Ilse Calderon is an investor at Ovo Fund, based in the Bay Area. Prior to Ovo Fund, she was on the venture debt teams at Silicon Valley Bank.
What drew you to venture capital and working with startups?
I’m from Mexico and grew up partly in Texas where generally speaking, startups and venture capital nomenclature was unknown to me. I first learned about VC and startups my first year at Stanford. While at Stanford, I even got the opportunity to initiate (alongside some peers) a nationally recognized co-ed entrepreneurship fraternity, Sigma Eta Pi. This gave me the opportunity to interact with entrepreneurially minded students and peers. In fact, a year later, I teamed up with a couple other members from that organization to start what is probably the most saturated type of company a student starts: an app centered around creating spontaneous real-life hangouts among students. Anyways, as I spent more time immersed in the Stanford community, I felt that I was quickly adding more startup related activities to my curriculum and extracurriculars.
Then, my first stint in VC was through an internship at Signia Venture Partners and I loved it! I learned that I thrive in the unstructured nature of VC and enjoy being able to create my own initiatives.
3 main things that threw me to explore the start-up ecosystem:
Being able to spread focus across different industries: I think one of the most important skills you can gain as a VC is being able to get up to speed on new technologies (ex: AI in music, wellness, etc) within a limited amount of time. For us at OVO Fund, it’s important to make a decision relatively quickly. Thus, this skill is definitely needed.
Interacting with very different entrepreneurs each and every day: In the morning you could be in a meeting with a founder who is probably one of the few people in the world with the most knowledge within the field of genomics and then in the afternoon you’re talking to a founder who thinks her company is the next big thing in digital media! That energy and ambition is contagious.
How forward thinking you really have to be: I mean, at the earliest stage--where OVO operates, we really have to think long term. We are funding companies that might not even have a product yet but it's being able to see that vision and have conviction in the founders.
Why OVO Fund?
Before joining OVO, I was at Silicon Valley Bank doing a rotational program across different venture debt teams. I quickly learned that monotonous nature wasn’t for me. I wanted to be able to take on self-created initiatives and dive deeper into exciting trends in food tech, consumer business models, and more. I thought OVO would be the perfect fit for that.
Additionally, we invest really early and like to be part of the first institutional round of capital a company raises. I joined Dec. 2017 and it made a lot of sense because I believe it is in this early of stage where you can have the most impact.
We are a two person team dedicated full time to investing. Given we are so small and lean, I’m often thrown into the wild and expected to flourish and just figure it out. While it was scary at first, I truly believe I learn best when there is no clear blueprint given.
Furthermore, I’m given a lot of responsibility in terms of investment thesis development, founder sourcing, and internal fund dynamics too.
You previously worked in marketing and portfolio management before full-time VC. How did that background help you as a senior associate?
Yes, so my first role after Stanford was at SVB’s rotational program with a cohort of other recent grads. Although that role wasn’t equity investing, it did give me daily exposure into the financials of healthy (and also not so healthy) startups. That was helpful when I moved to OVO because I understood the numbers but also because I had exposure into different industries and hot trends. For example, I helped underwrite a deal for Lime and it’s crazy because it was a relatively tiny deal but just a year later, well, we all know the numbers there...
OVO Fund invests between idea and seed. What expectations do you have for the founder, team, product, and market at this point?
We are a very founder driven fund, at the point where we invest there’s not much traction going on so we do expect the team to have as close to founder market fit as possible. Subject matter expertise within the founders is huge! For example, we invested into a food company targeting high order value customers (e.g. businesses) primarily because the founders knew that space like the back of their hands. We also recently invested in a female founder whose company is at the intersection of digital media and women’s fashion. Even though she is a first time founder with little traction under her belt, she is very networked in her wedge audience and that primarily gave us comfort in the investment.
OVO Fund has invested in companies like Optimus Ride, Juniper Square, LoanSnap, Aikon, and Noble.AI. What spaces are you excited about right now?
Within the food tech space, I’m really interested in the intersection of direct to consumer and food. I think it’s a great time to start a food company that combines certain trends such as: millennial buying behavior, customer acquisition hacks, new business models, and lean start-up strategies. After all, food is the mother of all markets and eating the way we currently are isn’t sustainable.
In the intersection of AI and media/music, I see a lot of potential for start-ups that are using powerful new tools that blur the lines between what’s real and what’s not. So many digital avatar projects are emerging--Brud’s Miquela and then you have the man in Japan who married a hologram, etc. We are investors in AI Foundation (a personalized and AI-trained video bot of yourself for entertainment or empowerment) and are looking more deeply at opportunities that cater to the next-generation.
OVO is in many ways a startup itself. What are some ways that you've had to bootstrap the micro VC fund?
I joined right as the second fund closed in December 2017 so I haven’t had to go through the fundraising process itself. However, I do get to interact with LPs on a fairly frequent basis throughout the year. For example, right now, I’m in Detroit presenting at one of our investors’ shareholders meeting. Then, my main interaction with our investors is at our annual shareholders’ meeting where my partner, Eric, and I each present our thesis and a section of portfolio companies to our limited partners.
You run Digitally Yours, a Instagram account that reviews D2C products like Rothys, Hers, and Ritual. Why did you start this account? How is it helped you get dealflow or crystallize your thinking as an investor? How is it similar/different to Thingtesting?
It’s just a fun side project. I started it because I realized I was already buying a bunch of the direct to consumer products either way. Additionally, there was a period of time where I was doing a lot of research into women’s nutrition, wellness, and supplements for my fund, so I went on a buying spree and tested out many options available to the market. However, I will tell you, our fund is very bullish on D2C. We invested in a direct to consumer bridal dress company, Floravere, in their first round of capital raised and they recently closed a seed led by a major VC fund in the Bay Area! Additionally, I just closed a deal also at the intersection athleisure and direct to consumer. When it comes to D2C, I generally look for 3 things (sometimes 2 of the below if the team is really exceptional):
CAC advantage (celebrity, influencers, or another hack)
Truly differentiated product (can be experience too like Warby Parker)
Evidence of community or traction (Glossier, large and engaged instagram following)
This great Crunchbase piece talked about Latina VCs who are optimistic about investing. Can you share your perspective on being a minority in VC? In what was has it been an asset? Challenge?
More of an asset than a challenge because you already come in with a different point of view based on your background, your own set of opinions, and your own due diligence process. My partner always asks for my opinion, and I can insert my opinions where I feel I can make a difference and actually feel heard.
However, I do understand the challenges as well. I mean in meetings some people will think you are the secretary or whatever, but you just have to have thick skin and let those types of things slide right off. You have to be twice as confident as the most confident male in the room and assert your opinion.
Overall, I think we Latinas have a long way to go but I think it helps to build a community of female founders and funders who support each other around you.
What advice do you have for young women who want to enter VC - on the investing, operations, or platform side?
No one’s path is linear, if you are a woman doing something that seems unrelated to VC, chances are, you actually do have value to add.
The most important thing is to find your “it factor” and use it as your competitive advantage. I actually think it’s a great time to be a young female wanting to enter the world of VC. There is a lot of senior people looking to give female funders a role in VC.
It’s important to show your value-add to the fund [even informally] so that they begin to take you seriously.
Rapid Fire 🔥
Least hyped but most promising sector? The intersection of digital media and commerce
A mobile app you'd recommend? Kayla Itsines Sweat and Apptiv
How do you unwind? Running long distance (I’m training for a marathon w/ my best friend), Barry’s bootcamp, making homemade crafty gifts for friends, and facetiming my ten year old brother.