The gender gap in venture capital (and fundraising in general) has been talked about so much you’d think by now we’d have talked the problem to death. But no. At last count women made up a measly 6% of the partners at VC firms in the US with a whopping 77% of firms admiting they’ve never had a female partner. It’s a problem that’s persevered with such tenacity, fixing it sometimes feels impossible. Unless you’re Elizabeth Galbut and Pocket Sun, that is; two female, twenty-something VCs who just launched their own firm, SoGal Ventures — in other words, they are clear exceptions to the norm in the investment world.
Galbut and Sun met at The Insider’s Guide to Silicon Valley Investing (IGSVI), a two week course organized by 500 Startups and the Stanford Center for Professional Development. Though they were both already working on other organizations they’d individually launched, it didn’t take the two long to hatch the idea of launching their own firm, one that treated diversity as a strength, not a weakness.
That, alone, is worth an in-depth interview, but then in July, Galbut published a piece about SoGal in Medium, “Yes, I’m a 26 y/o Female Venture Capitalist. Here’s How & Why:” The post instantly went viral in the entrepreneurial and investment communities, re-energizing the conversation on gender in fundraising, but this time Galbut and Sun have injected an infectious sense of optimism and determination into the conversation.
We asked Galbut about their vision for SoGal, what they’ve learned so far, and why she wanted to write that Medium piece in the first place.
So, why start your own firm? Why not start as an associate at a VC firm?
Pocket and I both wanted to get into venture capital, but from our experience going to conferences, meeting venture capitalists, and talking to other women in the industry, it didn’t seem like the VC firm we wanted actually existed. It seemed like a very unfriendly place to women. One of the speakers in the course, Jason Calacanis, said to us, “You could probably take a year or two figuring out how to get into VC by applying everywhere, meeting everyone. But when you get there you’re probably not going to like what you find. Or you could take that year or two, work your ass off and see if you can create a new type of venture capital firm with your own goals and views on the world.” We were really inspired by that, so we decided to go forth and create SoGal Ventures.
You’ve mentioned that you had some experiences that weren’t so positive. Any specifics?
I heard things I couldn’t believe people would actually say out loud. I would hear, for instance, “We don’t hire women at our firm, and even if we made an exception, nobody would respect her opinion anyway.” That was the general attitude I found. That attitude is definitely not something that Pocket and I aspired to build.
How can this problem still run so rampant?
I don’t know. You know, this all happened before the Ellen Pao case. So it might be a little bit different now. But I’ve heard a lot of CEOs say it’s a pipeline problem, that because there aren’t enough women who are billion dollar startup operators, men end up being venture capitalists, but Pocket and I don’t agree with that. There is definitely value in being a startup operator before a VC, but we don’t think that there’s a single path to becoming a venture capitalist. So we disagree with the argument that it’s a pipeline problem. And it’s funny because when you look at a lot of the firm websites, they make themselves look diverse by putting their admin assistant on the top row of their page, but there are very few firms that actually have women on their investing teams.
SoGal is an interesting name choice. How did you come up with it?
Pocket had created this network for entrepreneurship in Southern California, a play off So Cal, and we wanted to have SoGal Ventures be a brand extension of that. But we always say it’s kind of serendipitous too because my last name is Galbut. So it has, the first three letters of my last name in it, and then her last name is Sun, but depending where you are in Asia, some people pronounce it like “So”. It ends up our names mashing together. But she had the name before she even met me.
Where are you at with SoGal at the moment?
Right now we’re still in the initial craze, and it’s ongoing. On average it takes the first fund about twelve to eighteen months to raise their initial capital. So that’s the phase we’re in right now. Part of what we’ve been trying to do is reach out to as many people in the VC community as well as the wider investment community, to just meet with them, share our ideas on what we’re trying to build, and hear their experiences. We want to truly understand them and make sure we’re working towards the right need. And we’ve found such support, especially from women in the VC community. They they give us advice, they review some of the documents we put together. They’ve been volunteering their time and energy and connections almost endlessly because they really believe in what we’re building.
Do you talk to other female-led venture firms in a more informal capacity? Is there a real sense of community?
So there’s definitely a few of them that we talk to a ton. And we’ve reached out to all of them just to learn from them. There are communities in LA, New York, and San Francisco for female venture capitalists and female associates. A group out of New York that meets about every two months screened a movie in Central Park just yesterday. The entire list of women VCs in New York is around 30-40, and that includes people who are entry level associates. Compare that to any other profession. Can you imagine if there were only 40 women consultants in New York? That would be insane.
What kind of surprises have you encountered so far?
We always hoped men would support us, but one of the most surprising things we’ve experienced is the number of men, who have daughters in high school or college, who’ve reached out to us to thank us for what we’re doing. They’ll say, “You’re building a better world for our daughters.” We’re really touched by how much support we’ve received from the father contingency.
What spurred you to write that piece on Medium?
One of things they really emphasized at our course with 500 Startups is that there aren’t a lot of women bloggers in VC. So I decided I was going to write a blog post. In a minimal-viable-product sort of way I was kind of announcing what we were up to. And the outpour of support really validated our idea; it gave us the confidence to move forward without any hesitation.
When you wrote the Medium piece, did you anticipate the attention?
No. I really thought it was going to get 60 views, 49 of them being from my mom. But it kind of took on a life of its own. It was really exciting. This was the first time I’d ever blogged since my Livejournal days. I have a few friends who’ve been through similar experiences, and we’ve talked a lot about what it means to have something to go viral. You have a kind of social responsibility when you have that momentum. I had no idea this would happen so I never planned how I would respond if it got really big, but that’s what’s amazing about blogging and writing and Medium: It really democratizes thought leadership.
Now, two months later, has the reaction changed at all?
When I meet people they’ll say, “Yeah, I read your Medium post.” Which is really kind of weird and exciting at the same time. But it’s helped us get other opportunities, meet with individuals we wouldn’t otherwise have the chance to meet with. And I think it changed the conversation a bit. Now we can basically reach out to any VC, and instead of being the girls asking for jobs, we’re known as the girls doing this crazy thing. There’s a sort of underlying respect that we get in return. I think people really respected that we were courageous enough to put ourselves out there and tell people what we were doing at such an early stage, even though there’s a hundred ways we could still fail from today to a few years from now.
When you think back to the people who’ve made a huge impact on your professional career, who comes to mind?
First, I’d say, the female bosses I had while I was at Deloitte. They both had this amazing ability to help me understand what my strengths were and what my weaknesses were. They were really feedback oriented, but they never made me feel like I’d done something wrong, it was always a learning moment. I never would have have discovered my interest in design centered entrepreneurship and innovation without working with them. On a daily basis they took the time to sit down with me, talk to me, get to know me. We’re always focused on getting stuff done as quickly as possible, but they both had this long game mindset. Talking to me, understanding me, and having me understand what they were looking for really paid off for everyone in the end.
What advice would you give younger professionals?
Always, in any role, be a sponge. Learn as much as humanely possible from the experience you’re currently having. With that in mind, instead of focusing on how to make yourself look successful, figure out the ways you can make the people you’re working for look successful. By doing so you’ll become an invaluable asset and in the end you’ll be successful yourself.