Maria Palma is a Principal at RRE Ventures, based in New York City. Prior to RRE, she was the Executive Director of Business Development at Eyeview, an ad-tech startup based in the city.
What drew you to venture capital and working with startups?
My journey into startups and venture capital was certainly more of a winding road than a straight path. I grew up in a small town in Wisconsin and worked for General Electric after studying Industrial Engineering at the University of Wisconsin. I spent the first two years of my career there in a rotational leadership program, where I had four different roles (all within supply chain and operations) over a two-year period. I really liked the exposure. It led me to work in a number of areas, including international manufacturing transfers. I spent my last few years at GE on a team that was responsible for our global supply chain footprint, which was an entirely new team. While it took me awhile to realize it, it was my first ambiguous role. No one knew what the team was supposed to be and there was no playbook for what we were doing. We had to launch everything from scratch and build it as we were going. That’s what made me think I’d enjoy working with startups - I loved working on something with a large degree of uncertainty and the feeling that we were building something from nothing. Every time we wanted to get from point A to point B, we had to figure out how to do it and point B was a moving target as we were going. While I really enjoyed my time at GE, and especially appreciated how thoughtful they were around leadership development, that type of ambiguity was rare in my prior roles at GE and I was looking for much more of it. I also wanted to have more social impact and wasn’t quite sure how to make that a bigger part of my life rather than just occasionally volunteering.
So what do you do when you want to change a number of things but don’t have any money in the bank? Business school. I decided an MBA would give me the time and resources to test the hypothesis that I might like startups. I worked for a startup in India before business school and then worked for a tech accelerator in Brazil between my first and second year at Harvard Business School. I also tried co-founding something in Brazil during my second year – it ended up not being the right opportunity at the 11th hour, so a few weeks before graduation I decided to join a startup in the US or Brazil. I ended up joining Eyeview, an adtech startup here in the city. I was there as the company grew from 12 to 125 people. It was a fantastic experience; I focused on business development for the data/product and sales side my first year. Later I took on the role of Chief of Staff to the CEO as we scaled up for the next year and a half. It was really fun to help tackle different problems as the business scaled. One thing I noticed was that Eyeview had two different types of challenges. One type was unique to us – only Eyeview and our team could solve those problems given our perspective. The other set of problems were common to all startups.
This was 2015 and I was also learning more about crypto. Bitcoin was $200 - and no, I didn’t buy enough to make f**k you money - but I started looking at who was investing in the space and talking with blockchain companies. I got sucked into the rabbit hole of crypto, as many people have experienced, and was at the time calling my few friends and classmates who were involved in the space. Outside of work, I had gotten involved with African Entrepreneur Collective, a non-profit working with entrepreneurs from urban environments and refugee camps in places like Rwanda and Kenya (where I currently sit on the board). It dawned on me that no matter what I do, I always get drawn to helping entrepreneurs and founding teams.
That got me broadly interested in venture. I started having more coffee chats and asking people about roles in the space. Since I went into VC just to be around/help early stage teams and not to invest, platform emerged as a natural fit. I talked to all of the firms investing in crypto in New York at the time (only RRE, USV, and Digital Currency Group). RRE needed someone to build out platform and I really loved the team and the vision we crafted together. I reflected back on the problems I’d seen with startups in the past and was excited by the idea of helping startups with some of the common problems they face. The investment team has always been around the same structure and size. We have 5 GPs, 3 principals, and 2 analysts. But the platform team never existed. Now we’ve evolved to three people. Over the past year, I’ve transitioned to the investing side as I’ve gotten passionate about going deeper in the fintech sector and a few select areas of consumer.
What did platform look like 3 years ago when you were starting at RRE?
The way we define platform is how we can help our portfolio companies grow and scale, while evolving our outward facing brand at the same time. In that regard, RRE has always been doing platform for the last 25 years. We’ve always been making introductions for companies; we’ve always been helping our companies expand. But the way it mostly manifested was through board relationships and direct relationships our firm had with each company.
When I started, we reframed platform to be proactive and repeatable, to maximize all the assets of our company. We also wanted our platform services to be suitable across all types of companies - from seed investments where RRE wasn’t on the board to the companies we’ve been with for years. It was about operationalizing that work and standing up some new initiatives that RRE didn’t have the bandwidth to do without a platform team. While we help our portfolio companies with anything they ask us to, we provide deeper support around business development, talent development, and peer-to-peer learning. The other key focus was to find ways to help the broader team building the company, not just the CEO/Founders.
You attended the VC Platform Summit in 2018 and I saw this picture of you presenting in front of a screen that listed off 24 platform services. We were talking about how platform has changed… now when you look at all the services and offerings, what would you consider the most important for a VC firm and for startups?
When I first joined RRE, there were more platform people on the west coast. It tended to be more talent focused. In the east coast, the community has grown substantially over the last few years. We have a tight-knight group of platform professionals (that also go by other names like network, development, operations, community, etc). We regularly shares best practices. The community has also grown nationally and abroad with 300+ people on our listserv (you can find out more at www.vcplatform.com). In this role, you tend to find community builders, so it’s pretty natural that we would create a community for ourselves.
New York’s community has always been very collaborative. Because we regularly co-invest, it’s great that I can talk to my peers and make sure we’re not all offering the same things that overwhelm founders. But back to your question about what we think is really valuable. It depends on the fund. If you look at the context of RRE, we’re early stage investors that lead Series A and Series B rounds (we also participate in seed rounds). We invest everywhere from media and financial services to healthcare, robotics, crypto, AI/ML, and a lot of enterprise. We have 145 active portfolio companies across a lot of sectors. So when we think about helping those companies, we have to think about where we have leverage and where we have an advantage.
When I first started, I would have told you that firms could pick unique platform strategies. I don’t believe that’s actually the case. No matter what great idea you think you have, someone has probably already tried it. It comes down to picking a strategy that your firm can uniquely execute. For us, business development is a key piece of the strategy because RRE has an incredible network of corporate partners. If we connect the dots appropriately for the startups and our corporate partners, we can create impact for both sides. The other area where we have a unique platform offering is around talent development. I was very fortunate to start my career at GE, and I found them to be extremely thoughtful about talent and leadership. It’s something that’s so needed on the startup side. Entrepreneurs are running so fast that often startups forget to prioritize helping newly promoted leaders become strong managers and leaders. We launched RRE LEAD over the past few years as a set of leadership programs for people at the CEO and founder level, as well as the VP and Director Level. In 2019, we are also launching a program for the CXO level.
I love to hear you pointing to GE as a place that helped you build foundational business skills. My mum also started her career at GE in Australia. She was an Indian immigrant, now a senior executive, thanks in part to GE. It was a really big deal getting your start there in the last 90s and early aughts.
I had a great experience at GE. They were great to me while I was there and even when I was in the process of leaving. I think they are really thoughtful about people and about culture. I worked with many teams abroad - in China, India, and Brazil - and their ability to substantiate a culture of meritocracy and talent development everywhere was just amazing.
I want to tap in further to your international experiences. You’ve spent time living in Brazil, India, Germany, the UK and Australia as well. Are there aspects of your international perspective that has made you a better platform leader?
While we don’t invest internationally as a firm, my international experience has been influential for me as a person. There’s something about moving to a place where you don’t speak the language and don’t know the culture, or anyone there, to familiarize yourself with a new set of norms and business practices. It pushes you in a different way.
Even though the context is different, you also realize that there are so many similarities everywhere. People’s desires and needs for a good life and the importance of building authentic relationships are common everywhere you go. When I think of African Entrepreneur Collective for example, the challenges our entrepreneurs encounter are both completely different and sometimes exactly the same as obstacles faced by US startups. When you boil down startups to being able to attract the best people, build successful products, and scale, there are elements that look surprisingly similar in any country. More than anything, it’s given me empathy for founders. Between platform and working with founders for years, I’ve seen all the ways it can go upwards as well as sideways. Building independent companies that can last for decades to come is certainly not for the faint of heart.
It also makes me extremely grateful for the New York ecosystem. There are a lot of places where failure has a much different cultural connotation that the US, so at least we don’t have that hurdle to start with. We are at an interesting moment for New York. I’m bullish on the future of the NYC tech ecosystem. There are a lot of things aligning right now in terms of diversity of startups and diversity of the talent pool that make this an exciting moment to be founding a company or investing here.
And you got your start in adtech some years ago. When people used to think about the NYC startup ecosystem, it really was indexed to media and adtech. Now, in 2018, what investment areas are emerging as those sectors prime for investment?
The spaces that have historically done well in New York – media, retail, real estate, adtech and financial services - still continue to thrive but the bar for innovation is higher. Financial services still has a lot of depth and we spend time thinking about how it will keep evolving at RRE. I’ve actually been surprised to see how much enterprise has grown. Historically, most enterprise companies were founded in SF, but we’ve seen many more enterprise startups here in NY in the last 3 years, especially in deep tech. For us, AI and machine learning are more of a horizontal than a vertical but we still see a lot of interesting opportunity there. We have blockchain talent, of course, and consumer companies as well. We also have enough history in NYC to see talent being recycled on to new projects.
I’ve actually read some HBR studies about what types of companies create the best entrepreneur talent. A company like Microsoft actually doesn’t create as many founders as Google, for example. Is that something RRE pays attention to?
Absolutely. Because we’ve been around for so long (25 years this year), we can actually point to instances where an early employee in a portfolio company went on to be a founder or a C-suite executive multiple times over in our portfolio. We track this to some extent. The NYC ecosystem is small enough that it’s still growing but you can monitor where the talent is ebbing and flowing. We also see talent flowing into tech and startups from traditional industries here. There are plenty of people who go into an industry and discover that they don’t like something about how their industry is working—so they start a company to do it differently. Compared to some other places, we are lucky to have such a melting pot of international backgrounds and industries as well as diversity from a race, gender, and sexual orientation perspective. That yields a very interesting startup ecosystem.
The other trend we’re seeing is more and more people moving to cities. A lot of people who graduate come here and that’s definitely helpful for startup talent. In this business, following the talent is an important rule and all of these trends combined make us bullish on this market.
This naturally progresses into my next question about NYC Blend. Why was this initiative created and what change do you hope to see from it?
We talked before about the platform community, but it really grew from these individuals who recognized that we were all having disparate conversations about diversity and inclusion. We have more strength as a community to tackle them together. Each fund having their own events or only triangulating on one dimension of diversity alone, such as gender, isn’t as impactful. Everyone quotes the number of women who get funding, but it’s even worse on other dimensions like race or socioeconomic class, or even where people went to school. We’ve got a long way to go on that front.
The reason we started NYC Blend was not because we thought we could solve the problem, but because we knew we had the means to try something different. We wanted the D&I conversation in NYC to be had by a wider audience and we wanted to help people discover tactical actions they could take (as founders, investors or hiring managers) to move forward on these issues. In 2018, on the first Monday of every month, we hosted events on topics like creating an inclusive culture, access to fundraising, or sourcing diverse candidates. We also tried to showcase community partners: groups already tackling these problems like BUILD, Pursuit, or Lesbians Who Tech. It started as an experiment but we’ve gotten a lot of good traction. Now we’re figuring out how to expand and scale it to make sure it’s making a continued impact. This year, we’re shifting our focus to more directly impact underrepresented founders. We are also working with great organizations such as All Raise and Seneca Network to amplify our impact and not duplicate efforts.
Three years ago, you might have been one of the few women in the VC ecosystem in New York. So reflecting on when you started to today, have you faced any thematic challenges?
That’s a good question. Not specifically as a woman necessarily. In general, on the platform side, I would say it’s hard to know where to spend your best time – it’s the nature of the job. Working as the Chief of Staff to a CEO before, I know how busy founders are. When I design platform services, I’m sensitive to their schedules and create offerings so that they can choose what’s helpful and ignore anything they want. We are also going beyond the founders to help the broader team. We know it takes a team to build a company. There's also a challenge around what good leadership looks like. There are more VC conversations now versus three years ago about executive coaching and I think that’s important. Trying to create an impact across a variety of services and companies definitely pulls you in many directions at once.
As a woman in New York, I’ve found the community to be incredible! I can’t speak to any other ecosystems but from the day you join the venture ecosystem here, you get invited to 10 different women in VC groups or events. I want to make sure that’s how included everyone feels if they go into venture.
On the broader topic of people having misconceptions about you, I do find that people sometimes have misconceptions about Wisconsin or other places outside of the coasts. There are interesting ideas and consumer needs coming from everywhere.
Do you think Revolution is doing things differently?
I read J.D. Vance’s book. I think it’s interesting and we are definitely seeing the rise of startup ecosystems in the Midwest and the South. The market is strong; it’s become cheaper to start companies and more startups are switching to remote teams to tap talent in other places. In our portfolio at RRE, we have companies outside of just New York and SF, such as Austin, Atlanta, and Madison, WI. It’s important to look for innovation and customer sets everywhere. I think those places are going to continue to thrive but the process isn’t overnight. It does take years and decades though for full tech and startup ecosystems to build. As we talked about above, it takes years for talent to live through a startup experience and cycle on to their next venture.
If you were talking to a younger version of yourself, or another young woman interested in venture, what advice would you give her?
If I was talking to a younger version of myself, I’d probably tell her that sleeping a reasonable amount was a good/critical thing and to stop saying yes to so many things :)
For anyone trying to get into venture I’d say this: if you’re trying to break into VC and anyone tells you that you can’t, don’t listen. You can do it. Because there are so few job openings, it feels like there are many factors deterring you. People might say that you don’t have the background. That it’s not possible. That you’re never going to get there. You can’t listen to that; prepare and be persistent. Ask for their feedback and actually listen to it but don’t let it deter you. Try 10x harder than the next person. Access to job opportunities is getting better with most firms posting their jobs publicly, so it all comes down to your hustle and preparation.
I would start by picking a few spaces that you like - learn about them and be able to speak to them intelligently. Know certain startups that you can pitch. Talk to people and have coffee chats. Find ways you can help them (if they want to be helped). If they want to be left alone, only sparingly ask for their help and make it easy for them to help you. Apply to everything, whether you are underqualified or overqualified for it, so long as you are willing to do it. You shouldn’t be afraid to dive right in and start having conversations. When I felt like I was having good conversations in my venture search, but no job offers, I doubled down and spent nights and weekends researching different spaces and meeting people to come up with my own points of view. I never want “not trying my absolutely all” to be the reason I failed at something. If I fail for other reasons, that’s ok, because those moments transform you as well.
I think the best VCs have startup experience, otherwise you don’t really know what it means to build a company. Not that one startup is representative of all of them, but it resonates with founders in a different way. It gives you credibility and you can better understand how to be helpful. You also have to love helping others. That’s what this job is: a service role where you need to be supportive while having the tough conversations. If you can bring value, hustle, and demonstrate intellectual curiosity about technology, people, and where the future is going, you’re going to be a really good VC.