Q&A with Female Founders Fund's Emily St. Denis

Emily St. Denis is the Director of Community at Female Founders Fund, an early-stage venture fund based in New York City investing in technology companies founded by women. Launched in 2014, the fund has built the most well-recognized venture franchise investing in female-run internet and software startups with portfolio companies like Eloquii, Maven Clinic, Primary, Rent The Runway, Tala, Thrive Global, WayUp, WinkyLux, and Zola. Prior to F3, Emily ran operations at female-founded boutique fitness companies SoulCycle and Xtend Barre. You can follow her on Twitter: @emilystdenis.

You previously worked in the fitness and wellness space. What made you head down the venture path?

I was lucky enough to be hired as one of SoulCycle’s first 30 corporate employees in 2013, when the company had only about 12 open studios. The early days were super scrappy -- the corporate office was in the crawl space above the Tribeca studio, I shared a desk with a coworker for the first few months, we took calls from the laundry room, we were all working on top of one another. But in that space there was this incredibly special, infectious energy... we believed strongly in our mission, in the power of what we were building.

Over my 4+ years growing within the Operations department, I wore many hats: I created the first standard operating procedures for the company, set up a national warehouse and logistics program, developed the amenity program, opened pop-ups, switched out the old (shoes, bikes, bags, candles...) for the new (shoes, bikes, bags, candles...), and more. I loved the hustle and energy of the early days and wanted to learn more about how new companies are built.

So, in 2017, I connected with a private equity fund that invested in early stage health and wellness companies. I left SoulCycle to consult for one of their portfolio companies, an international fitness franchise called Xtend Barre, on operations, business metrics, branding, retail, marketing, and sales strategy. Through our executive and board meetings, I learned that best way to make a difference in a company I believed in was to get in at the very beginning. That’s when I started learning more about fundraising and venture capital.

Why Female Founders Fund?

At the start of my search I did a lot of preliminarily digging because I knew *nothing* about VC. I was fortunate enough to connect with Allie Felix (Director of Programming & Partnerships at Embarc Collective), who shared her list of newsletters to subscribe to and articles to read so I could become more well-versed in the space. I pulled at every string and took as many coffee chats as I could to learn as much as I could about the venture and startup ecosystem. (Thanks Stephanie Manning @ Lerer and Chris Brown @ First Round!) Without an MBA or a background in finance, I decided investing didn’t make sense for me yet; I identified platform and community as the place I could leverage my skills as an operator, as someone who likes building brands and businesses.

Having worked almost exclusively at female-founded companies, I felt strongly about continuing to support women entrepreneurs. Through my networking I was forwarded an email from Anu Duggal, the founding partner of Female Founders Fund, looking for a Director of Community. When I looked at the portfolio and the team, Female Founders Fund aligned with my interests and passions and I wrote back with my resume and the ways my background and competencies might be an asset. The questions Sutian and Anu asked during the interview process were thoughtful and challenging, and I could tell I’d learn and grow from working with them. And, maybe most importantly, I felt like on a personal level we clicked. The process took a little over a month: I came in for about three in-person interviews and completed a take-home project before receiving the official call to join as F3’s Director of Community in April.

I think that emphasis on fit is spot on. I’ve heard it from a number of people I’ve interviewed.

Not vibing with the people you work with -- in venture or in any other industry -- can make you miserable and unproductive. I’ve always been the best version of myself when I’m with coworkers who cheer me on and help me learn. I think that’s why Sutian and Anu have such a strong working relationship - because at the end of the day, they are friends who respect one another. Just being interested in the subject matter is not enough to keep you happy.

Let’s talk about the Female Founders Fund College Fellows program. Why start the program? What are the fellows doing and how does this add value to F3?

The program was developed to provide support to our founders in several ways. First, to help us understand trends that begin with college students. We have the fellows complete regular surveys, answering questions like what do they do on the weekends, what products do they like, who are they following on social media, etc. Those learnings are used by our portfolio to inform marketing, brand, and product decisions as well as by our fund to direct investment interests and decisions.

Secondly, the fellows act as a focus group for our founders; in the past they have worked with F3 portfolio companies like Billie, Shine, and Winky Lux to beta test products, review marketing campaigns and branding decisions. Their feedback is extremely valuable in determining what resonates for women in the 18-22 age group right now.

Lastly (and perhaps most importantly to the fellows themselves) the program offers valuable volunteer and networking opportunities. The fellows are able to access and attend events closed to the public, connect with our portfolio companies and founders directly, and gain access to an expansive network of women in tech to work for after graduation.  

Just looking at the application made me wish I was still in college!

Same! I think others feel that way too, we’ve had a number of inquiries regarding post-graduate fellow opportunities. As a team of three, we’re mindful of bandwidth -- but we do eventually want to build the fellowship options out.

What are some of the other responsibilities in your Director of Community role?

My responsibilities range from operations, business development, content and communications, event planning, talent support, and more... but I typically think about my role with 3 focuses: events, ongoing programs, and new initiatives.

F3 puts on 30-40 events each year, which is a rigorous slate of activities for a team of three but we optimize to ensure all the community programming is valuable for our portfolio. Of all the events we put on, the monthly CEO Breakfasts are my favorite. They are hosted at Anu’s loft and are really intimate because all conversations are off the record. We’ve had speakers like Andy Dunn from Bonobos, Marc Lore from Walmart/, Henry Davis from Glossier, and Mindy Grossman from Weight Watchers, to name a few. I always end up learning so much and the founders’ questions help me better understand what everyone’s going through.

In terms of ongoing programs, I create regular programming for and manage our College Fellows program, and oversee our Expert (advisor) Network program. I also manage our content calendar which includes posting to our Medium blog, creating newsletters and sending updates to our founders and larger community, writing our tweets, etc.

For new initiatives, we’re constantly thinking of new ways to be supportive to our founders and the greater women in tech community, whether this means developing/growing our social media strategy, creating a podcast, expanding our fellows program to include additional demographics… things like that.

Speaking of support…  with so many firms offering platform and community as a value add, what makes your venture partners and the Female Founders Fund Network unique?

I can’t speak to other funds, but the intention behind F3’s venture partners program is to build a network of business savvy women in a disproportionately male entrepreneurial landscape. Our venture partners include StitchFix Founder Katrina Lake and's Sheila Lirio Marcelo as well as portfolio founders like Tala’s Shivani Siroya and Gixo’s Selina Tobaccowala. Shan from Zola put it well when she said we’re looking to break up the old boy’s club; these networks within VC have been built for years by men, so it can be harder for women to raise funding and find support in the community. The venture partners program is about building a resource by women for women to find the support they need.

Having an expansive view of the portfolio, what space is most exciting to you right now?

I might be biased after years of working at SoulCycle, but I think the rise of alternative communities is particularly interesting. Throughout my lifetime there’s been a steady decline in organized religion, which has created a vacuum for functions like community and meaning previously served by churches and temples. Everyone craves genuine connection, and there’s a bigger opportunity than ever before for secular brands to meet that need.

I’ve had a similar thought for some time now. There was a piece by Ross Douthat in the New York Times about the decline of Catholicism and what the church can do to capture a new audience. I think he missed the fact that people aren’t less spiritual. They’re just finding meaning and fulfillment in other sources.

Absolutely. For example, Shine Text, one of our portfolio companies, is the largest messaging service for well-being. Every morning, Shine sends users a daily messaging experience to help you feel your best self and thrive. All of my friends and family receive the texts and it’s something we discuss and feel connected by. We’re also investors in Co--Star, an astrology app that addresses wellness. We’ve found that Millennials and Gen Z use astrology to guide their decision-making and therefore engage with the platform regularly, sharing horoscopes and readings with friends.

Have you found that startups pitching to Female Founders Fund focus primarily on people from urban areas? I see so many startups - let’s take consumer starts as an example - whose key customer base is the affluent Millennial and Gen Zer. How is F3 sourcing and backing startups that address all types of communities (be it underserved communities, etc.)?

Great question. Most of our startups are app-based rather than service-based which bakes in accessibility from the start. Mobile apps like Gixo, which aims to revolutionize the exercise experience, comes in at a lower price point than traditional fitness services. Maven Clinic is similarly paving the way for women’s healthcare by providing a range of services for fertility and adoption, as well as support for postpartum depression, referrals, and video appointments. In their Series B, they also announced a nationwide breast milk delivery service. Some corporations already offer breast milk delivery as a benefit, but Maven is making that more accessible to everyday working women. Tala, too, brings micro-loans to entrepreneurs in developing countries through an app. Mobile has really unleashed so many opportunities in finance, healthcare, and more. By backing diverse founders as well - who look at the world with a critical, unique lens - we support companies that solve accessibility issues while addressing consumers beyond affluent urbanites.

I think there’s a general belief that women create more consumer and ecommerce startups. Do you think that’s true, or part of a self-fulfilling cycle where investors think women understand these spaces better and tend to back those female founders? 

In my opinion it’s a little bit of both. The presence of successful female founders in consumer and ecommerce definitely validates female entrepreneurs from those spaces, but it also creates an opening for women entrepreneurs from fintech or cyber security. Especially with an increased investor and board diversity, I believe we’re going to see even more female founders from every sector get funded.

What advice do you have for young women who want to enter VC - on the investing, operations, or platform side?

  1. Talk to everyone. Go to as many events and take as many coffee meetings as possible. Keep pulling at the string. Once you decide what aspect of VC you’re interested in working in, communicate that to the people you’ve met. VC is a small community where job descriptions are emailed around before being posted online, so it’s helpful for people to know who you are and know what you’re looking for so they can refer you.

  2. Think about how you like to work. Do you thrive on the start-up 24/7 craziness, or are you a 9:00-5:00’er? Do you work well on a team or are you more independent? Company size has *a lot* to do with your happiness here, so ask yourself those questions and narrow down your list of potential funds by employee size.

  3. What brands do you (actually) use, which companies do you believe in? If you’re not super passionate about software companies for example, you won’t feel particularly excited about supporting a software-focused portfolio.

  4. The people you surround yourself with directly correlates to your happiness. That goes for a job in VC or a job anywhere else. Seek out partners and coworkers who believe in you, support you, and make you laugh. It’ll create a solid foundation for whatever’s next.