The Value Of Diversity
Dec 8, 2020
Joanna Rees is an investor, entrepreneur, advisor, educator and mentor with deep expertise in helping companies and organizations define their market and build powerful brands. Currently, she is a Managing Partner at West, a venture studio that specializes in the end-to-end process of designing, building, and launching purpose-driven brands including Twitter, Square, Eventbrite, Impossible Foods, Prelude Fertility, Chegg, and GoFundMe. I had the opportunity to interview Joanna recently. Here are some of the highlights of that interview:
Jill Griffin: Tell me how you got started in venture capital? Joanna Rees: My initial love for entrepreneurship came from my father. He was an entrepreneur before that term had been coined. He had a big vision and was willing to do the work to get it realized. When I was about 10 years old, I remember going to a meeting with him in NY and afterwards he was quite upset because the investor turned him down. Yet he didn’t give up. He pursued a different path and ultimately raised the funding. It was a firsthand lesson in not giving up. That entrepreneurial drive was always in my DNA. I got my start in brand management and marketing at Danone before attending business school. During business school my interest in venture capital really surfaced and so I moved out to SF to take a swing at it. Griffin: What advice would you have for women who want to pursue investing and venture capital? Rees: The industry is much better than it was and we’ve made a lot of progress from when I was first breaking in, but it is still a challenging uphill climb. No matter what, you have to believe in yourself, that you can serve a purpose and can make an impact, but be prepared for some lonely times. MORE FOR YOU
Griffin: What was one of the biggest setbacks that you had during your journey? Rees: When I was just getting started raising my initial fund I had two male partners to round out the mix. It was tough to raise our initial commitments and it took many calls and hundreds of meetings over many months. One of my partners thought it was taking too long and decided he wanted to take an investment banking job. I then had to communicate to all of the investor prospects that he had left. We continued the fundraise and were very close to our first close. We had a goal of raising $20 million. Then the other partner decided he wanted to take a CEO role. We were so close. We had $18 million in circled commitments. I had to call all of the investor prospects and tell them the change. I thought the whole thing would unravel. I ended up closing on $25 million two weeks later. Griffin: What did they see when you had to stand alone? Rees: I think they saw the passion, the commitment, and the know-how. I was young in my career and I knew the investment approach I wanted to take, but not necessarily how to manage a fund. I always say to our team, “measure twice, cut once.” Once on my own, I doubled down on the infrastructure needed to manage a fund because that was not my initial area of expertise. I recruited experts to serve on a structured advisory board. They helped bring light to my blind spots. Acknowledging that and paying attention to it gave my LPs the confidence they needed. Griffin: Can you share 3 learnings from your experience? Rees: I could talk at length about my learnings, but to summarize: 1) persistence beats resistance, 2) don't confuse motion with progress, and lastly, 3) surround yourself with people who will tell you the truth, but who are your supporters. Griffin: I understand West takes a different approach to venture, can you explain the model? Rees: West is a venture studio with a unique structure at the intersection of brand strategy, creative, growth, business strategy and venture capital. The founding insight we started with 9 years ago is just as true today, that brand usually trumps technology and that the most innovative (and valuable) companies only become so when they build end-to-end experiences that truly address not only customers' unmet needs, but also create unexpected customer delight. Rees: We believe that the traditional agency model is fundamentally broken for startups who need to be capital efficient at all times. And because we selectively invest in our studio companies, we bring an investor mindset and discipline to the work. Our goal is to be surgical and capital-efficient in our work, focusing on the only the most critical components of building an impactful brand and creating true defensibility. Griffin: There’s been an increase in “non-traditional” approaches to venture capital. Whether it’s accelerators and incubators or West’s hybrid approach, why are these approaches taking off? Rees: Venture capital funds have a long term lifecycle and therefore change has come slowly. Some new models have emerged that have really challenged the historic structure as the only option. All industries need to innovate. Venture capital is no exception. Griffin: Describe the team for me. Who are the types of people working at West and in the studio? Rees: West is an incredibly diverse team of experienced marketers, brand builders, strategists, investors and creatives. We recruit specifically to hire a diverse team because if we're going to do really good work, we have to have diversity of perspective. I often talk about our team as a mosaic where we are intentional about not having two of the same tiles. We're changing the face of what's possible in venture with our team, their backgrounds, and our approach. We're hopeful that in the brilliant work we do with companies, we give people a view into what's possible and another way to enter venture capital. Griffin: How has COVID-19 changed your outlook on investing or working with companies? Rees: Across-the-board, COVID has been difficult for many companies. It has also propelled the growth of those serving a digital-first world. When we work with our companies in the studio, we are building trust throughout the entire process. When COVID hit, we could be all hands on deck to operate alongside our companies in the places they needed most. The move to digital and remote has also opened up the globe for our work. Our bias was that our work was done best in person with leadership teams. We have found that we can collaborate and deliver great work in a virtual world. This enables us to partner with founders in any location. As an example, we are currently engaged with a high growth tech infrastructure platform company based across Africa. Griffin: In addition to your work at West, you are on a number of private and public boards. Can you speak to some of your learnings, specifically as a woman? Rees: I have significant board experience in the private, public and non-profit sectors. I have learned so much from the leadership teams and other board members - the good, the bad and the ugly. Great organizations have strong boards with a diverse set of experts. I have seen just about every flavor of what works and what does not work. Yes, very often, I have been the only woman in the room. I always told myself I was there for a purpose and that my job was to speak up and be highly engaged. I often received feedback that I was a CEO’s first call in an issue. They said they could trust me, I was accessible, listened, and added value. Great board members ask thoughtful questions to make sure a leadership team has thought about all sides of an issue or opportunity. Board members are not “operators”. A board is a governance body. 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