I'm Jess Lee, a Partner at Sequoia Capital and former CEO & Co-founder of Polyvore.Featured

Hi I’m Jess Lee. I’m a Partner at Sequoia Capital and co-founder of All Raise, a non-profit dedicated to diversity in tech. Before joining Sequoia, I was CEO and co-founder of Polyvore, (acquired by Yahoo in 2015). Prior to to Polyvore, I was a product manager at Google, where I worked on Google Maps.Ask me anything about fundraising, our mission at All Raise, building Polyvore, becoming an investor, or something else!
As a reminder – this is part of our ongoing series of conversations with experts in the community.Thanks for joining us, Jess! How did you decide to move into VC after Polyvore? Did you consider starting another company?
The 3 things I consider for every career move are: 1) Do I like the people/culture? 2) Will I learn something new? 3) Can I make an impact?I did consider starting another company and got down the path of building a social/dating app. However, I ultimately chose to go Sequoia because I loved the team/culture, I knew I'd learn a ton, and I thought I'd make a bigger dent in the universe by helping the next gen of founders and moving the needle for women in tech than I would by starting a company.
It is human nature to congregate with people like them - thus the difficulty in enforcing diversity. I have a hunch that the hardest barrier of all is social economic/education barrier - if one is at the same economic/education strata, it's easier to blend in and then have access to all the good things. Will the diversity movement someday put more emphasis on this? For example: Will there be a goal of achieving the same level of funding available for non-Ivy graduates?
Thank you. This sums up my challenge. I wanted to go to an ivy but my family couldn't afford it. No, I am kicking myself because the door that would have opened are so many. My parents didn't know that.
Yes that is super important. Freada Kapor of Kapor Capital taught me an important concept at Grace Hopper in 2016 -- distance traveled. I think we need to measure people not just by absolute measures like what school they got into or what grades they received, but to also consider relative measures like how far you've come from where you started. The "distance traveled" might be the same for someone who grew up in foster care and made it to community college, vs someone who is privileged and got into Harvard. I don't have an exact solution for how to measure this but I think talking about this concept and making people aware of it is a good first step.
What advice do you have for those of us who are non-tech solo founders who are looking for a technical cofounder, who in the meantime are trying to apply to accelerators and fundraise? Are there some tactful ways to talk to investors so that it triggers an, “Ok, we’ll give you money, get a tech co founder quickly” answer instead of causing panic (non-tech solo founder?!) and triggering an immediate, “Absolutely not” answer?
One option is to have your first engineer lined up and ready to go, assuming you can raise money. Another is to have a bit of validation on your product idea to give you a stronger story. For example, data from a fake door test you've run.
That's great--thank you so much for the insight. I've been relying on fake door testing and actual MVP testing to validate my idea, so it's really good to hear you say it's a great way to approach fundraising. Thank you!
What one piece of advice did you receive that helped you in your first company? Looking back, what one piece of advice do you wish you had received that would have made it easier for you?If you could change one thing about the environment or culture that exists for women today, what would it be and why?Congrats on all of your successes. Thank you for sharing your time, experience and wisdom with us here at Leap.
What one piece of advice did you receive that helped you in your first company?--> Do a few things well. Focus on what actually matters.Looking back, what one piece of advice do you wish you had received that would have made it easier for you?--> Stop stressing over every little thing. Surround yourself with other founders who can help you. Community is really important.If you could change one thing about the environment or culture that exists for women today, what would it be and why?--> Wave a magic wand and instantly create 100x more role models of women leaders with their own unique styles. It's hard to be what you can't see.
Thanks @jesslee those all sound very doable. Oh how I wish you had that magic wand. :). Thanks again for your time answering all of our questions.
Do you encourage female founders to reach out to you directly and engage in conversation/pitch? If so, what is your favorite way a founder has approached you? — If not, why not?
Yes, I get pitched directly all the time by both men & women founders. It's totally fine. The way to stand out in a cold email is to be direct, succinct, personalized, and include as much info as possible for me to decide if I want to meet. Include your deck, include why you think I'm a fit, etc.
– How did you decide to start Polyvore? – How did you acquire your first users in Polyvore? It's an important question for me because my startup is a mobile application for nail polish lovers community. We've got some active users who are really involved and make an original content. Should I focus now on communicating with them and improve the product, or try to expand the audience as much as possible?
I was actually an early user of Polyvore who wrote in to complain and got hired as the first PM. I was retroactively made a cofounder by the other founders, who are 3 extremely generous dudes who felt I deserved it based on my contributions. Will always be incredibly grateful that they took care of me. We grew Polyvore in the early days by posting a lot on another fashion forum. Then we delighted that early seed of a community with features they asked for. Then we made it really easy to share their content on blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr, back when it was easier to growth hack those platforms. But it was always about delighting the community so they’d want to tell their friends.
Thank you, Jess! It's really helpful. Actually, I thought that some of the first users can be hired later because they are very involved in the project. We'll make sharing on other social but we need to think about some link to our app in this case. Thank you again and good luck!
Thank you Jess for taking the time to answer our questions. It's so inspiring to see the work you've accomplished and that you're taking the opportunity to give back with All Raise. I'm extremely interested in VC since I think it offers the opportunity to have the greatest impact on changing society. A few questions:1) How to would you recommend someone gain experience in VC?2) Do you have any recommendations for strategies to break into the VC world?3) Can you recommend any strategies to manage navigating a predominantly male team within VC or founding a company?4) What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced since joining Sequoia Capital?
1) Start angel investing or be an advisor to companies.2) Don't ask for coffee. Send the VC a deal. When networking or asking for someone's time, always try be useful first.3) Leverage your own unique strengths and just be useful to the team. Bring your own unique network/deal flow to the table, share your unique perspective on the world, lean into your strengths. 4) Managing my own psychology. The long feedback loop (you don't know if you're a good investor for 7-10 years) and lack of control (I am not CEO of the companies I work with) is tough. Luckily I'm surrounded by a world class team of smart, talented, nice people (my partners at Sequoia) who've been through that cycle too and are very supportive.
Piggybacking off of this, what advice do you have for folks who are not of the Ivy League pipeline that are interested in breaking into VC?
Hi Jess, to the extent that you're comfortable, would you mind sharing a little bit about how you felt and what it was like after Polyvore's acquisition, and how you addressed the sadness of Polyvore's core users that the site and its functions would no longer be available? Also, would love to get your insights behind the RE:STORE fundraising and what it takes for a founder to get funding pre-seed. One of the articles I read on it mentioned that you had heard the idea before but that Selene's prior experience with her own brand was what differentiated her. Were there other factors? Thanks so much!Briana :)
Yahoo acquired Polyvore in 2015. Telling the team that we'd successfully been acquired after 8 years of blood, sweat, and tears was a real career high. I was worried they wouldn't be satisfied with the outcome so I printed out spreadsheets with everyone's earnings calculations along with handwritten thank you notes. When I told the team, they started cheering and I think I started crying from relief and happiness. We celebrated the rest of the day and no one wanted to go home.Ssense acquired Polyvore from Yahoo in 2017 and immediately shutdown the website with no warning. I was not at the company at the time and didn't know details of the transaction, but I woke up to angry Tweets and death threats on my Instagram from our understandably upset community. Many community members who had known each other for 11+ years suddenly lost their one way of contacting each other, without warning. Personally, I was deeply saddened to see my baby gone and I still haven't really gotten over it. :-( But I guess that's the cycle of consumer internet & mobile. It's rare for companies to stick around for over a decade, and perhaps I should be proud that our community was still so passionate after 11 years.To answer your second question on Re:Store, the reason we invested was the founder Selene Cruz. At the pre-seed stage that's really the bet you're making. Selene has an incredible personal story that shows her grit, tenacity, and ambition. That's what convinced me.
1. As a consumer maven what are examples of B2B companies that had fresh/engaging (almost consumer like - think Dollar Shave Club) go to market or marketing campaigns?2. Who are some B2B investors (lesser known) you really respect?3. During the most challenging times of your venture when you felt like "everything that could have gone wrong is going wrong" - what helped you the most to continue to execute?
1. The Wing. Great community building, beautiful branding, and smart to use physical space to acquire users. Rent is the new CAC.2. Kristina Shen at Bessemer. She helps run their state of the cloud and is smart & driven. 3. Not wanting to let down my team because I loved them so much. Surrounding myself with founder friends who could relate to the pain and had seen some of it before.
As an LGBTQ+ female founder, I LOVE your mission at All Raise...I'm so thankful to leaders like you out there that are championing causes for people who are underserved. My question revolves around raising your first SEED fundraising round. I'm building a fintech startup that revolves around round up investing into companies that match your values. Unfortunately, friends and family money is slim. We have over 11K people on our pre-launch subscriber list. We've accomplished a lot in a short amount of time. But we can't go live without a chunk of cash required for regulatory and compliance issues with FINRA. How do you suggest a startup raise funds without paying customer #1 or a live product?
The less evidence/proof you have, the more of a killer story you need to have. The story can either be the story of your market/product or of you. Make sure both really knock it out of the park. Why are you the right founder for this space? What's your unique story or insight that will make you The One to solve this problem? Why is this market huge and this problem important to solve? Why have others failed? Why now? What is so special about your idea/solution?
This was a great answer, thank you. We've been honing our pitch and learning that investors loved to be entertained and wowed with a great story. We'll keep on this path. Thank you for the time!
What are your thoughts on fashion in Silicon Valley? SV has a distinctive uniform look, do you think that becomes restrictive for those of us how like to stand out and be bold in our clothing choices? How do you think fashion/grooming choices affect a woman's chances of gaining funding, especially during pitches?
Fashion is a form of self-expression and a way to shape how you feel.In general, I try to dress in a way that makes me feel confident, but also expresses who I am. For a pitch, I recommend dressing in whatever way that makes you feel most confident and in command of the room. (Within reason)
I understand that founders need to do their homework before approaching Angels and VCs. it would also help to know what are the areas Sequoia is interested to invest. I have a sense after talking to Golden Seed during office hours that ED techs are not priorities anymore. Of course, Ed the tech boom is 10 years behind the tech boom and I believe that now is the right time to invest in Ed tech. Ed tech and smart learning is a market of more than 96 billions in the US only. What are your thoughts about Ed Techs and where I could meet investors/angels who would help me make my case and be successful with my Ed tech.
My favorite edtech firm is Reach Capital. Shauntel Poulson, Wayee Chu, and Jennifer Carolan are awesome!I agree edtech is an exciting space. China and India are ahead of the US, and have many successful fast-growing edtech companies. Part of why is parents in those countries are willing to pay 20-30% of their income on supplemental education, whereas US parents are more used to education being free and provided by schools, so it’s been harder for the US edtech companies to make money. I think that attitude is shifting though, and parents are becoming more willing to pay for topics not covered in school or for digital learning apps. Some interesting companies include Codeverse (computer science afterschool activities for kids), Epic (reading), Lambda (CS boot camp) and Prodigy (math games). As for Sequoia, we’ve done Sequoia has edtech investments globally in Clever (US), VIPKID (China) and Byju (India).
I founded Ayuda, an online marketplace for senior-friendly activities. I'm really curious how you think about "health and wellness" as an investment vertical. Ayuda activities, which include yoga, music, art, and more maintain pretty transparent health benefits; however, they're not paid for by insurers (aka. Medicare & Medicaid). A lot of startups have emerged in this space, which aren't *explicitly* healthcare. I'd love to know how you think about health & wellness generally, and any trends you've observed. Thanks!
Hey Sara! This isn't Jess - we should definitely connect as I have a startup also focusing on the 50+ demographic (more on the food side of health and wellness). It is called Perennial.
That's awesome! What is your email? I would love to connect. Mine is [email protected]
Hi Sara, my bad as I just saw this now and am figuring out Elpha. My email is [email protected]. Not sure if your startup is still around as I don't see the URL active. Regardless, lets exchange learnings. This senior/longevity space is a tough one to crack.
I'm very inspired by your vision at All Raise and my question is how do you handle the unconscious bias of people who say they support diversity but actually fear when it comes to the decision of investing, hiring or partnering with a female or people of color. I have a tech recruitment startup, wherein we curate talent with machine learning and human intelligence and help companies build diverse teams, by hiring talent in foreign markets. I still find it difficult with companies to actually take this leap of faith.
How beneficial are letters of intent (from retailers and brands) at early-stage investor meetings? Even though the timeline to monetize (re-engage with them) might be 1-2 years away...
I'm curious if you are only supporting founders in the US. It's always a challenge to raise funding abroad especially if you are coming from a developing country, no matter how talented your team is or how determine you are in doing this startup, you'll always be at the bottom compared to others in the US.Have you tried investing on female founders in developing countries? Do we fall in the same criteria as everyone else or do we need to exert more effort in order for us to be notice in comparison to founders in the western area?What advice do you have for founders like us? Thank you.
If you could go back in time and talk to yourself from 10 years ago, what career advice would you give her?
1. Do women run businesses differently than men? Are there any efforts being undertaken in the VC world to educate on what these might be and maybe why they are good things? (Specifically ethics concerns and harassment have come up which slows women down sometimes). 2. If women have gone through harassment, is it ok to dedicate some time and resources to legal council for this? What is the best course when harassment or bullying take place in the fundraising environment? 3. My company has been high growth and attention grabbing from the start, and I am working on some paid pilots with a customer that has a potential to do one really large sale very soon, but I've had the smallest fundraise of any company in my area. How can women with groundbreaking skills, tech, knowhow, ideas, etc. not have as much trouble getting off the ground? 4. What do you believe we should look for in VCs to make sure they are good ones?
My name is Reva and I am currently a sophomore in high school! My dream is to be a VC!What advice do you have for me? What can I do now to achieve my goal? Thank you so much!Reva Jariwala
When building Polyvore, was there any advice you were given, that in hindsight, you shouldn't have followed so easily?In addition, is there advice that you give today that you're aware is slanted by your own biases/experiences? If so, what's the advice, and what are those root experiences? (For example, I listened to talk with Paul Graham recently where he mentioned that founding teams should be hackers, "not business people" - and I figure this advice is slanted by his own experience starting a company with two other hackers. )Thank you! I am the founder of a company called Honeydew - personal assistant for wedding planning.
Hi Jess! My name is Netta Dobbins and I am the CEO and Co-Founder of Minorities in Media Connect (Mimconnect - We're a career resource and networking platform for people of color. We have launched our private beta and are beginning our fundraising process. I'll be in San Francisco in early November and I'd love to have intro meetings with investors that I think would love my product. I have been putting together a list of VC's I'd be interested in chatting with. What are your suggestions on how to reach out to them and what do you think would be super important for them to know before deciding if they could make themselves available to meet with me?
Hi Jess! Thank you so much for offering your advice! I’ve been following Office Hours & All Raise this past year and am so excited about what you are all doing! I’ve been working on a PropTech startup concept for several months and have the research, business model, pitch deck, and even strategic partnerships lined up. I also have the start to wireframes & feature sets, however, I don’t have a Tech Co-Founder, as I’ve been hesitant to partner up with someone I don’t know very well since I’ve heard that 50% of Startups fail because of Founders not being on the same page. I attended a TechStars Startup weekend in NYC (I’m in LA/OC) this summer and my Company was one of the ones people voted on to work on over the weekend & pitch to the judges, so I know I have a strong concept but feel stuck since I can’t move forward without a demo or prototype & really need tech help to get that done. So my question is... would All Raise (or other VCs/Early Stage Firms that you know) be willing to meet with me to see what I currently have & either A) Help me find an ideal CoFounder to build the initial tech and then try to raise funding or B) Consider investing in me as a single Female Founder & have some of the funds be used to hire contractors to create the initial prototypes needed? If not, would you have any advice on what I should do next?I would love to know your thoughts or any advice you could share on this... As someone with 15 years of business experience in both people & project management, I feel very confident that I could lead a business as an individual Female Founder, so that would be my preference. It’s hard enough to start a new company, so taking the 50% failure rate because of CoFounder conflict off the table seems like the best idea to have one less thing against me. Please let me know your thoughts when you have a chance... thanks so much! - Lisa
1. We have bootstrapped our fintech company and we have just secured our first customer. When in your opinion is the right time/turnover amount to start talking to investors.2. We are a European startup, and it seems the European approach towards outside investors is a bit more conservative than in the US. Bootstrapping up to a certain point might take longer but business will be more sustainable. Do you agree?Thanks!
I've applied for office hours twice and have never gotten a response. What can I do to increase my odds of getting chosen for female founders office hours.
What are the most surprising lessons you've learned while starting All Raise and Female Founder Office Hours? I invested in 6 early-stage female founder teams via the xx and they started living together in one house last Monday. I'd love to learn how I can best support them during the 12-week program :) Thank you for your work, Jess <3
I have seen so many discussions on how difficult for an entrepreneur to find a corporate job. Would love to hear your opinion on : what's your suggestion onTOO entrepreneurial Resume to settle a corporate job that they like ?
Congratulations for all of your contributions after tears and sweat! I love your career path, and would love to go after a similar one! n your opinion, if I want to be a VC, would you suggest me to be a founder who successfully runs a startup first, or go to work in a Venture Capital first if I am a fresh graduate without substaintial amount of investment money? Second question is: I am full of entrepreneurial spirit, Yet, i fancy too many things to do, without focus. What's your suggestion on first step to my entrepreneur journey (I love empowering woman, working in an inclusive environment, creative) Could you suggest me some of the start-up in your mind in Sillicon Valley? Or you suggest working in Google, Amazon, Facebook etc for some time for networking and experience? Thanks for your time again! Really generous of you!
I am the founder of LoanGini, a P2P lending marketplace focused on India market. – If you had to choose between a PWA ( progressive web app) and a AMP, which one would you choose for a irregular data connectivity market, and why? – How do you decide how many customers are good enough for your MVP? – Are there any ideal metrics you track when you are doing a POC with your initial customers?
First congrats on AllRaise, tremendous organization--(I am participating in your mentoring program and got partnered with Shauntel from Reach Capital. It's been a great experience.)My question for you is around D&I investment. Companies are talking about the importance of D&I but is it going beyond buzz? Are VCs ready to make major invest in startups providing these kinds of products and solutions? I see glimmers of investment, like Jopwell (Andreessen Horowitz) but is anyone in this space poised to reach unicorn status?