Q&A with OMERS Ventures' Soha Yasrebi

Soha Yasrebi was most recently an investor at OMERS Ventures, based in Toronto, Canada. She will be pursuing her MBA at Stanford GSB in the fall. Prior to OMERS, she was part of Deloitte's Technology Consulting group. You can follow Soha on Twitter @sohaa.

What drew you to venture capital and working with start-ups?

A few factors impacting my decision: I have always been enamoured with a small business’s ability to be nimble and stay at the forefront of technological innovation. During my undergrad program, I also developed a deep level of curiosity and appreciation for technically complex products and the effort that is put into developing them. As a result, once I was presented with an opportunity to join the OMERS Ventures team, I jumped on it.

I am fascinated by the fact that as capital partners to small businesses, we have the opportunity to be influential and personally impact business strategy and outcomes, enabling those businesses to grow and scale faster. Toronto’s tech ecosystem is also going through an exciting growth phase, in both the caliber of its talent pool and quality of businesses and I wanted to be part of it. In addition, I am very excited to see how the AI industry evolves in Canada.

Why OMERS Ventures in particular? Was there a draw with OMERS (the Ontario Municipal Employee Retirement System) as one of Canada's leading pension funds. What kind of fiduciary responsibility does this kind of corporate ventures arm take on?

OMERS Ventures is one of the largest and most reputable Canadian-based VC funds with offices in Toronto, San Francisco, and London. We are a multi-stage generalist fund, giving us exposure to a large breadth of companies globally. This has provided me with an immense opportunity to explore and learn about various verticals within tech, their major pain points, business strategy, etc. I feel very fortunate to have joined the team here.

Being part of OMERS, we provide patient and strategic capital, aiming to achieve the best result for our business, our strategic partners, and for our members.

OMERS invests across a variety of asset classes to create a balanced and diversified portfolio. OMERS Ventures is one asset class and element of the strategy but there are unique learnings that we can bring to the table to drive better outcomes across the portfolio. We can serve as thought leaders for the broader OMERS investment portfolio in areas where we have expertise. For example, we often engage with other OMERS investment groups to provide our perspectives on the impact of AI and robotics, technological advances in data privacy and cybersecurity, and the future of transportation among others. This can be a valuable in-house resource for various groups including OMERS Private Equity, OMERS Infrastructure, and Oxford Properties (our real estate investment arm).

Before joining OMERS, you worked as an engineer and a technology analyst at Deloitte. You're also multi-lingual with an international background. In what ways does this background help you as an investor?

Technical Background: I find that my technical background has given me the ability to get a good grasp of the technical and product side of businesses, which is valuable when we look at new investment opportunities.

International Background: Growing up in the Middle East, I have a deep appreciation for minority and female founders and feel an obligation to help them in any way I can. So far in my role, I have tried my best to involve myself in initiatives supporting female and minority founders as well as providing advice and coaching on various aspects of their business such as fundraising and business strategy. It has been some of the most fulfilling work I have done to date.

OMERS Ventures has invested more than $500M of capital in 37 technology companies across North America (like DuckDuckGo, Contentful, Hootsuite, Kaleo, and Shopify). Health tech, blockchain/decentralization, security and privacy, future of mobility and smart cities, developer tools, frontier tech, and AR/VR are thematic focuses for the fund. What sectors are you paying close attention to?

As I mentioned earlier, we are generalists as a fund. However, each member of the investment team develops their own areas of focus and becomes our in-house expert. Personally, I focus on future of mobility, cybersecurity, and more opportunistically on eCommerce. More broadly, I am very interested in applications of AI and ML in industries where efficiencies can be driven from large volumes of digitized data.

You've written about Canadian cities Toronto and Waterloo forming a corridor of start-up innovation. Can you talk more about the way Canadian tech is heating up?

Canada is one of the global AI hubs with Montreal and Toronto being home to some of the biggest names and pioneers in the field including Drs. Geoffrey Hinton, Yoshua Bengio, and Richard Sutton. This has attracted world-class AI talent to Canada and we are even observing certain international companies opening satellite offices in Canada in order to access this talent.

I would also mention that, relative to certain competitive markets such as the US, Canadian businesses continue to be valued lower than their counterparts. This has made Canadian companies great investment opportunities for foreign investors seeking under-appreciated value.

How does a fund like OMERS support a portfolio company?

OMERS Ventures, like many other funds, employs our operationally-minded “Acceleration” team that works conjointly with the investment team, devoted to driving better outcomes for our portfolio companies. This team works closely with management to help find and develop top talent, create a nurturing community and network of professionals among portfolio companies, and navigate the growing pains of building and scaling a business.

Being part of the broader OMERS organization confers many benefits as well, as we have access to a large set of assets and internal resources. For example, when technologies from our portfolio companies are ready for commercialization, we have been able to introduce them to other stakeholders within the organization such as other investment groups and portfolio companies, OMERS management, and even our strategic partners, as appropriate.

In another instance, Oxford Properties, the real estate investment arm of OMERS, has found competitive office space for our portfolio companies – usually a very large expense for young businesses. Similarly, our procurement team also assists our portfolio companies to lower key business expenses.

Lastly, being part of a global organization with access to global connections, we provide a competitive advantage for our portfolio companies as they expand globally.

Do you think the most successful start-ups have 'winner-takes-all' markets?

Not necessarily, as the answer varies depending on the industry, region, supply chain, etc. I would say that this is primarily dependent on the space the start-up is operating in. In certain industries such as healthcare, the regulatory complexities and patient data disparities across different geographies can drive the emergence of regional winners. However, in instances where there is market opportunity for a company to gain network effect and establish itself as a de facto platform for a specific operation (e.g. Carta for cap table management), we see more of a “winner-takes-all” dynamic.

What ways is OMERS and other Canadian funds supporting women in VC and entrepreneurship?

Firstly, it is important to see what actions the Canadian government has taken to lay the foundation for investors to take more bets on women entrepreneurs.

In the past few years, the Canadian government has taken a proactive approach to bolster women’s economic empowerment in the country. For example, the 2018 budget included a number of initiatives such as Women Entrepreneurship Strategy (which also includes a panel of experts) and a $20 million Women Entrepreneurship Fund (providing up to $100,000 in non-repayable grants to female-owned or led businesses). Moreover, in May 2018, the government announced its intention to contribute up to $300 million towards the creation of a new and innovative equality funding initiative, "created to support women's rights organizations and movements around the world." This was great news for the country!

I believe that such federal actions and initiatives incentivize Canadian funds to back female entrepreneurs that operate scalable businesses. Aside from financial support, investors can play an influential role in providing advice and guidance to female entrepreneurs. One of the initiatives that OMERS Ventures began running two years ago was our Female Founder & Women in Tech Office Hours, open to ALL women looking to get professional, career, and business advice from an investor. Every member of our investment and Acceleration team participates in our office hours. We initially held this event on International Women’s Day but due to great feedback received from participants, we have expanded it into a quarterly event since. In addition, we engage with the community in other ways by sponsoring and supporting organizations such as #movethedial and Venture Out that support female and minority entrepreneurs and professionals.

Have you faced major challenges as an investor?

I would say one of the challenges that any investor faces during their career is falling in love with an investment opportunity they have brought to the table. Getting to know a company and its founders up close and on a deeper level, you may begin to feel strongly about the management team, the target market, or the company’s product. However, there may be cases where the opportunity may not be the best investment decision for the fund due to various reasons (e.g. high valuation, churn rate, margins, etc.). This is something that I have experienced and try to be conscious of when doing diligence on new investment opportunities. I find the best way to avoid any negative consequences is to be transparent with the rest of the team about risks associated with the deal and be open to hearing the team’s feedback and perspective. Having a diverse investment team is also very valuable in this process.

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

One of the most effective ways I find in breaking into the VC industry is to build a strong network in that space. This will allow you to get firsthand insight into the space and available opportunities across different funds. Additionally, it allows you to more effectively learn about various types of roles, what they encompass, and whether it aligns with your interests and skillset. The best next step is to then find your ideal position and understand what the required skills are to do it really well. Finally, be very pragmatic and strategic about filling the gaps in your skillset (if any) as soon as possible and always know that there is no one unique way to get into this space. Every individual’s story is different!

Rapid Fire 🔥

Your top life hack? Network, network, and network – as I mentioned before, build a strong and supportive network around yourself. It can really make all the difference in the world.

A mobile app you'd recommend? Hopper – a mobile travel booking app that employs AI to predict and analyze prices and help you book flights and hotels at the best rates. (Disclaimer: this is also an OMERS Ventures portfolio company. I started using it a year ago and love the experience!)

Favorite podcast? How I Built This with Guy Raz – I absolutely love listening to this podcast and its founder stories. I particularly find myself drawn to female founder stories.