Q&A with Emerson Collective's Jomayra Herrera

Jomayra Herrera is the Manager of Educational Technology Investments at Emerson Collective, based in San Francisco. Prior to Emerson, she worked in customer success and operations at Bloomboard. You can follow Jomayra on Twitter: @jomayra_herrera

What attracted you to venture capital and working with startups? How does growing up in Orlando fit into the picture?

My introduction to VC was more of an accident than intentional in any way. I grew up in Orlando, Florida. Venture and startup culture just wasn’t talked about when I was growing up (though that’s changed in the past few years). Even when I went to college, I didn’t know venture was a viable career path for me.

Everything started with my passion for education. When I first started at Stanford, I thought I was going to law school. As the first in my family to go to a 4-year college, I believed that I needed to be a doctor, engineer, or lawyer. I wasn’t ever very good at math or science, so lawyer was it for me. But when I was in college, I started tutoring in East Palo Alto and then worked at the Department of Education in the Office of Early Learning. The urgency around reducing barriers to educational opportunities was so clear to me, so I decided to pursue a masters in Education instead. When I graduated, I went to work at Bloomboard, an ed tech startup focused on professional development for teachers. I collaborated with districts using Bloomboard’s platform to make professional development for school teachers more competency based. I loved shaping a product and working with customers particularly in education - an area I care deeply about. It was less about the startup and venture world for me. I think it’s more about leveraging the right technology, built by smart people who are passionate about solving great challenges. That just naturally lends itself to VC.

I learned about Emerson through a friend. At the time, they were looking to hire someone for their ed tech investing team. I didn’t know anything about the Emerson other than the fact Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education under the Obama Administration, had joined as a managing partner. I admired him a lot, working at the Department while he was in leadership. I decided to find out more and spent the next few months getting to know the team. Every single conversation I had confirmed an alignment on mission. It also seemed like a great fit from the start: I’d worked on education in the public sector as well as at a startup. I also had relevant banking experience from college.

But what attracted me to Emerson was not necessarily the venture component. It was the approach. Emerson starts off by surveying large and important problems in areas like the environment, health, or immigration. Then we figure out the right tools or right combination of tools to address the problems. I just happen to use venture as my tool. My other colleagues at Emerson work on the policy and grant-making side. That’s why I fell in love with Emerson. We recognize that VC backing is just one way to deploy capital and catalyze innovation - but venture is most powerful alongside a broader tool kit for change.

How would you describe the unique role EC plays in the ecosystem?

I touched on this in the previous question but it’s how we define problem-solving. We don’t approach problems like a hammer looking for nails. We believe if you really want to drive change, you have to think about full scope of challenges in an ecosystem. If you want to solve college affordability, you can’t just invest in a startup that improves lending terms or that leverages an ISA model. You have to think about policy and accreditation too.

We’re lucky we can bring together a diverse set of folks to work on a problem. We collaborate to leverage collective power and transform the issues we care about from the bottom and top down. We can also recognize intersectionalities on issues like education and immigration (for supporting ESL students or equipping international students coming with the resources they need to succeed in the US.) We believe in recognizing the interdependencies, the broader ecosystem, and systems partners. That’s the best way to tackle problems holistically - with a suite of tools that include venture capital.

Can you describe how you’re working with the other teams at Emerson?

One of the initiatives that works closely with EC is XQ Super School, a project to redesign high school education. When you sit on the venture side, you can market map and review decks all day and night, but the way to know what users need and users want is with a direct connection to the people we care deeply about. Our partners share what students and educators are experiencing. Are they struggling to get a certain tool or navigate a certain system? We know the gaps through high touch collaboration, and we can fill those gaps by backing scalable startups. There are countless ways that we work across the ecosystem but there’s always more we can do to collaborate and bring diverse perspectives to the table.

How do you think about support beyond capital?

Capital alone is not differentiated. On our team, we put a lot of effort into portfolio support services. The way the team is structured, we have more people on post-investment support than investing. That’s intentional. Strengthening the backend helps our portfolio companies grow. We try to provide what we can to help shorten the learning cycle. We currently do it in three ways, but are always thinking about ways to expand:

  • Go-to Market. How do you build a sales machine that gets your company to a repeatable sales process?

  • Customer development. How can we help you connect with the right customers and building the right partnerships?

  • Impact and efficacy. How can we help make sure you are driving towards and measuring the right impact and outcome metrics?

Which educational investments - and investment areas within education - are you particularly excited about?

I think of education as intimately related to human capital more broadly. I’ve spent time reflecting on the future of work and workforce development. I’m excited about investing in a future that is inclusive for everyone. Automation affects the most vulnerable individuals. What are some innovative solutions to help folk retrain and access well-paying jobs? Beyond that, as freelancing increases, how can non-traditional workers have income stability? I’m also thinking about future of employee benefits in areas like childcare and mental health/wellbeing.

Within K12 and higher education, I think there is still a lot of work to be done to elevate the importance of mental health and social emotional learning in schools and also think about ways to better provide counseling-like resources to students who are navigating their college and career plans post-graduation.

As a Latina woman in venture, are you seeing better diversity and inclusion? What can the VC and startup community do better?

There have been a lot of conversations in the past year around improving diversity and inclusion. Increased focus has produced some great results in the venture and startup community. We’re seeing a lot of the first: first woman GP, first person of color in this position. That’s really exciting - but it’s also hard to be the first. The conversations have emphasized diversity; now we need to have conversations about inclusion, especially after you have those firsts. The dialogue needs to be around retaining diverse talent. How do you build communities around these firsts so they don’t remain the only one in these spaces? Someone once said to me that diversity is a fact, inclusion is a practice, and equity is the goal. So, yes, the community is talking about D&I. We’re working towards equity but we’re still far from that goal in both VC and the startup world.

Unfortunately, it’s really hard to tackle diversity in VC at scale. If you look at a small firm, it might hire 1 person every few years. It’s hard to change diversity when the hiring cycle moves so slowly. It doesn’t mean it can’t be done, but it does mean it can take a little longer.

To what we can do better, we know what works on diversity hiring. We know there are steps you can take. For example, you should actually share your job postings broadly, because if you only make hires from your network, you’ll likely get people that look and think like you. People have been singing this song for so many years. It’s not hard! It’s like, please, look at these 500 Medium articles on diversity and inclusion.

The consensus is that diverse teams generate better financial performance. How many more McKinsey studies do we need? It’s baffling that we’re still having to prove the business case. It’s the right thing to do and it makes business sense.

What were some challenges that you've faced as an investor?

I think in general being a young women of color comes with own set of challenges but it's not unique to people in venture.

The biggest challenge in this role is that it's just as much about unlearning as it is about learning. If you think about what a VC does, you have to invest in new ways of doing new things. You have to almost divorce yourself from reality. I might know how things have been done in the past but I have to gain conviction on a novel approach or revolutionary product. This is especially challenging in a space that moves slowly (people are also very cynical about education). Of course, there’s a thin line between being optimistic and being delusional but someone has to take that bet in ed tech.

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

Pick a superpower and lean in. Don’t be the best at everything because there are lots of generalists out there. That’s fine and interesting but it’s not valuable to a VC firm. If you are a person that knows the most about ecommerce and payments, write about it. Talk about it. Be the node in that network. You’re more valuable than someone who has shallow relationships across the board. There’s a big misconception that you need to network everywhere. If you’re the node in healthcare or beauty or commerce, that makes you stand out against other VC candidates.

Rapid fire 🔥

Your top request for a startup?

A startup that can help address mental health issues in deep and meaningful ways, but that also can reach diverse demographics.

Important founder characteristic?

Their ability to learn quickly. When we chat about their journey, I ask founders about their biggest learnings over past year because it tells me how they will react and adapt.

A mobile app you'd recommend?

Blinkist. It’s a 10-minute audio version of books for people who don’t have time. I have no idea how so many VCs are able to read a novel a week. Blinkist gives me the high-level takeaways.