Nitya Rajendran is an Associate at Tribeca Venture Partners, based in New York. Prior to TVP, she worked in investment banking at Lazard.
What attracted you to venture capital and working with startups?
When I was a student at Georgetown University, I studied classics and economics and used my extra-curricular activities to explore other interests and passions. Through my different roles at various Georgetown organizations, I consistently gravitated towards roles that involved finance. I was the Director of Operations for the Social Innovation Public Service Fund, a $1.5M fund for Georgetown’s student and alumni entrepreneurs. This was my first taste of early stage investing, where I conducted diligence on numerous proposals and worked very closely with our entrepreneurs to help them execute their ideas. It was incredibly rewarding - I got to engage with remarkably passionate founders and help them create something great and sometimes life-changing.
After graduating and going into investment banking, I started thinking about my career path. I thought back to my time at Georgetown and what I had enjoyed the most: working with entrepreneurs. With that background, plus the financial and business acumen I’d gained at Lazard, venture capital seemed like a perfect marriage of my passion and skill set.
As a result, I really cared about joining a firm that focused on working closely with founders. I knew I gravitated towards early stage investing where I could get into the weeds with founders, help them solve problems, and build something amazing.
You were also the operations manager for The Hoya, Georgetown’s student newspaper. So in a way, you’ve had some experience running a startup or small business.
Yes, it’s a place where I built some foundational operating experience. I started off as an accountant - the entry level position on the finance team - and moved up into one of the management roles on the business side. I was training new staff and making sure our accounting and finances were in order. It was an interesting challenge. Even though The Hoya is a long-standing institution, there were many systems and financial processes that needed to be institutionalized. I helped create that structure alongside some of the other managers.
Part of the reason you chose Tribeca Venture Partners was its focus on the early stage. What are some other reasons that made TVP the right fit?
Once I knew I wanted to go into venture capital, I looked up every VC firm in New York. I’m from New York and love it here, so I never looked elsewhere. I was perusing all the VC websites and Tribeca Venture Partners really stood out to me. The team seemed smart, down-to-earth, and genuinely passionate – people I could learn from and get along with. They highlighted transparency on their website and I loved that. But they didn’t have any job openings, so I parked TVP in the back of my mind as I was networking and reaching out to investors.
Doing that research helped me answer some key questions like whether I should specialize (no, I preferred being sector agnostic), the right stage for me (early), and the ideal firm size (small to medium). In banking, I’d been a generalist. I want to keep exposing myself to a myriad of different industries and dive in for specific deals. I was most interested in the early stage because companies have reached an inflection point: they have found product/market fit and need capital and resources to take off. That’s a very exciting time for startups and I wanted to help entrepreneurs during this time of incredible growth.
Lastly, I wanted to work at a small to medium sized firm where I could get real face-time with the partners. Coming from a boutique bank, I was often working on deals in very lean teams, often with just the managing director. I enjoyed the experience of getting to interact with and absorb all the insights from senior people on my team so it was important to me to replicate that experience in VC. TVP fit those criteria perfectly so when they were hiring for an associate, I was really excited to apply. They were always my top choice.
TVP has invested in some fantastic companies including AppNexus, CommonBond, Penrose Hill, and Backtrace. What are some of the other investments that you’re excited about?
I’m excited about so many of them. One I work with closely is ACV Auctions, one of our portfolio companies that is modernizing wholesale vehicle auctions for car dealers. Historically, when car salesmen purchase vehicles to sell to consumers, they physically go to dealer lots and bid on cars. It’s very time-consuming. ACV put this on a mobile app with 20-minute online auctions. ACV provides immediate access to tons of dealers while delivering trusted vehicle condition reports.
At TVP, we like finding these seemingly niche industries that are in need of digitization and automation. The old method for buying and selling wholesale vehicles was the accepted status quo. Now ACV, a practical, smart solution, is spreading like wildfire. They’re a Buffalo-based company that started operating in the northeast. Now they’re expanding across the U.S.
TVP led their Series A, and Bessemer led their Series B last year and Series C earlier this year. I work pretty closely with the team, so it’s been exciting to see them grow and expand into new markets.
Can you walk through the ways you're supporting TVP's portfolio companies?
It depends on the startup. They all need help with different things depending on their stage and what they’re working on. As an example, ACV is a Series C company that is growing very quickly so I’m helping their team think through which KPIs they need to focus on. KPIs are really important because they establish a framework to determine whether your business is succeeding and growing the way it should be. Where are you excelling? Where are you lagging? Where are you surpassing your competitors – market penetration, pricing, customer engagement, etc.? I’ve been helping brainstorm a dashboard with robust KPIs for the buy side and sell side of the marketplace. It’s also something they can regularly show the board so everyone’s on the same page
I’ve also helped our portfolio companies with financial modeling and fundraising presentations. Given my banking experience, that comes naturally to me. As a firm, TVP is really responsive, nimble, and hands-on. We truly believe VC is a service business so we are always there for our entrepreneurs, whether they need someone to vent to, need help solving an urgent problem, or want help with fundraising or recruiting. We’re there for them through thick and thin.
It’s hard to know how operational a VC firm is going to be when you’re interviewing. But in the interview process it was clear to me, from the fact that TVP is very selective and only invests in 4-6 companies a year and from the anecdotes they shared with me, that they were really thoughtful about spending time with their companies. Now that I’m here, I realize just how true that is. TVP knows all of its founders really well. Our entrepreneurs feel comfortable engaging with us based on their need, whether that’s every day or every three weeks.
Now that you’ve co-invested with other firms, what have you learned from watching other VCs in the diligence process, capital stack structuring, post-investment, etc.?
It’s so fascinating. It wasn’t a part of the business I’d thought about until I was actually in VC. The ways firms approach diligence, draft and negotiate term sheets, and work with entrepreneurs can vary significantly. One of the best learning experiences for me has been in board meetings where I’ve observed investors’ distinct styles. Some people are quieter and ask one insightful question whereas others are more vocal. Sometimes, I take a step back and marvel at the fact that I’m in a room with these brilliant, accomplished investors. As a junior VC, I try to amalgamate these different approaches to figure out what’s authentic to me and so that that I can be an effective board member one day. It’s an amazing learning experience.
Right, I can only imagine how I would feel in the board room with Bill Gurley or Kirsten Green…
That would be incredible! Being in these board meetings definitely feels surreal sometimes. I feel very fortunate to be surrounded by incredible VCs who’ve been in the business for decades. I’m 26. There aren’t many jobs where you’d get that kind of exposure to senior investors.
Earlier you said you only wanted to join a VC firm in New York. Were you ever compelled by the idea of Silicon Valley and their startup ecosystem?
No, I’m from Manhattan; I live and breathe New York City. My friends make fun of me that I can’t be in nature for more than 15 minutes. I went to Washington, DC for college to try a different city. I loved it but it also confirmed that New York is the place for me. New York has an infectious energy. It also has some of my favorite restaurants and bakeries.
Another thing I love about New York is that there are so many people with diverse backgrounds and careers. Outside of venture, my friends work in finance, non-profits, media, law, medicine, fashion, and more. Some of them are completing their PhDs. It’s really refreshing because I love talking to people with different backgrounds and mindsets and learning about what’s exciting and challenging them. I think it’s helpful for me as an investor and as a person to know people’s perspectives outside of tech. It puts things in perspective and shakes up my learning environment.
The startup and VC community in New York is really collaborative and diverse. Generosity is valued. And from spending so much time with everyone, we truly build lasting friendships. I think Silicon Valley is naturally more insular because the vast majority of people work in tech - I didn’t want to move and give up the best parts of NY.
What are some unexpected challenges you’ve faced as an investor?
There are two things that come to mind:
I love that I’m industry agnostic. It means that when we do deep dives, I have to get smart fast. It’s a fun challenge. For example, when I was looking at a real estate tech deal recently, it required a ton of research into market sizing and competitive landscape because it wasn’t a space I was very familiar with. When it comes to investments, I never want to succumb to FOMO. Diligence can be a long process, but it’s necessary to build expertise and have the information necessary to invest with conviction.
Multi-tasking is a huge part of this job. There’s no typical day-to-day but I always have some combination of founder meetings, sourcing, conducting due diligence, researching, and working with portfolio companies. Prioritization is key. We’re a lean team, and they trust me to get the work done. Coming out of banking, I was used to a hyper-structured environment so the lack of structure was initially out of my comfort zone. I’ve since come up with strategies to make sure I’m prioritizing optimally. Every night before I go to bed, I write down the things I need to do and block off time to make it happen.
Any advice for people who want to break into venture capital - on the investing, operations, or platform side?
The number one thing is that you have to hustle. But there’s a caveat to that: hustling looks different for different people. When I was in banking, I couldn’t leave to go to VC events because I worked long hours at my desk. It was discouraging at first because everyone I spoke to had said that the only way to get into VC was to get out there and hit the pavement by attending events.
You have to find an authentic approach that works for you. For me, going to events every night was not feasible so instead I reached out to Georgetown alumni who worked in venture. I outlined my background and why I thought I was a good fit for VC and many of them responded. I was able to set up early morning coffees and use my time thoughtfully. I hustled by building and leveraging my network and making personal connections that helped me get to Tribeca.
Another thing is imposter syndrome. Everyone says it’s really difficult to get into venture capital. It is, but don’t internalize that. I’m a firm believer in the power of positive thinking. Instead of thinking about how tough it is to break into the industry, I chose to focus on why I would be a good fit and addition to the NYC tech ecosystem. Having imposter syndrome makes it hard for people to sometimes even apply so getting over that is half the battle. I’ve always believed that if you work hard and pursue your goals, it often works out. Having that ambition propelled me, and I hope other young women have that drive and openness as they pursue a career in VC.