On VC career paths, mentorship, and democratizing access to capital with Courtney Lipkin, partner at SusaFeatured
I spoke with @courtneybuie, partner at Susa Ventures, a seed stage fund that has invested in companies including Robinhood, Flexport, and Andela. Prior to Susa, Courtney was an investor at First Round Capital, on the client management team at Honor, head of operations at Cardinal Ventures, and community programs lead at StartX. Courtney shared her advice on increasing diversity in startup teams and among venture capitalists, building mentor mentee relationships, and driving career growth in venture capital. Create early touchpoints for founders before fundraising. Because of the sheer number of seed stage opportunities, investors have historically relied on warm introductions and other signals to determine which conversations to have with founders. In order to democratize access to these signals, it is crucial to create earlier opportunities for founders to connect with investors and other well known institutions in the ecosystem. All Raise, for example, hosts female founders office hours, and Dorm Room Fund (the student founder’s fund of First Round Capital) has their Female Founder Track as well as Blueprint. When these founders later do start fundraising, they will have built up a better network and honed a compelling story to reach investors. Increasing diversity among investors is another important driver in democratizing access to venture capital. To that end, Courtney and her team at Susa Ventures have launched a Venture Fellows program to create a more transparent path to a career in venture. Incorporate structure in your mentor relationships. Mentor mentee relationships do not have to be purely organic. It is important to provide structure and momentum by having regular check ins on the calendar, coming prepared to each check in with specific questions, and having intentional measures of whether you are successfully working toward your goal. With clear goals these conversations can feel meaningful and fruitful for both mentor and mentee.Give back through mentoring others. While it is possible to help your mentors directly (Courtney, for example, has shared deal flow and worked on deals with her mentors), frequently, mentors are not looking for anything specific from their mentees. Rather, they are simply trying to pay it forward, inspired by someone who was there for them in their early days, and they hope you will do the same for other people one day. Do the next job before you have it. A key distinction between the associate and partner roles is that partners usually have the final say around whether a deal is done. While this new level of agency is exciting and meaningful (you are able to truly partner with founders for the long haul), it also comes with greater responsibility to arrive at points of conviction. When Courtney was an associate at First Round Capital, even though she was not the final decision maker on deals, she took her diligence work as seriously as if she were a partner. This frame of mind prepared her well for transitioning into the partner role. Focus on founders to build conviction in the early stage. Venture capitalists are paid to say yes (it is incredibly easy to find the reasons why not, avoid risk, and say no to everything that comes your way). For Courtney, the most important criteria is the team. She looks for founders with intellectual horsepower and voracious curiosity who are able to incorporate feedback and shift their point of view with new information. She looks for founders who have a deep obsession with what they are working on and have truly immersed themselves through, for example, living in facilities, being a customer of the competition, or working for the competition.Provide a space for founders to share and connect during challenging times. After George Floyd’s murder, Susa Ventures held a founder town hall facilitated by a DEI expert consultant. It became a platform for founders to connect with each other and share their challenges and experiences. Holding a space for these entrepreneurs has been especially meaningful during quarantine and the difficult year 2020 has been. Do not wait for permission: just do it. Courtney started angel investing a few years back before becoming a partner, and the angel investing experience was incredibly valuable for her transition from associate to partner, especially in building conviction around investments. Moreover, being an angel investor helped her connect with interesting founders,other angels, and new investors. Looking back, Courtney is glad she started angel investing and took the initiative to do so without receiving permission, a signal, or a go ahead from anyone. So many of the best decisions in life are made from listening to yourself and your inner voice.