Q&A with Kickstart's Minna Wang

Minna Wang is a former analyst at Kickstart Seed Fund, an early-stage venture fund based in Utah. Prior to Kickstart, Minna was the managing partner of Campus Founders Fund, a student-run venture fund.

What attracted you to venture capital and working with startups?

I didn’t know a thing about venture capital when I first got to college--I was a biomedical engineering major at University of Utah. I’d seen Shark Tank, but I didn’t realize there was an entire industry with dedicated professionals to help startups raise capital.

But in my second year of undergrad, I joined Campus Founders Fund, a student-run venture fund powered by Kickstart, Utah’s most active seed fund, as a founding partner.

After I joined, I threw myself into the startup ecosystem, going to as many events and meeting as many people as I could. I spent all of my free time with Campus Founders Fund--deal sourcing, doing due diligence, and learning more about venture in general. I later became managing partner, helping standardize communications and create processes as we added more student founders and partners.

Ultimately, I gravitated towards venture and stayed in the space because I like working with entrepreneurs. They’re incredibly smart people who are so dedicated. They believe, at their core, that their product or company can make the world a better place.

Why did you choose to stay in Utah and work at Kickstart Seed Fund?

When I interned with Kickstart my last semester of college, it was the best opportunity I could have asked for. Even as an intern, the team would listen to my ideas and give me credit for the work I did. They listened to my thoughts on deals and proactively taught me the ropes. There were a lot of differences between me and everyone else at Kickstart (I was their first female hire, much younger than everyone else, and come from a very different cultural and religious background), but it never factored into how I was treated or what the culture was.

If I joined as an analyst full-time, I knew it would be more of that experience and only get better, so I accepted the offer without any hesitation. I saw it as a great learning opportunity and also a chance to add to the team.

What skills did you bring to this position from previous roles at companies like Silicon Slopes and Qzzr? Is there a special sauce needed for thriving in venture?

Kickstart recently hired a new director of platform who didn’t come from a VC background. To welcome her to Kickstart, I wrote a post outlining how to set yourself up for success in a venture role. You have to do five things: know startups; understand VC basics (like term sheets and cap tables); stay up-to-date; live and breathe your community; and know your firm.

The other roles I had in Utah's startup ecosystem made me a known quantity. The companies and people that I had worked for could vouch for me to Kickstart. I also knew the ecosystem already, and that made it easy for me to source deals. Entrepreneurs had read my posts and they’d seen me at events--we knew each other.

The experience I gained in the other roles also helped me a lot. Being a partner at CFF was especially valuable because I had hands-on experience with a lot of the day-to-day work of VC--writing memos, sizing markets, looking at cap tables--along with a basic foundation to build on for what I didn’t.

Also, I’d worked in a few different disciplines like engineering and marketing, so I could look at companies from multiple perspectives when I did due diligence or when we were giving portfolio companies feedback. I knew where to push harder on marketing plans or product roadmaps because I’d watched or helped companies implement them before.

As someone who straddled an investor and platform role, how would you describe an average day?

My role changed while I was at Kickstart. When I started, I had traditional analyst responsibilities like diligence and deal sourcing. When you’re in VC, there are usually weekly partner and team meetings. Ours were on Monday. We sat in a conference room for several hours to talk through the calendar, meetings, and deals. We also had deal screen days where we’d schedule companies back-to-back for pitch meetings.

Early on, I probably spent 10% - 20% of my time just learning about venture. The next 20% were spent meeting entrepreneurs in deal screens or at events. The rest of it was diligence like competitive analyses, market studies, and reference calls.

Later when I switched to more of a platform role, I spent time on our upcoming events like our CEO and Executive Summits and strategizing and planning our more regular events, including the tech and communications.

What ways that you create an empowering environment for women?

At Kickstart, I set up a community for the female executives in our portfolio. We hosted quarterly dinners and came together to discuss shared achievements and challenges. You could always feel the energy in the room. It was a really fun, well-attended event. I also worked on initiatives to help female founders who weren’t in Kickstart's portfolio by helping Kickstart sponsor conferences and women in tech events.

Earlier this year, I also started a group with three other women called Pari Passu. It started as a meetup for Utah women in venture capital and private equity, but as we saw growing interest, we’ve tried to turn it into something more. We have three goals:

  1. Creating a community for women currently in VC and PE. We do monthly events like hikes and mani pedis or education sessions with a partner. The goal is to create a space to network, learn, and build real relationships. 

  2. Empowering female founders to learn about fundraising. In particular, we want to make raising from investors more transparent. Pari Passu allows founders to connect with female VCs without feeling like they need to pitch. One of our co-founders is starting a series to match female founders with women in VC. We’re aiming to pattern this after All Raise’s Female Founders Office Hours.

  3. Developing a talent pipeline and educating young women about VC. The lack of women in VC is--at least in some part--a pipeline problem. It’s difficult to get into VC if you don’t proactively look for opportunities to gain experience and try to make connections. The current industry is dominated by white men, so the people who hear about open jobs are their friends and inner circle--people like them. To have more female investors, we need to address the fact that so many women don’t hear about venture capital early on in their careers.

If we can reach out to women early in their career, we can educate them about venture capital, provide them with resources, and develop a pipeline. At the very least, it should be on their radars. We can explain what VC is, give ideas on how to prepare or gain the right skills, and talk about funds who are looking for interns. These are basic ways to raise visibility and make venture capital a viable career option.

As part of this, we have a newsletter of women who are interested in VC/PE job opportunities. And we’re giving firms access to it, so they can’t just give lip service to diversity. 

Everyone agrees there should be better diversity and inclusion for minorities. We’re starting with women because it's a big problem in Utah and it’s a group we can reach. One idea we have is to do bigger events with parity attendance: 50% men and 50% women. When people come to an event like that and recognize what an equal environment looks like, they carry that recognition forward to other events and their career. It also plays well into our name: Pari Passu, an investing phrase with Latin roots that translates to treating all parties equally.

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

When you’re looking at opportunities, find people that you admire and believe you can learn from--the kind of people who are thoughtful and generous with their time. I don’t know how to test for that during an interview, but you can do your research.

If you’re a woman and want to join a supportive environment, chat with female entrepreneurs who’ve pitched to the VC firms that interest you. Check if they have any investments in female founders. Have they ever had female interns? Why or why weren’t they hired full-time? Talk to anyone who has worked at those firms to assess for unconscious bias. As a woman in VC, it’s something you will run into. And if the people you work for can be in your corner, it’ll make a huge difference. 

And after you start, don’t be afraid to speak up or share ideas--look at everything from a learning perspective instead. When I started at Kickstart, I was nervous and didn't ask for help, because I felt the partners had a lot of demands on their time. It was hard for me to reach out and ask for help in the beginning. I also didn’t volunteer my ideas or speak up.

But what I realized is that you’re not expected to know everything. Take that risk and ask for help when you need it. And sharing your ideas is the only way to get feedback and find errors in your thinking. I really started learning and understanding venture capital once I did. Don’t be shy or worry that you’ll come off as incompetent. They hired you! You’re already there and they have a vested interest in your success.