Q&A with Dorm Room Fund's Shohini Gupta

Shohini Gupta is a Managing Partner for Dorm Room Fund, and attends University of California, Berkeley. She has interned as a Product Manager for ABRA and in business operations for Blueprint Income.

What drew you to venture capital and working with startups?

I remember learning about Uber in high school and hearing that they raised some “X” million dollars. I was confused why people were giving big companies money – why not give money to people who need it? I obviously knew nothing about venture then, but it led me to impact investing. It was around that time when I became interested in impact investing. I became a research fellow at 118 Capital, a small social impact investment first, which was my first direct exposure to evaluating startups. Then, I worked at a New York startup for my freshman summer. I liked the idea of directly shaping a company and its direction (which you can definitely do at the early stage). And deploying capital into companies that improve people’s lives - that seemed like a mission worth supporting.

It was definitely hard at the beginning to find the right opportunity. Institutional funds like Goldman don’t have that many openings for students - and even to join those roles full-time, you need prior experience in finance and consulting. I knew I wanted to make impact now rather than wait and take roles I didn’t have interest in. Venture capital through DRF was a good touchpoint; I was immediately supporting early stage student entrepreneurs. As I look towards my future in the startup and VC world, I want to continue that impact focus through companies expanding financial and healthcare access.

Why Dorm Room Fund?

There are a couple of options for students interested in venture capital. You can join a scout program - but often times students aren’t making the decision. They recommend companies and conduct due diligence without having a voice in the decision. Accelerator programs are interesting and UC Berkeley has quite a few. One of the pitfalls is that they don’t give people class credit that actually counts towards their majors, which I think would be an ideal incentive. I also see lower quality companies come out of certain accelerators depending on the programming and selection process.

Dorm Room Fund stood out for its independence, flexibility, and high caliber students. We make independent investing decisions (no First Round partners or employees vote). We do all the sourcing and evaluating. We also don’t force programming; student entrepreneurs come in on their own terms and we supply the capital. DRF founders are very passionate and are not incentivized by anything other than the product and problem they’re working on. It’s also a plus that we have national reach. We have teams in cities across the country and a much wider network than any student venture fund focused solely on one campus. It gives our portfolio variety because the companies we see at Cal, for example, are different from student startups in the Midwest. In fact, we just onboarded a company from Kentucky!

What does your managing partner role encompass?

We’re not hierarchal but we do have systems in place to make sure companies get reviewed, events are properly managed, and teams stay up to date across the country. Last semester, we brought Afton Vechery from Modern Fertility and Phin Barnes from First Round Capital to Berkeley’s campus to talk about challenges facing female founders and how allies can be supportive. One of the initiatives that Andrew Briggs, my co-managing partner, and I are leading is content generation. DRF has so many smart partners. We’re pushing for them to produce at least one article on Medium that demonstrates our fund’s knowledge in a relatable format. I’m broadly making sure that our partners are hosting 2-3 events to support portfolio companies and their student entrepreneurship communities.

The second part of my role is organizing Dorm Room’s Female Founders Track. I’d been thinking about how to increase the number of women starting companies on campus since DRF’s funding rate is at industry par – but if we’re shaping the future generation of tech, we should be doing better. In July, we hosted a series of lightning talks with 7 female founders and investors. It wasn’t a typical event, which was probably why our attendance was over 120 women. I continued thinking about repeatable ways to cultivate this community. Time-boxed events don’t provide tangible resources or continuing support from A to B.

I looked to First Round’s Angel Track and Product Program for inspiration, as well as Anna Khan’s LaunchX (after reading about it here!). These are initiatives with successful communities made of peer groups with actionable agendas. I wanted to create a similar track for younger female founders. And frankly, I didn’t have to be managing partner to do it! But I wanted to set an example of what you can do if you can harness the resources of the entrepreneurship community and DRF. Putting this together has been a crazy adventure but it’s just V1, our first prototype in the Bay Area. I’d like to run this in New York and scale it if possible. We’ll start posting the resources that augment our sessions online, so people can follow along even if they’re not in this first cohort.

How do you manage your Dorm Room Fund programming with school?

Well luckily I don’t manage the national network (someone at First Round does that.) How do I balance this with school? I kind of don’t haha, and I’ve developed a coffee habit. It’s like having a part-time job, but it doesn’t feel like work because I get to do cool things with great people. I’m also pretty diligent about time management. It helps that I’m not hugely involved with any on campus student organizations other than Project RISHI, a non-profit which works on sustainable development projects in India. I’m pretty zeroed in on DRF.

Have you noticed any trends in the areas that DRF invests in? E.g. more consumer, more deep tech, etc.

It’s hard to map the trends for 2018 and 2019 because I have been in this role for less than a year. Dorm Room Fund’s 5-Year Report is a great resource. It includes our portfolio highlights and industry breakdowns. There doesn’t seem to be a greater focus on consumer vs B2B. Because we invest all over the country, in students with different majors and backgrounds, we’ve funded everything from education platforms to flight tickets optimizers to geriatric care.

You were a PM intern at ABRA, a crypto investing app. Can you tell us more about your decision to become a first-time PM and what it's been like so far? What features have you worked on?

My freshman summer I worked at small startup, Blueprint Income. The team is amazing and they’re the reason I found out about DRF (Blueprint was one of their earliest investments!). I was an all-hands intern. I worked on prototyping, social media, marketing, and user testing. But what I really wanted to work on was the product side. I dropped my political science major and picked up a Computer Science minor. I didn’t want to look back and wonder why I didn’t take advantage of CS at Berkeley, a school with one of the strongest programs in the country. Have to give credit to my parents for pushing me on that one.

I started looking at product and UX roles. The 5-person team at Blueprint was great but I wanted to join a bigger startup to see how rigorous processes develop. I’m interested in fintech and crypto, and found ABRA through Dorm Room Fund since ABRA is a First Round company. At the Series B stage, it seemed like the type of company and role I was looking for. I got a lot of ownership that I wouldn’t have had at a bigger company.

PMing involves competitive research, user research, initial sketch prototypes, and working with engineers to make components come to life. What features do we keep and scrap? I was lucky to see the product development of price alerts from start to finish. Having responsibility made me step up to meet the challenge and I learned how much consideration goes into every small detail of a product.

What makes ABRA different from apps like Coinbase and Robinhood? Do you see ABRA as another means of price arbitrage?

The main technical difference is that ABRA is not a custodial wallet, meaning the user manages their wallet’s private key (whereas services like CB and Robinhood manage assets for the users). In terms of price arbitrage, I don’t see it in that way. ABRA executes orders on multiple different exchanges to get the best price for consumers and to account for varying levels of liquidity for different assets. For contrast, Coinbase uses their own exchange, Gdax.

From the consumer side, what distinguishes ABRA from Robinhood and Coinbase is that they provide access to many more altcoins. The strong focus on UX is aimed at solving one of the biggest frustrations in cryptocurrency investing: exchanges with lots of options are hell to navigate, and people can’t directly use dollars – this reduces access to the wealth creation that investing in digital assets could provide. I did tons of user interviews and ABRA’s users are really varied, from college students to retirees. People loved that it was just as easy to buy Cardano or Ripple as Bitcoin.

What kind of guidance and support do you receive from mentors in the VC and entrepreneurship space?

There are countless women (and others!) out there who are willing to help if you just ask. I know people in the First Round community who are extremely talented at specific things. I lean on them for specific asks or advice. However, I don’t have a “personal board of directors”. But I’ve been thinking about this more as part of Berkeley's Accel Scholars – Amit Kumar and Lauren Illovsky have personally invested in helping us understand career opportunities, and I’d love to build less structured relationships like that.

Now, when I meet people older than me, I think about whether this is the type of person / position that I want to be 10 years down the line. Most of my current outreach is transactional for the Female Founders Track or DRF diligence. But I know I’m young and it’ll come with time to naturally develop relationships with people who I can go to for personal advice.

Have you faced major challenges running DRF?

Definitely. Being a managing partner is easy because people are motivated regardless of executive leadership. I recognize that everyone’s really busy – running clubs, hackathons, and the million things they do outside DRF – those experiences and relationships are what make them really valuable members. But at the same time, I have to make sure DRF is moving forward as an organization. Last semester, Andrew and I put together an elaborate plan for content and programming. We didn’t realize how much extra work it would be on top of what everyone was already putting in. That was a mistake on our part and we’ve scaled it back. It was a lesson in leadership: if you set unrealistic goals without understanding and empathizing with your peers, you won’t get the outcomes you’re looking for.

Personally, evaluating companies can be a challenge. Sometimes everything is right. A founder has conviction, a strong MVP, and a great team. But I push myself to think beyond that. I have to consider the long-term market potential, unit economics, the users. It’s hard to know unless you’ve seen a lot of companies and done your research in the space. Even then it’s not enough but it is a solid foundation!

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

Dorm Room Fund alums have become Principals and associates at top flight VCs. Getting involved in student-run venture firms is a fantastic channel to meet people in the community. I would add that it's not about direct investing experience. It boils down to meeting smart people who are building new things and developing unique investment theses. DRF is one way to do it, but there are other ways. Reading your blog is another method to see what other investors are doing and thinking about the market.

If you’re thinking of joining Dorm Room Fund (applications are open!), we’re looking for a few things:

  1. Involvement in tech and entrepreneurship on campus. Can you point to experiences with student startups? Have you built things? Are you becoming an expert on a rapidly evolving space?

  2. Leadership and vision. What initiatives have you started? What future do you envision for student entrepreneurship that you can drive on your campus and beyond? How can we broaden access to venture capital and entrepreneurship as a tool to solve major problems?

My contribution is around female entrepreneurship. DRF has placed great value on diverse founders but we didn’t have a specific program. That was a gap I saw. And I hope someone comes after me and keeps building on the Female Founders Track. We aren’t just looking for people coding in the CS building; we are just as excited by people from untraditional backgrounds and people who are underestimated. If you can show initiative and a vision for student entrepreneurship, DRF is excited to have you and we hope you apply to join!