Ask A VC — Alison Wagonfeld, Operating Partner at Emergence Capital

by Pocket Sun (@pocketysun)

“Ask A VC” is an interview series by SoGal Ventures, featuring prominent venture capitalists around the world. We hope to inspire diversity in the tech community — empowering our generation to grow into exceptional entrepreneurs and investors.

In March 2013, Alison joined Emergence Capital, a leading venture capital firm in Silicon Valley focused on early and growth-stage enterprise cloud companies. It has invested in highly successful SaaS companies such as Salesforce, Box, Yammer, SuccessFactors, and Veeva.

Alison was entrepreneurial from an early age. At 10 years old, she started a business making and selling barrettes, which was followed by her stationery business at age 12. When the entrepreneurial girl grew up, she chose to go to Yale to study history and literature. Before graduation, she worked as a PR intern in New York City, to expose herself to marketing and as a finance intern at Merrill Lynch. For seniors at Yale, investment banking and consulting were the most popular career choices for students that wanted to pursue a business career. Alison preferred investment banking because she liked the pace and thought it would help her build a broad business background. She worked at Morgan Stanley’s Mergers & Acquisition group in New York City for two years. According to Alison, the company took new hires from any background and gave them two months of training. She learned the most about how to be proficient in Excel and how to value companies. She notes that the connections she made while working in finance still remains a strong network for her.

She had an awesome experience spending her 3rd year of investment banking in Hong Kong in 1994. While there, she also worked in Thailand, Malaysia, and China. Seeing the other side of the world made her wonder - What else can I do? How can I make myself more valuable? During her time in Asia, a magical invention — email — completely changed how she worked. She could now send documents and spreadsheets back to New York each night, and miraculously, they showed up the next morning with much progress.

I was able to go out at night! And that was my “A-ha” moment — technology changes lives. At this point, I had decided to go to Harvard Business School, where I was excited to focus on technology and entrepreneurship.

While at HBS, Alison worked at Microsoft for the summer, but upon graduation, she really wanted to work at a tech company in Silicon Valley. She joined Intuit at an important time in its history. At work, she looked at startups and bigger companies, and noticed the trend of people starting online businesses. In 1996, she created the original business plans for Quicken Loans, and worked with top engineers from the TurboTax team to launch the business. For her, it was a perfect opportunity to be entrepreneurial and benefit from strong mentors such as Intuit’s founder, Scott Cook.

After 3 years of growing Quicken Loans, Alison jumped to a startup called Greenlight that was being incubated at Kleiner Perkins. As the second employee at the company, she was a critical part of executing the mission to make car buying less painful. In 2001, Alison helped Greenlight sell to a competitor, a solid exit as the markets started selling off post the dot-come craziness.

Then what? Alison loved the case method (and that’s one of the reasons why she went to Harvard Business School), and she was looking for an intellectually challenging role that also allowed for flexibility, as she became a mom shortly after the Greenlight sale. The HBS California Research Center offered her an opportunity to lead the office as its executive director, and next thing you know, she worked there for 10 years. Working closely with faculty and business leaders, she was involved in writing over 100 case studies about Bay Area companies. Additionally, she also helped launch the Harvard Innovation Lab, and built a strong network of HBS alumni in California.

Through her extensive work in entrepreneurship and with Harvard Business School, Alison was connected to Jason Green (Co-founder of Emergence Capital). She sought him out for career advice when she was thinking about leaving her HBS position, and they both realized that there could be a great opportunity for Alison to join Emergence in a newly created role as an operating partner. Her experience in marketing, banking, technology giants, startups, entrepreneurial studies, along with her network of entrepreneurs and investors made her a perfectly well-rounded partner for Emergence.

Alison has been at Emergence for almost three years now and she loves it. One secret? In her career, she has interviewed so many founders for research purposes that she can smell what success looks like.

In the interview with SoGal Ventures, Alison shared a few additional thoughts about her current role.

Pocket: How is your role as Operating Partner different from General Partner? Is GP a role you would like to be in?

I really enjoy having a broad role as the only Operating Partner at Emergence Capital. Not only am I part of the Investment Team, but I also have the opportunity to work closely with all of our portfolio companies after we make an investment. I help in areas such as strategy, product, marketing, and sales, and I also help with executive recruiting. Earlier in my career, I co-founded two businesses, and I studied hundreds of entrepreneurial businesses when I was writing case studies for Harvard Business School, so it is great to share my personal experiences and research findings with our portfolio companies. In addition, as Operating Partner, I’m also responsible for all of Emergence Capital’s marketing, including content, events, PR, conferences and social media, which adds yet another dimension to my role.

Pocket: What are the trends you are seeing for enterprise cloud companies?

At Emergence, we like to think about what’s coming next for the enterprise. There are a number of trends that are interesting, including enterprise mobile applications, vertically focused “industry cloud” companies, and the benefits of artificial intelligence and machine learning for enterprise applications. I recently published an article on TechCrunch about Enterprise Cloud Predictions for 2016.

Pocket: What’s your advice for the younger generation to break into venture capital?

I have three pieces of advice for people who might want to work in venture capital:

  1. Pick a sector/trend/topic and go deep. Learn about all the companies in a space, create a framework, and offer to share that research with a mid/senior level person at a venture firm, though not necessarily a GP (e.g. VP, Principal, junior level Partner). If you can impress a few members of a particular team with your work, when that firm wants to hire, they will think to reach out. (Most firms only hire one person every 1–2 years)
  2. Publish. Start a blog, write about insights, reference materials and companies from venture firms that interest you. That will help you get on a firm’s radar screen.
  3. Go to a top business school and get involved in the venture community at that school. Even better if you have a product management background. Most VC firms tend to hire MBAs, and they particularly like MBAs with a technical or product background.

Pocket: You have made great career transitions in the past. What’s your motivation and aspiration now?

I have always been drawn to jobs that involve working in an entrepreneurial setting and where I can make an impact. While at Emergence, I’m excited to continue teaming up with visionary founders who want to build the next generation of enterprise software.

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