Francesca Warner, otherwise known as Check, is an angel investor and the cofounder of Diversity VC, a three-year-old non-profit organisation set up to drive greater diversity and inclusion across the UK venture capital industry.
The idea came about over drinks with her friend Lillian Li, who we also interviewed for this series, when they mutually decided to do something about the shocking lack of diversity they saw in the industry during their still-young careers.
At the time of our conversation Warner was working on something she wasn’t at liberty to talk about yet, but she admitted that her work at Diversity VC was taking up a lot of her time for now. After studying English Literature at Cambridge and moving on from her ambitions to work in the theatre, Warner worked in advertising at AMV BBDO before joining the fledgling fund Downing Ventures in 2015.
We sat down with Warner at Runway East in Soho earlier this month, below is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation regarding her unusual journey into venture capital, why she felt the need to set up Diversity VC and how more women can get into this exciting industry.
Scott Carey, editor at Techworld: How did you get into VC?
Francesca ‘Check’ Warner, cofounder at Diversity VC: I hate the typical stock answer of ‘I fell into it’, because it’s just so lame and not true. When I was at school and university I wanted to be an actress and my main goal was to win an Oscar, at some point, then I realised I was quite bad at acting so…
When I was at university I got into directing and really liked that, loved the creative arts and studied English and was heading down a very different road to the one I find myself on now. Then I went into advertising after University and felt it was a nice mix between creativity and the commercial world I was also interested in. I loved that, worked at a big agency for three years then switched into VC because I wanted to get into tech and as I saw it there were three buckets for that: join a big tech company, start my own company and the third was this thing called venture, but I had no idea how to get into it, what it entailed, who did it and basically discounted myself from it as I didn’t have the background or qualifications and I couldn’t see anyone that had done what I had done before in the industry.
So I did the usual thing and followed about 200 people on Twitter in the VC world, started to get obsessed with the blogs and everything and thought ‘wow, this is an incredibly interesting job’. You get to spend time with incredible young companies, do a different thing every single day, learn about everything in business. Initially I saw VC as a stepping stone into something different in tech but I was very lucky to meet someone quite quickly into my discovery of VC as a potential career path who was starting up a new fund called Downing Ventures and I joined him in that new fund, which was an arm of a bigger company Downing LLP. I was the second hire in the investment team there and spent two and a half years, invested in 34 companies and just absolutely loved it.
Is there an ‘ideal’ background for a venture capitalist?
There are venture capitalists that actually came from completely diverse backgrounds that have made so much money. So for example, Benedict Evans was a journalist. Right? So was Mike Moritz. There are so many examples of amazing VCs who did not come through the banking, consultancy, MBA route. Yet, for some reason, that is the thing that’s pattern-matched to every single time anyone has ever hired. So I think there’s a education job to be done. I think there’s also a point about people’s obsession with backgrounds, because I found that really difficult. When I first started in the industry, people’s first question out of their mouths, whenever we met was, what’s your background? And I felt like that was a real challenge, because I didn’t have the traditional background, I had to constantly get by without that.
I came from advertising and literally no one I knew had come into VC from advertising, so I didn’t have finance, I didn’t have economics. I didn’t have any of the big names of Goldman or from banking or consulting. So every time someone asked me that made me feel like oh, my background isn’t good enough. Of course that was that was about me, but I think that I hope we can change the way they address people, because obviously, that’s a really tiny example but if you have any kind of imposter syndrome, being asked constantly about justifying why you’re here and what you background is, is not very helpful.
So it’s about finding a better first question?
Definitely. What’s a better first question? And why does it matter? The problem with VC is that actually anyone could do it. I genuinely think anyone could do [it] – nothing is so complicated that a clever person couldn’t learn how to do it. It is not a million miles away from journalism. It’s not a million miles away from quite a few jobs. But for some reason there is a real weighting towards certain technical skills and not really an appreciation of some of the other skills around emotional intelligence, for example, relationship-building, selling, fundraising. All those things didn’t seem to feature on anyone’s priority list.
I had this thing about how VCs when they are junior have completely different skill sets to when they are senior, and that transition is often quite difficult to make because you have to be super analytical and metric-driven at junior level and then when you are senior it is much more about business acumen, entrepreneurial mindset, fundraising, relationship-building, networking, all these things. So I think VC has a problem that there is no fixed skill set you need, so therefore, they had to make some sort of criteria to filter down the massive pipeline of people that want to do it and that has ended up being completely arbitrary.
Because you did manage to get your foot in the door, it’s very easy to just close that door behind. What drove you to set up Diversity VC and try to open up those pathways for people that don’t get as lucky?
I’ve always felt massively lucky that I went to a private school, and grew up in London, I had an incredibly privileged background. That gave me a massive step up in terms of having access. It has been an ongoing thing that I have been trying to correct and solve for.
Diversity VC felt like something that needed to exist basically and I couldn’t believe there wasn’t something that does that. In a kind of naive way, I just thought, well, someone’s got to do it and I really want VC to be more inclusive because that’s the only way that the future tech companies that we create are actually going to be inclusive to us. So that was the driver, I saw how much impact the VC and the cap table had at the super early stage of a company, and if those VCs were all super narrow and thinking the same way then that company would be exactly the same as well. So the amplifying effect Diversity VC could have if we focused on the allocated capital was massive, so I guess that drove me, but I didn’t quite realise how much it would take over my life, I guess.
How do you define the work Diversity VC does?
I see it as three different things, all underpinned by data and resources. The first is about how people get into industry, so pathways. I fundamentally don’t believe you need to have a degree to do VC. I fundamentally don’t believe you need to have gone to a to a certain institution to VC or have a certain career background. So I guess our mission is to change people’s mindsets on that and get people to be part of this industry, because it’s so fun apart than anything else, and it’s also massively potentially financially incentivising, so everyone should be able to participate in that.
That’s the first part of it and internships are a massive part of that. We are trying to do that for 30 young people next year from all kinds of different backgrounds. We also have a jobs page on our website, we also have 185 people who have approached us for internships and have done bits of work. So let’s create new networks. Let’s make it way more transparent. We’ve got posts on on our site about how to get into venture, we have the ability through events where people can go have a conversation with a VC, which is something new and wasn’t available to me when I started in VC.
The second thing is VCs themselves, how they operate as companies and how can their policies and behaviours change to not only hire better people but assess people more fairly and also retain and promote and include people within their firms. We did a training program for 22 partners at funds last year with Fearless Futures, an amazing organisation that look at social justice training, and help people understand the kind of fundamental drivers of privilege and exclusion, deep societal drivers. That was fascinating and we’re hoping to do that more and more. We did two in London, one in Dublin and Berlin and we have a tool kit as part of that for after the training to put some practical things in place.
The third is entrepreneurs. The only reason we started on VC, which is in itself a very niche industry, is because we thought about the excessive impact that VCs have on companies. How do companies access capital? How do companies know how to speak the language of VCs? How do people become entrepreneurs? The way we have thought about all of those things is trying to partners with organisations like Entrepreneur First, Makers, YSYS, OneTech. We very much want to do more work like that.
All of that is underpinned by data and resources. When we first started Diversity VC, it sounds kind of ridiculous, but we literally did not know how many VCs there were in the UK. No one knew, there was no data. So we created a list and saw, right, there are 160 funds, then who works there and then we looked at the gender, because that was all we were funded to do a the time, we wanted to go much broader. It was sort of a naively audacious project and we had no idea what it would precipitate. The results of that showed half of funds have no women in their investment teams, those results were pretty shocking.
Did the results shock even you?
I think I was quite surprised that the 13 percent of women [were at partner level] number was actually as high as it was. I expected that to be single digits. But I was shocked by two thirds of funds not having any senior women, that definitely was quite shocking.
As you say, the industry really runs on data and that’s really penetrated people’s minds and got into their psyches. Also, I think it’s been great for us as an organisation to just give us that credibility that we have done something which is reliable, and is verifiable and we’re now the kind of authority on that topic. So that opened a huge number of doors for us to do other things. It was a really great thing to start with. The way we think about the organisation is that, let’s be that shining the light, let’s make the industry more transparent, and really hold ourselves up to a mirror and saying: let’s be better.
What’s next on your agenda at Diversity VC?
There’s more data around the VC industry, which is going to be looking at educational background. Then looking at career background as well. That should be coming out this summer. I’m really excited about that because I think that is such an important conversation to start being had around social mobility.
I mean look at me and Lilian [Li, her cofounder at Diversity VC], in the same year at Cambridge, it’s sort of absurd. The second thing is we have dipped our toe a bit into the US. We were approached by some people over there, who said ‘what you’re doing is really needed over here’. So I never want to replicate anything that’s being done already, but if we can have a voice and be useful within that ecosystem then it is the main VC market at the moment.
What are the sort of companies you personally like to invest in?
I can’t really talk about what I’m doing right now, but I am angel investing in the meantime and what I am looking for is three main areas.
One is consumer, some of the best deals I have done have been in consumer and that’s a space that not that many people understand. The fact that I have a marketing background, and understand brand gives me an advantage there, also being a woman gives me an advantage to some extent. I also love things that have communities at the heart of what they’re doing around consumers. So things where there is a sort of stickiness and virality where you basically don’t have to acquire customers each time.
The second thing I love investing in is healthcare, wellness, mental health. I think there is huge amount of opportunity. I think we’re going to spend 10 times more on our health in 10 years than we do today.
The third thing is probably the bucket of moonshots, things that are really futuristic that involve some sort of core technology usually. So I spent some time at Seraphim Capital, which specialises in space, so literally moon shots. I don’t have a astrophysics background, unfortunately, but I just love very cool, interesting new technology.
You told TechCrunch that you hope we will be more comfortable talking about the diversity and inclusion issues in the industry. Has that happened since you spoke to them?
I think that report has generated a seismic wake up call, really. It has been really quite horrifying to people. I think it is the tip of the iceberg because, you know, women are 52 percent of the working population and if they are so madly underrepresented, then what does it say about all the other groups that are even more underrepresented?
I’ve had lots of conversations with VC partners in the last couple of months. I think what hasn’t changed is that it’s still, you know, average fund size is nine people, they still don’t have HR departments, they still don’t have loads of budget to do things. They still aren’t hiring loads of people, so there I feel very empathetic to people who want to try and make change. But actually, there are lots of barriers to that.
There’s a way to go on the depth and understanding still of the drivers of a lack of diversity and inclusion in the industry. I think the report was a good wake up call, but still was very narrow on the issue of gender. I know that that the British Business Bank wanted it to be much broader than that. So there are conversations happening, depth conversations could do better.
How do you kind of get across that this is isn’t just the right thing to do and is actually good for business, diversified portfolios are good for business?
I kind of steer away from making that argument, to be honest, because I just don’t think it really helps the conversation. Fearless Futures asked me: What if it suddenly it turned out not to be good for business? Would you just stop doing it? I’ve really heard that, and I think it really kind of reduces people’s humanity to just be a business case.
I think the way that I try to articulate it to VCs, who are all about the opportunities, the outliers, investing in these companies that you need to be in that one company every three years, that is just going to make billions. So that’s the piece that resonates with people, describing the idea of an entrepreneur that literally couldn’t physically get into your office, that might be the one that’s going to build the next billion dollar company gets to people. That clicks with them. So I say is your office accessible? Could someone who’s in a wheelchair get into your office?
How do you see the rest of the year going? Do you see a young group of women now starting to kick down doors and start to get into the industry? And do you think in five years, we’ll be having a very different conversation?
I see two things happening. One thing is that there are people kicking down doors but that progress is not really fast enough. The other thing I see is people creating a new industry, frankly, which looks not very much like the venture capital industry that we know. It has different fee structures, different people in it, different values, different beliefs, and they will fund different kinds of companies. I think that the real threat to the VC industry, as we know today is actually that they don’t move quickly enough to really tackle this issue.
Fundamentally, VCs are about what the entrepreneur wants and if they want different style of capital, then the VCs that don’t move quickly are going to miss out on the best opportunities. There is more capital coming into the industry. It’s becoming more democratised, as people are starting to realise that it is not something that you need 10 years’ investment banking to be able to do. And it’s just amazing. It’s also becoming much more transparent. Which is fantastic.
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