Q&A with Partnership Fund's Sree Kolli

Sree Kolli is an investment associate at the Partnership Fund for New York. Prior to Partnership Fund, she worked in the Technology, Media, and Telecommunications practice at JP Morgan.

What attracted you to venture capital and working with startups?

My interest in the entrepreneurial ecosystem began when I was still in my early days of high school and blossomed over the years through my various experiences in college and post-graduation. I have been an avid acrylic painter since the age of 6 and when I was in high school, I decide to marry my passion for the arts and social impact – that was the beginning of “Art for Heart,” a non-profit focused raising money for underprivileged children with heart problems. I had raised over $15,000 for the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and realized that entrepreneurship had the power of making a true tangible impact on people’s lives. In that moment, I knew I knew I wanted to pursue a business degree and be an agent of positive change in my community.

As a Preferred Admit to the University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business, I became quickly integrated into the Ann Arbor venture and tech community through classes, pitch competitions, organizations on campus, and interactions with several Ann Arbor thought leaders. When it came time to choose internships, I decided to pursue financial services in order to build a strong foundation of technical skills. The summer after my freshman year, I worked at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in the Global Private Wealth Management Division where I learned about how to garner new clients and develop personalized solutions. During my sophomore year summer, I interned at Goldman Sachs in the Asset Management business where I developed a strong understanding of how to analyze different financial products across various KPIs, product-market fit, and the sales process. My junior year summer, I decided to explore investment banking at J.P. Morgan and returned full time. As an analyst covering technology, media, and telecommunications, I had the fortunate opportunity to work across early and late stage companies which taught me a variety of different things – including the variations in in capital needs, term sheet negotiations, valuation methodologies, and due diligence processes.

After spending almost 3 years working in the TMT space at JPM, I found myself constantly thinking about how companies use the capital we give them to actually “create value.” Furthermore, I found myself looking for opportunities to work with early stage teams and help them think through all aspects of their business models. I understood the numbers, but I wanted to understand the business – truth be told, they are very different. After speaking to several venture investors, I realized this was what I wanted to do. Scratch that – needed to do.

Why Partnership Fund in particular?

I began exploring opportunities in the VC space and started at the Partnership Fund in early 2018. This team was focused on investing in NYC-based startups that are seeding future growth and expanding opportunity in NYC. It seemed like the perfect fit given my interest in early stage and impact-driven investing. I’m a strong believer that VCs have a responsibility to invest in the future and push humanity forward. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time in the industry thus far and am eagerly looking forward to what the future holds.

Additionally, I really respect the leadership at the organization. The woman I work for (Maria Gotsch) is a true thought leader in the NYC tech ecosystem. Being able to learn about how she thinks and builds new opportunities for growth and expansion in NYC was something that immediately caught my attention as well.

What was the recruitment and hiring process like for you?

Every person has a different story for how they broke into VC. For me, I was exploring opportunities at a few different funds when I was referred to the Partnership Fund by a friend. After learning more about the team and several rounds of interviews, I decided that this would be the right next step for me in my career given mission alignment and mentorship opportunities.

What skills did you bring to this position from previous roles? 

Through my internships at Bank of America Merrill Lynch and Goldman Sachs, I developed a strong understanding of the sourcing process and more operational skills (i.e. KPI management, sales, marketing, etc.). Through my investment banking experience at J.P. Morgan, I learned about how to conduct thorough due diligence, analyze financial models, read/negotiate term sheets, etc. Apart from professional experiences, I had also had several informal opportunities to meet folks in the industry, shadow companies, and build an understanding of the ecosystem. In some ways, the “non-traditional” opportunities are what prepared me best. I’m a strong believer that you can build a career in anything you want, if you have a passion for it. For me, venture was what I needed to do. Hence, I spent a lot of time learning about the space and building a network that could teach me.    

What does your role look like on a typical day?

Every day is different in VC – that’s the best part about it. As an associate in venture, your job is a mix of four things – (1) diligence, (2) sourcing, (3) portfolio management, and (4) community engagement. Our investment team is 4 people, which means that some days I could be spending more time on diligence versus other days where I could be out in the community meeting founders, fellow investors, and industry experts in the NYC ecosystem. However, on average, I’d say I spend about 30% on diligence, 30% on sourcing, 30% on portfolio management, and 10% on community engagement.

  • Diligence: This can take several months at a time given the stage of the business. I think of this in two stages – business diligence and financial diligence. As someone with a TMT background who is spending time in areas like digital health and life sciences – diligence is particularly critical. I spend a lot of time talking to professionals and investors in the space to gain a stronger understanding of the industry. Companies provide answers to the questions you ask, but you have to know what questions to ask – hence, I spend a lot of time reading research and talking to people to get up to speed.  

  • Sourcing: After the initial calls/meetings and market research, I will typically talk to other folks I know in the space to gauge their perspectives. It is difficult to be an expert on everything when you work at a generalist fund, so I’m a strong believer in tapping into your network to help you become more knowledgeable. As an early stage investor, it’s particularly important to know what you don’t know about a prospect/industry so you can be more thoughtful as you conduct diligence, make an investment, and continue to help the company as they grow.   

  • Portfolio Management: As a VC, you are more than just a capital investment – your true value comes from strategic insights that you can provide your portfolio companies in order to help them scale. I meet tons of companies, talent, and investors. Making the right connections between folks in my network is something that is always top of mind for me because that’s one way that you can create tangible value for everyone involved.

  • Community Engagement: Talking to other investors and folks in the NYC tech ecosystem has been a really dynamic part of the job. I absolutely love meeting new people and hearing their stories. The world is very small – and the NYC VC community is even smaller. Over the past several months, I’ve made it a point to get to know folks and what their teams are looking at so we can share deal flow. The VC network is extremely collaborative. At the end of the day, all of us want to invest in great founders and help companies grow.

What kind of guidance and support do you receive from female associates, partners, mentors? 

I have been extremely lucky to have had phenomenal female mentors in my life throughout my academic and professional career. As I mentioned, our team is quite small, but the woman that runs the organization has been a great role model. She has taught me about how to think strategically about various opportunities and create tangible value. In addition, the NYC VC network has also been a tremendous opportunity to meet partners/associates at various firms and develop relationships with incredible women. Women are extremely supportive of each other in this industry. The folks I’ve met have been a great sounding board to talk through career decisions, business deals, etc. It’s quite amazing and my honor to be able to call many of these folks my friends.

How is the overall culture at your firm? How do you build an inclusive community at Partnership Fund and beyond?

Collaborate. Everyone on our team is a team-player and is looking to be as helpful as possible. Given the size of our team, we operate in a pretty flat/lean manner. You get as much as you put in – that goes for the industry as a whole. Given the breadth of industries we cover and the nature of our fund, I have spent a lot of time getting to know people in the NYC ecosystem. I’m always sharing deal flow, events, and research with other associates to create a more inclusive ecosystem.

Have you faced major challenges as an investor?

The biggest challenge I’ve faced thus far is developing expertise across multiple domains. Previously, I was very focused on the TMT sector, with a particular emphasis in business services, wireless, and early stage media. After breaking into venture, I have been exposed to many more sectors, including healthcare, fintech, real estate, etc. Hence, I have been spending more time learning about the industries through research on the various startups in those sectors as well as conversations with investors/industry leaders. It has been a tremendous learning curve. Intellectual curiosity is critical for this industry and it definitely teaches you to think in ways that you did not possible imagine – which I strongly appreciate.

Any advice for young women who want to enter VC - on the investing, operations, or platform side? 

Don’t take no for an answer – hustling is key.  This industry is extremely competitive and there are few opportunities to break in. If you really want to work in venture, you have to show it. What does that mean? You have to build a network and have an opinion. As a junior person in venture chances are the person you are working for probably knows most senior folks in the ecosystem. The biggest value add you can provide is knowledge – so build an opinion about the sectors you are interested in and connect with the leaders in that sector.

Be a sponge – take it all in. This industry is extremely dynamic and can teach you a lot. It is important to be open to new perspectives and learn about the areas that you don’t know much about. Chances are - the industries that are leading the world today will probably be different 10 years from now. So go long.

Build relationships – don’t network, add value. Every time you reach out to someone, think about the value that you can provide them – a new deal, a new intro, expertise about a sector, etc. This will help you build a stronger relationship and establish your professional brand – which is critical for this industry.