Q&A with Hummingbird Ventures' Lola Wajskop

Lola Wajskop is an associate at Hummingbird Ventures, based in London. She is also the co-founder of Yes She Can, an initiative to empower female candidates in engineering.

What attracted you to venture capital and working with startups?

I studied engineering for 5 years, ultimately deciding that I didn’t want to be an engineer and transitioning to a management track. While studying at London Business School, I started looking at internships. I came across Hummingbird via AngelList. Honestly, I’d never heard of venture capital before that. But it seemed interesting and I reached out to the team to ask about a part-time position while I was studying (they were hiring for another role). I met the team; we had a productive discussion and I started shortly afterwards.

I loved my internship. It was a great mix of the technical that I’d studied and this other side of meeting smart people and learning from them. The more people I encountered in the community - investors, founders, operators - I recognized that venture was the perfect career for me. I actually rescinded an offer I’d accepted elsewhere and joined Hummingbird right after graduation.

I know your entry into venture came through Hummingbird, but did you ever consider going elsewhere? What kept you at Hummingbird?

I tell people that I fell in love with Hummingbird rather than venture capital. When I joined, there were three other people on the team. Obviously, I had everything to learn because I knew nothing about venture… and I didn’t know much about startups either. I was pretty naive. I learned so much from just interviewing. I would meet the partners for coffee and I’d leave, thinking about our conversations for the next few days. I knew they were onto something special.

In addition to the people, I aligned with the mission of the fund. Hummingbird funds the earliest stages, and though we’re based in London, we look everywhere for investing opportunities. In particular, we go where people don’t go: overlooked founders, overlooked regions, and overlooked markets. That led us to invest in crypto five years ago with Kraken. It’s also why we have funded entrepreneurs in Turkey. One of our founders there was a shepherd who taught himself how to code. Hummingbird finds people who are contrarian and unique - I loved that.

We’re also such a small team. It means I can do everything that I might not have done at a more structured fund. I play a role in everything - sourcing, deals, legal, diligence, and reporting to our own investors. Interestingly, we don’t do any PR. There’s not much about us online and we still manage to get into some great companies. It can hurt us too because we don't really go to all the conferences or feature as guests on podcasts. But we’re making some changes to that; last year we raised a $100M fund in July and announced it through Medium. People know us through our investments. We also have good relationships with other funds, allowing us to easily exchange ideas and deal flow. Hummingbird is proof you don’t need a flashy website or strong communications team. Entrepreneurs ask around and they hear about us through the quality of our work with other founders and co-investors.

What was the recruitment and hiring process like for you? What skills did you bring to this position from previous roles and your engineering background?

That’s a tough question. In my interviews, which were discussion-based, I asked

them a lot of questions. It’s important to be inquisitive and curious as an investor, especially if the fund invests across multiple industries and regions.

In general, I believe that VC firms are stronger when they have different people on their team. For our next fund, we’ll probably do the same thing. We always reevaluate what the team is lacking in terms of skills (hard and soft) and background to bring a fresh perspective to our discussions and decisions. I grew up in a family of entrepreneurs. I’m an engineer by training. I have watched companies being built and I don’t see this world as a sexy one, I know that it's tough and exhausting. It’s not just about raising $10M or doing your first $1M in sales.

Hummingbird has a global presence (in London and Belgium and until recently, in Istanbul). How has this affected the kind of investments your firm makes and the obstacles those startups face?

The way we work really depends from one company to another. If Hummingbird invests in a company based in Mexico or Indonesia, we won’t be as involved as we would if they were in London. We also have different ways of interacting based on founder personalities and company stage.

The reason why people like to work us is that we are good partners to have the tough conversations. We think through problems and the opportunities. Some VCs have platform to help you. We don’t have anything structured like that but we help founders with hiring or partnerships when needed. There's nothing formal but a genuine, open relationship that we’ve built with founders regardless of where they are in the world.

It’s also convenient that anyone visiting Europe will generally come to London. That’s usually when we see our founders, though we travel to them as well.

Would Hummingbird ever go into platform and community operations?

We've considered many options. We’re always reflecting on venture - what does it mean to be a VC? How can we be the best partners? At some point, we've considered bringing on a Head of Talent since portfolio companies are at a pivotal point in the hiring and talent development phase. But at this moment in time, we’re just exploring projects right now and evaluating the best value-add for our startups.

We’re seeing many new seed and early stage VC firms. What do you think that indicates about the market?

I think there will be a correction. It’s fairly easy at the moment to raise a large amount of money. When people raise money, unless their first fund is a hit, they’ll struggle to raise the next fund. We’re lucky - we’ve got a proven track record which led to our oversubscribed €100M fund. This is our third fund; our investors have trusted us again (and new investors are making that same commitment).

All our investors are individuals. Because there’s no institutional funding, it frees what we can invest in, which is why we were able to invest in crypto in 2013/2014. I’m assuming we couldn’t have done that with institution funds. We purposefully don't have an investment committee. We can make decisions on the spot. There are quite a few implications, the biggest one being that we can move quickly and entrepreneurs definitely appreciate that.

Hummingbird has invested in some incredible companies like Deliveroo, Kraken, Showpad and more. What are the digital media and software investments that most excite you? What investment areas are you personally diving into?

I’d say there’s no one space in particular… I get excited by founders! I am constantly blown away by entrepreneurs and it’s a great sign when I meet someone who is able to communicate their product and vision in a way that makes me want to work for them. I get that from founders focusing on enterprise as well as consumer startups.

But having said that, I do focus a lot on the femtech space and also have a strong thesis around sexual wellness. These interests grew in part because I’m the only girl on the team, starting when one of the partners sent me a deal in the fertility space. We've made a few investments here that are undisclosed.

Looking at femtech and sextech also made me realize how different the startup and funding process is for women. The way investors interact with female entrepreneurs is different. You can see it even in the questions they get asked. All of that highlighted the importance of VC diversity (and not just for gender) because you need people who understand and can champion you. It makes total sense for a VC firm - you don’t want to miss out on opportunities because you don’t get it!

I'm really excited to learn more about Yes She Can, an initiative you founded to attract more female students into engineering. What led you to launching Yes She Can when there are organizations like the Wise Campaign? How are you continuing to build this community of young female engineers?

It started my last year as a master's student in electronics and information technology. My friend and I (funnily enough, she is also named Lola) realized that we were the only women in a lot of our classes. We asked ourselves why. Reflecting on own experiences, and what led us to engineering and continuing studies, we realized that the lack of women in the classroom often came from misunderstanding of engineering itself. That also manifested in a misunderstanding of why women would not be welcome in the field.

It started with that simple premise: we are two girls, soon-to-be graduate engineers, and we should be models for girls to explore engineering as a viable career path. We targeted high school girls since that’s a critical decision-making time before higher education. We hosted an event at our university with some other female friends in engineering as well as alumni. They shared experiences about their time in school, their chosen fields, and why they loved engineering. It was important to us that young girls started associating engineering with passionate, friendly faces.

Yes She Can got a lot of interest from Procter & Gamble, Facebook, and other corporates that sponsored and supported us. We even had a big campaign in Brussels that published many pictures of female engineers alongside their stories. With all the press, the university saw lots of demand on their side to keep it going. The best moment came after Yes She Can’s first event. The school informed Lola and I that female applicants for the engineering entry exam increased 20%. Now Lola is at Bain and I’m working at Hummingbird. We gave the project to the university with other students taking it over and keeping it alive.

You're the only female associate at your firm. What kind of guidance and support do you receive from the team, as well as other female mentors in the startup and VC community?

There’s a great Women in VC WhatsApp and Ladies in VC mailing list. Neither are super structured but they’re a safe and friendly space to chat about what’s going on. We try to have an event once a month. Having this open, supportive community has been really empowering. It’s also a way for us to create a pipeline as people post job opportunities in these groups. We’re able to ensure female applicants by recommending candidates through those communication channels.

Have you faced major challenges as a female investor?

I have faced many challenges as an investor, but I don’t think they’re related to being female. When I joined last year, there was no office. I would work from coffee shops. I met people when I was still unclear on my role as an analyst and associate. Venture is extremely unstructured. No one is telling you what to do. There isn’t regular feedback. I had to get used to the fact it takes time to figure out what you’re supposed to do and how to do it. You learn so much that way!

I’d say I struggled with intellectual honesty the most. It’s easy to say this company is a rocket and the founder is fantastic. It’s easier to be convinced than be skeptical. As you mentioned, this is my first job. It was initially intimidating to meet entrepreneurs because they approach you with all of the positives. It’s your responsibility to bring the different opinion, to raise challenges, and discuss the obstacles and what could go wrong. If you’re going to help, you need to work a lot to build trust. There’s no magic involved there. It’s a hard job if you’re not clear about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.

I feel more confident now. I like being results-focused. Most people I know have ‘regular’ jobs and I’m honestly not sure I could do it anymore. In venture, I have been able to define who I am and explore industries in ways I could not otherwise. It’s a great privilege and I remind myself of that every day.

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

Are you really passionate about technology? Do you have spaces that really excites you?

Do you love reading and hearing about startups? Are you friends with entrepreneurs and do people feel comfortable discussing their ideas with me? Those questions are a good gut check.

If you pass that and want to learn more about VC, the best thing is to reach out and ask for coffee. I know its cliché but having these conversations is the only way to know what people do on a daily basis. You should read ‘Negotiating the Terms’ and then reach out to investors! That’s better than a cold email. Be specific and say something like I read your blog post on Negotiating the Terms. It’s even better if you can add value by mentioning some companies I haven’t seen. We do get quite a lot of emails and unfortunately we don’t always have time to answer all of them. I prioritize people who have a different approach and engage me in the right way. It’s better to have an interesting conversation and something to bring to the table. Having said that, I got my job through a called cold email, so it’s not impossible.

When I was still studying, I was also quite involved in the startup and entrepreneurship scene. I volunteered at demo days and accelerators. And while the goal then was not VC, I considering joining a startup. Everything I did cultivated my curiosity and drive - do things that make you feel the same way. The pieces will fall into place.