10 Questions with Ann Miura-Ko

Cofounding Partner at Floodgate

Ann Miura-Ko (@annimaniac) is a co-founding partner at FLOODGATE where her investment interests include innovations in big data, radical science, and marketplaces. She has been the founding investor board member of companies including Lyft, Refinery29, Xamarin, Ayasdi, Inscopix, Chloe & Isabel, Taskrabbit and Wanelo.

In addition to serving at FLOODGATE, Ann serves on the Yale Corporation Investment Committee and is a lecturer in the School of Engineering at Stanford University, where she got her PhD focused on mathematical modeling of computer security.

  1. When did you know you wanted to be in tech?

I was very strong at math from the time I was in elementary school. My dad had heard of friends teaching their kids calculus in elementary school so he was unabashed in pushing me to learn complex concepts at a pretty young age.

My dad bought me my first computer when I was 7 years old — an IBM PC Jr. I was pretty curious about it and remember that he opened it up so we could see what was inside. I found out quickly that although you could type the English alphabet, you couldn’t type Japanese letters. My very first tech project was creating a Japanese font when I was in the third grade.

What brought me to this point is really just a constant curiosity about many things combined with a self-awareness of my strengths and weaknesses. My curiosity had me exploring a ton of very different paths in life, but self-awareness allowed me to close doors that weren’t a fit.

My curiosity had me exploring a ton of very different paths in life, but self-awareness allowed me to close doors that weren’t a fit.

For a long time, I wanted to be a doctor and I even took the MCAT. Two days before the test, I looked at my best friend and realized I didn’t love hospitals and didn’t respond well when people were complaining and hated the sight of blood. My best friend was this incredibly empathetic caretaker, and I knew she would be amazing as a doctor. But that wasn’t me.

At another point I took the fact that I had been a pretty good high school debater who was also technically savvy to mean that I was meant to be a patent attorney. That time, I went as far as getting into law school. I did take a closer look at what being a lawyer actually meant and realized that that path also was not for me. I really don’t like reading legal documents. The language was not natural to me, and although I can be detail-oriented, I couldn’t be in that context.

Those realizations ultimately led me back to my passion for math and tech. I ended up in a PhD program at Stanford studying math modeling and computer security. It was there that I serendipitously met Mike Maples, who was starting a venture capital firm at the time and invited me to be a co-founder.

2. Who’s your role model?

Richard Feynman. There’s something so wonderful about his excitement for discovery and knowledge. I love reading his physics lectures because his love of the subject literally jumps off of the page. I also love how he approaches learning by looking at the same problem from so many different angles. He practiced such excellent habits of learning that it made him an exceptional scientist and teacher.

3. What technology gets you excited?

I’m super excited about the fact that we are now at a point where both the amount of data stored and collected is nearly matched by our ability to process, understand, and act upon it. I believe we are sitting at a new epoch in corporate management where most decisions will be automated and optimized based on existing data.

The best companies in this setting will differentiate themselves by arming their decision makers with massive amounts of compute power, freeing them to hone in on their intuition about a situation that has the biggest consequences and to questions the underlying assumptions we make in our optimization models. This is what I call the high frequency enterprise. The companies that comes closest to it today are Google, Facebook and Amazon.

The best companies in this setting will differentiate themselves by arming their decision makers with massive amounts of compute power.

4. What’s a big challenge you’ve faced in your career journey, and how have you dealt with it?

My biggest challenge was having my personal, academic and professional desires literally colliding at the same time.

I started Floodgate in May 2008. At the time, I was still a year away from defending my PhD thesis, which I had been working on for five years up to that point. I felt strongly that I wanted to finish my thesis and defend it because I had worked so hard to get to that point.

In 2008 I also had a daughter, Abby, who was 1.5 years old. My dream was to have at least two kids, and I wanted them to be relatively close in age.

Fortunately, my thesis advisor (Professor Nick Bambos), Mike Maples (my co-founding partner at Floodgate), and my husband were all incredibly supportive of my desire to finish my thesis, start Floodgate and have another child. In fact, they were all thrilled when I told them I was pregnant with my second child by the summer of 2008.

Fast forward to April 2009. My son was due at the end of the month, and I had been scheduled to defend my thesis a few weeks earlier. Unfortunately I started to have pre-term labor and was put on bedrest. That meant that 6 weeks after I had my son, Aaron, I had to drag my sleep-deprived self over to Stanford to defend my PhD thesis on math modeling and computer security.

During those months of juggling pregnancy and my thesis, I also managed to make one of my first investments (Modcloth). If I knew how crazy those first couple of years of Floodgate were going to be, I’m not sure I would have done everything I ended up doing, but it all managed to work out some how. I passed my defense, wrote up the thesis and had a third child a couple of years later.

For people who believe that women juggling a career and kids are a liability, I would posit that there are few people in the world who know how to multitask and ruthlessly prioritize like a mother of young kids. It’s been the key to my success.

For people who believe that women juggling a career and kids are a liability, I would posit that there are few people in the world who know how to multitask and ruthlessly prioritize like a mother of young kids. It’s been the key to my success.

5. What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself / your work?

I feel pride in my work when controversial companies that I bet on earlier than everyone else become mainstream. As an early-stage investor I’m not in the crazy fray of investing in companies once everyone recognizes the company is on a hockey stick trajectory. It’s my job to recognize the early signs of something interesting.

I invested in Lyft when it was still a business called Zimride. I invested because they came in and told me a story about how transportation innovation was critical to significant inflection points in the economy and that they believed such an inflection point was on the horizon. (No other transportation startups existed back in 2010 when I invested aside from Zipcar.) They had a hard time raising their Series A as well. It wasn’t until they pivoted into Lyft in 2012 that they started getting proactive interest from investors.

With Ayasdi, we had a tough time raising Series A because so many people thought that it was just a piece of technology in search of a problem. They didn’t recognize how game changing Ayasdi was until Vinod Khosla came along and invested in the business with a lot of conviction. Today, we’ve proven those naysayers wrong as they are being utilized in critical business decisions in large financial institutions and top tier hospitals. Investing in Ayasdi when it was 4 math papers is something I take a lot of pride in.

I also feel pride when I have the founder’s back in a way that matters. I don’t believe in just giving out gold stars to the entrepreneurs I work with. I know I’m hard on them and expect a lot. That said, I feel like there are times when it’s really important to do what’s right, and I’m really proud of the fact that Floodgate is a place where I can do that.

6. What’s something you want to get better at?

So many things — I really love to learn and I never feel like I have enough time to devote to really going deep into something. Two things in particular:

I’m pretty good at playing the piano, but I spend all of my time teaching my kids how to play rather than practicing myself. I’d really love to master that Brahms piece I’ve been promising my friend I’d learn.

I also really want to learn to sew. I’d have to do it from the ground up since I don’t know how to sew at all, but I think it’s one of those things I’d be pretty good at if I just had the time. My friends bought me a crazy high-tech sewing machine when my 4-year-old was born, and I think I’ve touched it once.

7. Favorite app on your phone right now?

Lyft — it’s changed my life. I got to see this business from pre-launch through what it has become today. I’m ridiculously proud of the company and what they stand for.

My 77-year-old dad had heart surgery last year, and my mom was out of town for a little bit. He couldn’t drive so I downloaded Lyft for him so he could get to his doctor’s appointments. He was able to get around to wherever he needed to go because of Lyft, and he made it a point to let me know how nice all of the drivers were who came to pick him up.

8. Best book you’ve ever read?

This is the hardest question because I really love to read. I’m going to limit this to the best book I’ve read in the last couple of years, and I’d have to say there are two: 1. Goldfinch by Donna Tartt and 2. The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman.

9. If you could try another job for a day, what would it be?

President of the United States. I know that being CEO is a pretty lonely job because the decisions that come your way are always super hard — all of the easy decisions have already been taken care of.

I imagine that this is magnified a million times for the leader of the free world. The access to information and the secret projects that are going on throughout the world — just to have a window into that would be so interesting. I imagine that being able to make decisions based on that information would be simultaneously exhilarating and absolutely terrifying.

10. If you could give your 18-year-old self any advice, what would it be?

No test will ever be able to measure the vastness of your human potential. Don’t let any teacher, parent, coach, or friend ever make you feel that it can.

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