genuinely nice and sharp investors, so it’s no surprise that they have made the virtual experience a great one. Alongside the rest of the team, I’ve learned that collaboration, cohesion, and deal-making are all possible while remote.

Roxanne: In my first meeting with Piva Venture Partner, Rob Siegel, he told me something I will never forget: don’t just fall in love with the technology, fall in love with the business. It’s simple, but such an important reminder that innovative tech on its own won’t win. Superior technology is the foundation, but not the totality. My experience this summer has led me to a deeper understanding of what factors drive tech adoption, growth, and scale — especially for energy and industrial applications.

Q: Looking forward — what are some of the macro trends you believe will define the next generation of VC?

Jonathan: I’m incredibly optimistic about the future of venture capital. In the past few years, we’ve seen new companies, particularly those in IoT and AI from hardware and software respectively, revolutionize tech across industries. In the next few years, we are going to see incredible innovation in technology, along with the investment that helps it grow, transform the real economy. We’re already beginning to see players in legacy industries, such as utilities and manufacturers, taking big steps toward the future. And the push toward clean energy and all the technology that will come with it — managing distributed power generation, solving the storage problem at scale, even bringing in hydrogen as the solution to decarbonize sectors of the economy — is only gaining momentum.

Look at all the incredible progress in just the past year: huge corporations committing to clean energy, innovation in the real economy as a central pillar of the global COVID recovery efforts, wind and solar firmly establishing themselves as the lowest-cost source of energy — a lot of things are moving in the right direction and it is an incredible opportunity to be a part of that push.

Q: With the Coronavirus shifting all work to remote — summer internships were no exception. What’s your take on some of the benefits and challenges that you’ve experienced?

Mengzhen: I am very much a people person who gains energy by interacting with people and learning by observing how others work. It is definitely more challenging to play a part in a new team while working fully remote. To me, the most challenging factor is not being able to connect with colleagues casually. Meetings are set up for designated purposes, and Zoom allows one conversation at a time, which cuts off opportunities to interact. One takeaway that I’d like to apply to future remote roles is finding 15 minutes for more small chats with colleagues to check in on what everyone is working on, offer my help wherever possible, or to get their thoughts on a question or problem I’m working on.

I think frequent interactions foster trust among team members, and a trust-worthy environment enables more open, honest, and effective discussions.

Q: What drew you to Piva’s Summer Associate Program?

Roxanne: First of all, the opportunity to engage with and support entrepreneurs that are building a range of transformative technologies seems like the coolest thing I could possibly do this summer.

I’m also excited about Piva’s investment focus on the future of energy, industry, and materials. I nerd out on the latest technical innovations (from industrial AI to carbon capture and utilization) and firmly believe in their ability to change some of the longest standing industries in our world today by making them more efficient, safer and sustainable.

Finally, I’m thrilled to be a part of the Piva Capital team. From my first meeting with the core investment team, it became clear that Piva invests both in its partnerships with incredible entrepreneurs and those who join the team. I was impressed not only by the team’s deep expertise in industrial and energy tech, but also by their commitment to developing a collaborative, cohesive, and mission-driven culture.

Stay tune for more from our Summer Associates!

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