Cornell University: Club brings awareness to diversity gap in venture capital

Ragini Balachandran ’23 got involved with the student club Cornell Venture Capital after watching Melinda Gates give an interview about the lack of women in the field. Balachandran’s goal is to boost women in venture capital, especially since she may want to start her own company someday.

To inspire the next generation of investors and entrepreneurs, Cornell Venture Capital (CVC) recently hosted two prominent female venture capitalists who shed light on how women and minorities can break into the industry.

Venture capitalists Liza Landsman ’90, and Jillian Williams brought their perspectives to more than 120 students, alumni and professionals at the virtual Women in Venture Capital event Feb. 1.

“My hope is even if I can get one or two women from this event into venture capital and in the seats of authority and influence, then maybe one day they’ll return the favor and invest in someone like me,” Balachandran said.

According to 2021 research, fewer than 13% of decision-makers at U.S. venture capital firms are women; only 2% of total U.S. venture capital investments go to female founders.

Landsman, a general partner at NEA and an independent board member of Squarespace, Choice Hotels and Applause.com, worked in business for years before getting into venture capital. There are many paths into the industry, but a liberal arts education is a great place to start, she said.

“Acquiring the skill of how to learn new things is probably the most important thing you can do,” Landsman said. “I think inherently being analytical is helpful because so much of what we do as investors is smart extrapolation from a tiny bit of data.”

On the flip side, Landsman cited tenacity as one of the traits she looks for in those seeking funding.

“The thing that is consistently true regardless of what kind of business it is, is that nothing ever unfolds the way it looks in the PowerPoint pitch,” Landsmen said. “People who have the emotional fortitude to continue to jump over hurdles and find ways around obstacles and are intellectually and emotionally flexible when it comes to change, I think is really important.”

Williams is a principal at Cowboy Ventures and the head of BLCK VC NYC, as well as a 2022 Forbes 30 under 30 VC awardee. Early in her career she gained experience in investment banking, which proved to be the impetus she needed to get involved in venture capital.

“I realized how antiquated banks are,” Williams said. “This was in 2015 and I remember sitting in the room with all of the senior bankers and someone asked, ‘Does anyone in this room know what Venmo is?’ Nobody at that table raised their hand. It was a lightbulb that went off in my head: ‘Oh, they are not paying attention to anything that is happening, or forward looking, whatsoever.’”

Williams explained personal relationships and networking have a big influence in the venture capital world. When diversity is lacking at a firm, it can make it harder for women and minority founders to connect with investors.

“If you are a man and it’s a business that’s targeting women, you probably aren’t going to understand a lot of it,” Williams said. “Like Rent the Runway, for example, when they went to pitch their first rounds the male [general partners] said, ‘Let me go ask my wife whether or not this is something we should invest in.’”

CVC, a group of 33 undergraduates, offers college students first-hand experience in the venture capital world. Club members work directly with leading venture capital firms on projects ranging from due diligence and market research to portfolio and investment analysis.

Balachandran said that diversity is an integral part of the mission of their club. As a mechanical engineering student, she joined with no previous knowledge of venture capital but felt welcomed right away.

“We have people from all over the university joining our club, and that’s really because we care about intellectual diversity,” Balachandran said. “The ethos of Cornell is ‘… any person … any study’ and in venture capital, you need different perspectives to evaluate companies in different sectors. We really care that we’re taking people across the spectrum of majors here.”

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