Abby Lyall is a senior associate at Quake Capital based in New York City. Prior to Quake, Abby interned at BlackRock and founded her own startup – MyDrop – that connected high school students to community service opportunities.
What attracted you to venture capital and working with startups?
When I first became a student at NYU, I fell into the traditional finance archetype and thought I wanted to be an investment banker—ironic, as I had no idea what investment bankers actually did. My freshman year, I entered a school pitch contest called the Stern Social Impact Business Competition, just because I thought it would look good on my resume for investment banking interviews. My team ended up winning the grand prize of $20,000 to build a business around the idea that we had pitched, which completely changed my entire career trajectory. The prize came as a huge shock; we were unqualified freshmen with very little guidance and no clue how to start a business, but we muddled through somehow and ran the business for almost two years. From the moment I started running my own company, attending entrepreneurship events, and meeting other amazing people in the space, I was hooked. I’m still not exactly sure what I want to do with my life, but I know I’ll always want it to involve working with startups.
What was your recruitment and hiring process like for Quake?
I actually didn’t officially recruit for my role at Quake Capital; I stumbled upon the firm, and the world of VC in general, by complete accident (there’s a recurring pattern here). Through representing my startup at NYU Entrepreneurship Lab events, I became acquainted with Brandon Maier, one of the Founding Partners at Quake. As an NYU alum, Brandon knew many of my friends in the entrepreneurship community; we spoke on several occasions and he invited me to join the firm as an intern. When I started, I was a Junior at Stern and Quake was still in its very early days; we didn’t even have an office yet and were working out of the study lounge in the NYU student center! I loved being part of a firm that was so scrappy and new—even though I was an intern, I was only Quake’s second employee, so I was immediately given mission-critical jobs like helping recruit our earliest corporate sponsors, building out our university programs for interns and student startups, and conducting due diligence for our first ever accelerator cohort class. As the firm grew, so did my responsibilities, and I graduated early from Stern to jump into a full-time role at Quake this past January.
How would you describe an average day in your role?
People generally assume that because I work in finance, my job must be all building models in Excel and conducting intense quantitative analyses. While that may be true for later stage firms, in early stage venture our job is 99% people. When our accelerator program is in session, I spend my day managing program events (bringing in speakers, hosting office hours, coordinating logistics for our Demo Day) and doing advisory work for each of our portfolio companies. When the cohort is not in session, I spend my time conducting due diligence interviews with prospective portfolio companies and attending events to network with other members of the entrepreneurship and VC community. Throughout both of these “seasons,” I manage an amazing squad of interns (we have eight with us this summer!!) who organize everything from our blog and social media to sourcing deal flow for our programs. Sometimes I even get to sleep!
What kind of guidance and support do you receive from female associates, partners, and mentors?
Our Managing Partner, Amy Coveny, has been an amazing mentor and support system for me since she joined the team earlier this year. Prior to her joining, I was the only woman on the Quake NYC team, so having a woman at the Partner level to look up to and learn from is one of the best parts of how quickly our team has been expanding. I’m the type of person who gets very wrapped up in the details, and Amy has helped me learn to see the bigger picture so I can become a better business leader and manager for those that I oversee.
Outside of Quake, the women-in-venture community in NYC is incredibly tight-knit; when I started at Quake full-time, the community welcomed me with open arms and helped me make an incredible amount of great connections within just a few months after graduating. Contrary to what is often portrayed in the media, there are many women in venture in New York (at least at the associate level), and they are constantly giving back to the community and helping out female founders and women that are new to VC whenever they can. I do my best to give back to this community for all it has done for me by introducing female founders and VCs to each other, giving feedback to female founders on their pitch decks, and spending time in online forums where I can provide support to women in entrepreneurship.
How is the overall culture at your firm? How do you build an inclusive community at Quake and beyond?
The culture at Quake is fun, young and casual. Our entire team is only about fifteen people across three different offices, so the company is very tight knit and everyone gets to know each other extremely well. It’s easy to be inclusive within Quake because everyone is very different from each other, but the company is so small that we all still need to work together and collaborate through our differences. We also hold the value of meritocracy incredibly dear both in our hiring process and in selecting companies for investment; every single person at Quake puts forth a concentrated effort to make sure that we select the best of the best, with none of our unconscious biases getting in the way. This strategy has worked out incredibly well for us in increasing diversity among founders in our portfolio; of the thirteen companies that we accepted into our last cohort, six were female founded and four had founders of color. The culture at Quake is something I’m incredibly proud to boast about as an early member of the organization; I’m always sad whenever a cohort ends because it means I won’t get to see my friends every day!
What skills did you bring to this position from previous roles? What skills have you built at Quake?
The most valuable skill that I bring to my job at Quake is the ability to solve problems. In the world of early stage startups, problems crop up every day that you don’t expect, and the ability to respond effectively to them can make or break your business. I had first hand experience being thrown into the fire both with my previous startup and in the early days at Quake, so I learned to solve problems creatively with minimal background knowledge and experience. As a result, I’ve now been exposed to many different types of business problems, and have developed a solid strategy for solving problems I haven’t previously seen; I apply this real-world knowledge both in advising Quake’s portfolio companies and running the day-to-day accelerator operations.
Throughout my time at Quake, I’ve definitely strengthened my interpersonal skills and have become much better at working and interacting with different types of people. You wouldn’t believe it if you met me at an event, but I’m actually an introvert, most at home curled up alone with a book. Learning how to build valuable relationships and a strong network is a skill that has been a hard one for me to master, but is incredibly important to every career both in and out of the VC space. I believe that having a job where I am forced out of my comfort zone by needing to interact with so many different people in different ways has positioned me well for success in anything that I choose to do later in my life.
Have you faced major challenges in the space - be it imposter syndrome or something else - and how did you overcome it?
There’s a common misconception in the startup world that founders are young and VCs are old. The data doesn’t support this—the average age for a founder is actually 40, and many VCs (especially high-profile ones) are heavily weighted towards analyst and associate roles—but the stereotype is still harmful to those who don’t fit the mold of what is depicted on HBO’s Silicon Valley. I’ve had founders in our accelerator refuse to take me seriously, other VCs talk down to me, and people that I meet at events walk away when they find out my age. I’m part of a wonderful community of young people in the NYC startup space that all support each other by hosting happy hours, attending each others’ events, and helping each other boost our personal brands by hosting each other on panels, featuring each other in publications, and sharing each others’ digital content. There is so much I can learn from my peers, and some of the best advice I’ve received has come from others close to me in age! If someone discriminates against you because of your age, just know that THEY’RE the one missing out due to their narrow-minded view of how things should be.
Any advice for young women who want to enter VC - on the investing, operations, or platform side?
Start a company. Start a company. Start a company!! At least for early stage investing, having a background as an entrepreneur is more valuable than years of experience at the most elite bank or consulting firm. I’m a much better VC because of the experiences I’ve had sitting on the other side of the table. As a prior founder, I have credibility when advising the companies in our portfolio on their business decisions and I have a robust foundation for evaluating an early stage company. Most VCs prefer to hire from within their networks, so if you’ve been entrenched in the startup community for awhile as a founder, and have met a number of VCs through your networking efforts, you’ll have a much higher probability of getting a job. Don’t be afraid of how a failure will look on your resume; the company that I started failed miserably, and my experience is that much more meaningful for it. Own your flaws and take the risk—it’s a thousand times more valuable than anything you’ll learn in a classroom.