Recently, I helped my oldest son, an 8th grader, through the process of applying to private high schools. We visited schools. I hired a tutor to help him with test taking strategies for the private high school placement exam. I also brainstormed essay ideas with him and reviewed his drafts. This was a glimpse into what the future college admissions process would look like for him and what we should start thinking about over the coming four years to best position him as a future applicant.
I reflected on how vastly different my own experience was when I applied to colleges as a high school senior. I was a refugee immigrant from Vietnam. My family came to the U.S. with no money and no English. We settled in a small rural farm town in Pennsylvania. There was only 1 public high school within a 20 mile radius. Of the 600 students that were enrolled as high school freshman, more than 30% dropped out. None of my classmates aspired to go to elite colleges — even the valedictorian and salutatorian of my class went to state schools. My high school guidance counselor barely knew my name and offered little guidance.
My parents did not attend college so could not help me think through college options or help me with the college application process. I was not aware of SAT tutoring. Even if I had known such a thing existed, my family could never have afforded it. My parents encouraged me to attend either a community college or the state university because it was the most affordable option. I had no role models to look up to and no mentors or networks to turn to.
And yet, with a combination of hard work, determination and a bit of luck, I managed to forge a path on my own. I attended ivy league schools for undergrad and an MBA. From there I traversed my way to Silicon Valley where I went on to a successful career in product and now venture capital.
I’m now in a position of privilege, thanks in part to having figured out the power of mentors and networks. These two things opened doors for me that I otherwise would never have seen, let alone been able to enter. Because of this, I now dedicate a lot of my time toward creating communities for under-represented groups and women.
Just last week, I attended a Jeffersonian-style dinner with a group of investors, founders and journalists. I met a seed-stage VC who co-invests alongside some of the top seed funds in Silicon Valley. I asked him if he invests at the pre-seed stage, and he smirked. “I co-lead $3M or more seed rounds often before a product has even launched.” I expressed my surprise at the size of the rounds with little to no traction. He countered, “If you’re two guys with computer science degrees from Stanford or you worked at Google, you should have no problems raising a $3M seed.”
What he said was stunning — partly because of how matter-of-factly he said it, but mostly because of what it said about privilege. Most founders don’t have access to such effortless capital. And the ones who do often don’t recognize they have it.
Talent is distributed everywhere but opportunity is not.
Since becoming an investor, I’ve met hundreds of founders whose startups had traction, yet struggled to raise capital. They don’t have the insider knowledge or status, and they don’t know how to network their way to the right investors. They don’t know how to run a proper fundraise process, or how to create investor demand around the fundraise for their startup.
When I turn down founders for investment, the number one ask I often get is “Can you intro me to other VCs who might be interested in my startup?” Unfortunately, I can’t always help these founders for varying reasons. Often times it’s due to my limited bandwidth. Sometimes it’s because I don’t want to refer them to a VC who would likely pass for the same reasons. Sometimes it’s because I believe founders need to do the hard work and figure out how to reach the right VCs themselves.
[There are other ways I can help founders who lack access to opportunity. I previewed some of what we are doing at Spero in this blog post, and I’ll share more of the progress we’ve made in this area in a future post.]
So what can founders who don’t have the privilege of being a white man, or a computer science degree from an elite school, or a resume that includes a stint at a unicorn company, or rich friends, do? I’m not sure I have the answers, but I have great hope and am inspired by the grit and hustle of many founders who did not have these privileges yet figured out their own paths.
Anne Cocquyt came to the Bay Area from the UK 7 years ago. Not knowing anyone in the Bay Area, Anne decided to create her own network. She founded a social club “Bubbles and Biz”, organized over 40 events, and facilitated over 500 connections between women in the Bay Area. This led her to found and launch The Guild, a social network and mentoring platform that has facilitated over 15000 networking and mentorship introductions among women since 2017. This includes programs for entrepreneurs to get warm introductions to investors outside of their networks. She solved the challenge she faced, herself, in making new connections when you’re in a new place and a new industry.
Ruben Harris moved to the Bay Area from Atlanta 4 years ago because he wanted to pursue a career in tech. Through sheer hustle, Ruben networked his way into being an advisor to premier valley startups including AltSchool, Honor and Hustle (a Spero company). Two years ago, he launched the podcast Breaking into Startups to inspire more than three million people to consider careers in tech. Today, he is the founder of Career Karma (YC W’19), an app that helps non-tech professionals break into the tech industry by helping them get into coding bootcamps and other training programs.
I try to remind myself that I’m privileged to be here in Silicon Valley and have the networks and access that most don’t. It’s a privilege that my much younger self could never have imagined. It’s important for those of us who have that privilege to recognize it and help others who may not yet have access to it. I have a great privilege being a venture capitalist. As gatekeepers to funding, it’s our responsibility to widen those gates and equalize access to opportunity.
If you’d like to partner together with me on this journey, I hope you’ll reach out to me through our website or at firstname.lastname@example.org