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Interview with Jeanne M Sullivan, Co-founder, StarVest Partners – New York City

April 23, 2014 - Inspiring Interviews
Interview with Jeanne M Sullivan, Co-founder, StarVest Partners – New York City
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“One of the greatest lessons I learned in the Board Room, is learning how to be effective. Not necessarily learning how to be right or saying all the right things, rather learning how to effectively put forth good ideas and show why they should be implemented. That is a real challenge, when you are dealing with a lot of tough personalities around the table who think they know better. It is important to find your voice.”

[two_third last=”no”] This is part of our Power Shift Trailblazers Series:
The Future of Women & Finance

Tune in, as the brightest minds on the subject open up about the challenges & paths to a brighter future for women-owned businesses who seek funding. [/two_third]

[one_third last=”yes”] Power Shift Trailblazers [/one_third]

 

Jeanne M. Sullivan has been investing in and growing tech companies for many years.  She is a Co-Founder of StarVest Partners, a venture fund created in 1998 with $400 million under management.  Jeanne has over 23 years of venture capital experience and has spent 30 years in the technology sector encompassing both extensive operating and investing experience with technology companies.  Ms. Sullivan has honed her trade creating “go to market” plans for early and expansion stage companies. Her expertise also includes strategy, a keen understanding of the technology landscape, and industry trends.  Prior to her venture experience, Jeanne gained her operating experience with AT&T and Bell Labs while serving in product and industry marketing roles. 

Ms. Sullivan is a sought-after industry speaker on the subject of “how to get the wallets out of investors’ pocket.”  Jeanne serves on the board of the New York Venture Capital Association, is a newly invited member of the Women’s Leadership Board of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government; serves as an Athena Distinguished Fellow for Barnard College and is also on the Media Advisory Council for the University of Illinois. She also serves as advisor for many women-focused organizations that work to “fund and fuel” women entrepreneurs and is on the Global Board of Trustees of Astia, an organization that empowers high growth women entrepreneurs.  

Forbes recently cited Sullivan as “one of the women VCs changing the world – grooming the next generation of female entrepreneurs”.  The New York Angels organization honored Jeanne as the OPEL award winner for 2013 – Outstanding Professionals for Entrepreneurial Leadership.

Visit her website: Starvest Partners and Follow her on Twitter: @Gianna212

 

Who is your role model as an Investor ?

I honor the women and their organizations who are working tirelessly to “Fuel and Fund” women entrepreneurs. There are many newly formed and also many existing organizations that have become vibrant due to the fact that the “Women’s Conversation” (as I call it) is high. I am proud to work closely with founders and leaders of several organizations who understand that women need Financing Runway and these women have put organizations and teams together to make that happen.  I stand with those making this sea-change.

 

Who is your role model as an entrepreneur ?

Over the last year, I have met an extraordinary entrepreneur.  Her name is Miki Agarwal and she lives in New York City.  She has written the most inspiring book with an edgy name:  “Do Cool Shit”  – She is young, fearless, fascinating.  She has opened 4 gluten free pizza restaurants, one of which Tony Hsieh of Zappos fame helped fund and install in his Las Vegas complex.  She is now rolling out a women’s underwear company (ThinX.com)  that has unique properties for protection.  God knew that she was extraordinary, so he made her an identical twin, “Rads” who is equally amazing.  I am blown away by Miki Agawal and so I share her with you.  (www.mikiagrawal.com)

“Now I am able to leverage my 30 years’ experience as a Tech Investor to help support entrepreneurs – especially women (and a few good men.)”

 

What is your greatest achievement to date?

There are two things for me: 1) the achievement of being able to raise  $400 million alongside 3 very smart partners and to put this funding to work in our StarVest Fund. That was very exciting and thrilling, because we became entrepreneurs ourselves . 2) Putting ourselves in business in order to find and invest in dynamic portfolio companies. It is very difficult to raise the money and invest in a good portfolio company.  It is also hard to get the Limited Partners wallet out of his/her pocket. Then, the work really begins and you have to work hard to find opportunities that might scale. I have a saying, ‘Sometimes you think you are in on the ground floor and you find out you’re in the basement’. You cannot be too early. If you are a big thinker and see the future, that does not necessarily mean that you have found a great investment, because it may be too early for adoption.

The most interesting part of being a co-founder at StarVest, is that it opened the door for me on what ‘fueling and funding’ women entrepreneurs is all about. Now I am able to  leverage my 30 years’ experience as a Tech Investor to help support entrepreneurs – especially women (and a few good men.)

“One of the greatest lessons I learned in the Board Room, is learning how to be effective. Not necessarily learning how to be right or saying all the right things, rather learning how to effectively put forth good ideas and show why they should be implemented.”

 

What has been your greatest challenge as a woman investor ?

I have always been in male dominated worlds in each of the roles.  I am used to working with men and being the only woman at the table. One of the greatest lessons I learned in the Board Room, is learning how to be effective. Not necessarily learning how to be right or saying all the right things, rather learning how to effectively put forth good ideas and show why they should be implemented. That is a real challenge, when you are dealing with a lot of tough personalities around the table who think they know better. It is important to find your voice, and then as you see that your ideas are good, learn how to effectively communicate them. That has been one of my greatest learnings and I have been very thrilled to learn that … and there is always a new chance to practice! I have had some wonderful role models among my partners and fellow board member because I have seen and experienced how they tackled some tough issues. It has been great for me to observe, take that in, learn from it and make it my own.

“Having multiple board roles has given me that platform to learn and grow… I kept my eyes and ears open, and observed and learned and found my voice along the way.”

Having multiple board roles has given me that platform to learn and grow. I am lucky, because prior to StarVest, I was at a wonderful European venture capital group called Olivetti Ventures. We were investors in deals in Silicon Valley and Boston and I got to sit and participate at the board table with some of the greatest venture capitalists of our time – and what an experience that has been! I kept my eyes and ears open, and observed and learned and found my voice along the way.  The experience was highly instructive.

“I love to grow grass on bare ground and it is thrilling for me to see a dynamic entrepreneur create an opportunity and scale the business. It is a thrill to help lend ideas, opportunities, resources and people and  see a company grow and exit.”

 

What has been the key to your success?

I really believe it is having a passion for the business. That means keeping up with and studying the dynamic trends in the industry – understanding the entrepreneurs – spotting the trends and companies that might scale.  I love to grow grass on bare ground and it is thrilling for me to see a dynamic entrepreneur create an opportunity and scale the business. It is a thrill to help lend ideas, opportunities, resources and people and  see a company grow and exit.  It stems from a passion for the business, real caring, belief in the entrepreneur and the joy of having the opportunity to make it happen.

One of the biggest thrills we had, was being part of the IPO of NetSuite in 2007, a company we had invested in, back in 2000. The Company had thin revenues at the time of investing – it was early days.  Larry Ellison of Oracle founded the company. We saw the brilliance of an online financial suite at the center, with CRM (customer resource management) and ERP (enterprise resource planning) around it, fully integrated. We already understood online accounting, that the cloud would be big (even back in 2000 when they did not even call it that !) and we were enthusiastic about Larry Ellison, one of the geniuses of our time, being behind this company and putting a large amount of his personal money into the it. NetSuite experimented until it started scaling and put a dynamic CEO in place, Zach Nelson. In 2007 we took the company public on the New York Stock Exchange. Being part of the NetSuite story has really helped us as a firm, as my Partner, Debby Farrington, was able to stay on the NetSuite Board and is still the lead director for the company.

NetSuite has been a magnet for opportunity for us, as companies come to us because we understand software as a service and the cloud. We were able to use that company effectively to continue to enjoy the dynamic team they have, and participate as the adoption occurred of cloud-based companies.  We  stay close to the CEOs even after an exit and have often ask them to be an Advisor to the Firm post exit, so that we can continue to leverage their brilliant insights, they help support  deal flow, connections for  customers or ideas for our fund. We like to keep a pulse on different industries and knowledge and this is one great way to do that. This is critical for success.

Advice for becoming an investor:

  • Get operational experience on how to scale a business
  • Become fluent
  • You can learn this stuff

 

What would you say to other women to encourage them to become investors?

Get operational experience on how to scale a business: For years and still to this day, many men and women seek my counsel on how to become a venture capitalist. I am very quick to tell them that ‘it’s a bright shiny object and to forget it, that it is better to go get operational experience in a company’. My Partner, Larry Bettino does the exact opposite and says ‘you want to be a VC? ok, I’ll show you how’. I started to adopt that approach and have observed the following: you have to know what to do and how to do it, to be either a great CEO of a company or a great venture investor. And guess what, this is one of the issues for women – they have not had the training or insight on what you have to know, in order to be an investor or at the board table. You absolutely have to have fluency in finance and have fluency in the domain or subject matter you are investing in. My practical advice stays: Go get  an operating role in  a company, helping them scale – this is one strong path towards  being a venture capital investor. Let’s say you have built a great company in a sector eg in the healthcare space, you can then form or be part of a firm that is looking for your knowledge and experience.

Become fluent: I believe it is critical to have the fluency and knowledge so that you can add value to your fund on knowing what to look for that might scale. It is about finding companies that are not too early (because adoption may be too slow) or too late, where the marketplace is too crowded.  It is critical to understand how to scale revenue,  what proper business models are all about, cash flow breakeven, capital requirements of the business. Understand the acumen that exists on the portfolio company team – technology, marketing finance, and good esprit d’corps and leadership. These are some of the key elements that either have to be learned to invest with skill because that is  what is needed to be successful in  this venture capital world.

You can learn this stuff:  Many times, women have not had the training or exposure to the skills I just mentioned. Sadly, it is just that simple. So what are we doing about it?  There are many of us who have been to the “School of Hard Knocks” and are delighted to be transferring the knowledge and street savvy required to “play”. The research shows that in grade school, if a girl gets a bad grade in math or science, she falls back. A boy says,” the teacher’s stupid and I need to learn this.” Boys grow up understanding that they have to understand math and science and they often find a way to apply it to business experiences. We are showing girls and women that they too “Can learn this stuff”.

Women do not automatically deserve to have a place at the table or get funded. They have to “learn what to do and how to do it” and then they can network their way to get to the board table, start a company, get to a C-level role in a company.  That is why  I am  so passionate about this and am out there doing something about it. My best example to share, that I tell you, humbly and vulnerably, is that I myself do not have the typical classic training in that. I have a lot of training and experience, but I do not have a computer science degree or a deep degree in finance. I had to learn it and I did learn it and I realize how important it is to be conversant in these areas. It is time for us to do something about this and we are. Change is happening. We are giving women and men, the ideas, information and inspiration to make change.

 

What  key trends have you seen in the VC world over the past 5 years and what are the key trends for the future?

Past trends: We were very early to see that the cloud and software as a service or “SaaS” would be huge. It used to be that those worlds were just for small and medium businesses, but now the Fortune 1000 has adopted “SaaS” as the way to go. It is less expensive in the way of resources, you can ‘rent or subscribe’ not just buy big equipment to manage these massive programs. The sophistication around computing and computer power has changed the game. Even in our earliest PPM (the private placement memorandum required to raise a fund), we discussed this growing, important trend,  even though it was 1998.  I am proud that I helped bring that to the table, because of the four of us, I was the one who had a deep tech investing and industry background and had already invested in “SaaS” and cloud companies (called ASP’s at the time). In 2009 we raised $250 million to invest in “data as a service” and were able to do that thanks to our foresight in understanding “SaaS” and the cloud – and we cited this trend as investors well ahead of the pack.

Current Trends:  We have experienced the enormous adoption of mobile, the internet and e-commerce over the past 15 years.  People were once afraid to give their credit card details to buy something online, and that is laughable now. Today you would not hesitate buying something online if you wanted it, or looking online first, instead of going to a brick and mortar retail store or buying travel, booking a hotel or a cruise.

There has been increased sophistication around the world of e-commerce infrastructure, back-end  platforms that are very advanced and  that help companies and brands see  and  analyze buyer behavior.  Understanding the sentiment around buying, buyer intent – all of this is now a highly sophisticated science. That has pushed us as a Fund to really study and invest in e-commerce infrastructure platforms serving retailer and big brands.  We are interested in companies that understand customer buying behavior. The other major trend of course, is the Social Media world that has to be applied to almost any company today – from customer service to connecting and referring. Another  trend that has to be mentioned is the Collaborative/Sharing economy – look at AirBnB and Uber shaking things up! Neither company owns a hotel room or an automobile but these companies are important –  Attentione! – These collaborative economy companies are very creative and I am delighted as a user to have these services  and honor my fellow investors who funded these companies.

What can VCs do? “Understand that women have a different lens from which we see different needs for products and services and unique, creative ways to market and scale.”

 

What is the most important thing that VC’s can do to move the needle forward for women entrepreneurs?

Come with me and “us” on the Mission!  Understand that women have a different lens from which we see different needs for products and services and unique, creative ways to market and scale.   Meet with us – fund us – help us scale – help us replicate successes.  Help build wealth globally by building these experiences with women.  And, guess what, we DO need the men with us on this mission.

 

What do you want to achieve in the next 5 years ?

My wish list would be to leverage the 30 years of Tech investing by fuelling and funding women entrepreneurs. I see the need, I can relate to being a woman who had to learn fluency in finance and the tech sectors. I am on the speaking tour worldwide and would like to see new places.  I would like to continue to speak to crowds of entrepreneurs large and small. I enjoy advising small groups of women (and a few good men,) on how they can build their business and get funding. I have written a book that I would like to see published this year. It shares stores about business and life, in short, pithy chapters. And lastly, I also want to find a little white space in my life to improve my golf game in this lifetime, and enjoy things I never really had the time to do.

 

3 key words to describe you:

  • Joie de vivre for life and people
  • Enjoy supporting entrepreneurs with ideas, information and inspiration
  • Laughs every day – I try not to take myself or others too seriously

 

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Anne Ravanona is the Founder and CEO of Global Invest Her – Catalysts for getting Women Entrepreneurs Funded faster and building Gender-Inclusive Workplaces. A TEDx Speaker, Anne regularly speaks at global conferences on the topics of Funding for Women Entrepreneurs, entrepreneurship and leadership. A Huffington Post contributor, Astia Advisor, she is passionate about funding and inspiring women entrepreneurs. Follow her on Twitter @anneravanona @GlobalInvestHer
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