Empowering Networks In Venture Capital

Empowering & Improving Talent Across The Network

A s venture capital firms have multiplied and grown, the companies and employees they supporthave multiplied as well. For example, Union Square Ventures (USV) boasts a combined workforce of 10,000+ people across 85 active portfolio companies. More people in portfolio companies face similar challenges that can be solved by others across the network.

Thus, venture capital firms have launched teams, initiatives and services to leverage network effects to empower and improve existing talent across their portfolio companies. Successful initiatives serve the dual purpose of improving talent in their companies and returns of their funds.

Below, I share a couple examples from First Round Capital and Union Square Ventures.

First Round Capital: Mentorship

A few years ago, First Round hired Whitnie Low Narcisse to build their expert platform. She centered on the consistent feedback that mentorship was the missing link for people across different levels of leadership and stages of their career.

Their north star is to ‘bottle those most powerful “aha” mentorship moments that can change the course of careers, and deliver them to as many company builders as we can.’

They started by putting out a call for mentees from First Round companies and experts from tech’s most talented operators. The initial Mentorship Program was structured as 6 total meetings roughly every other week for a quarter and through three iterations had supported over 100 mentor-mentee pairs.

Having gone through multiple iterations since 2016 and hiring community managers in 2018 (Serena Bian in SF and Olivia Haddad-Salah in NY), they have evolved the program, now branded ‘Fast Track’. In their words: ‘It’s a 90-day program that matches seasoned advisors and operators — from both within and outside of our community — with the early-stage founders we’ve backed and the rising stars on their teams. The pairs then meet up for in-person, structured bi-weekly sessions.

For example, Stacy La who joined Clover Health as employee number 5 shares her powerful insights, including standardizing how you triage your time using a practice shared by her mentor Airbnb’s Head of Design Alex Schleifer. It’s striking how critical it was as an early employee in the crucible of a fast-scaling startup for her to have support to better her as a leader, which in turn enabled her to drive success for the company.

USV: Learn, Level Up, Lead

In 2010 USV hired Gary Chou to build the USV Network. Among other things, he helped roll out the annual USV CEO Summit and pioneered use of the unconference format. Recently, Lauren Young, Bethany Crystal and Matt Cynamon have been driving new improvements and initiatives.

One initiative they launched in 2017 in partnership with LifeLabs Learning was the USV Manager Bootcamp. USV realized that due to rapid growth, many employees across its portfolio became managers for the first time and had to develop new skills in order to succeed. USV partnered with HR leaders to identify gaps and create a list of soft skills to help managers level up: coaching, feedback, prioritization & time management, and effective 1-on-1s.

In total as of May 2019, they have supported 300 people from 50 portfolio companies to level up their skills as first-time managers. Further, at least 20 companies have continued to support new managers through LifeLabs or other external providers. ‘Above all, we’re thrilled to hear about the intangible benefits of peer-to-peer interactions and new mentor relationships that have emerged from these programs.’

Another initiative USV launched is the Network Leaders Program. In iteration one, they selected 10 leaders based on involvement in the USV network, leadership skills and ability to connect others. ‘Over the course of 18 months they facilitated 40+ Network-Leader events engaging 500+ individuals.’

For example, Karen Ko, Michael Rurka, Amethyst Hills and Noelle Li collaboratively built Level Up, engaging 200+ USV portfolio participants. The central theme was career and leadership development, with the goal of equipping participants with tools, contacts and valuable insights to enhance their professional development. One event had a ‘breakout session’ to kick off a series of mentorship circles for women in the USV network. Another moment showcasing the power of network surfaced when Karen asked attendees to draw their face on a post-it and write 3 words to describe them.

Going from iteration one to two (started summer 2019), they learned that while ‘events are a way to build a community, they can be time consuming and challenging to plan and execute.’ USV divided the overall network programming into 12 specific functional tracks, with network leaders serving as ambassadors within their respective functional area and refocusing on communications and content.

Conclusion: VC Networks Will Continue To Develop And Evolve

At its core, a VC has to be able to access networks, build relationships, raise money, generate deal flow, make investment decisions, help portfolio companies improve, and manage fund operations/finance/legal. As VCs mature, they look to build other adjacent or complementary ways to improve different aspects in service of improving returns to investors/LPs, including by building these network.

First Round has structured their approach around mentorship and worked to improve the art & process of mentorship in terms of process, matching, prioritizing the right mentees and improving mentors.

USV has structured their approach through programs developing first-time managers and empowering network leaders to build community and provide support within specific functional areas across the network.

For both, they partner with leaders from inside and outside the network to diagnose and address challenges leaders at different levels in their portfolio companies face. Through these efforts, they hope to help 10,000 people across 75 different companies to each make one better decision.

Miscellaneous observations, predictions and questions for the future:

  • First Round’s mentorship program has strong echoes with 4.0 Schools, a nonprofit education incubator for pre-investment entrepreneurs I used to work for. As they evolved from a traditional incubator to a virtual fellowship, they actively sought coaches for founders and structured the engagements similarly: founders bring agendas to meetings and work collaboratively with coaches to shape milestones founders are accountable for. Further, 4.0 paid coaches as a support for entrepreneurs, and required minimum monthly sessions for entrepreneurs while allowing them flexibility to use funds for additional coaching on an as-needed-basis.
  • USV’s Manager Bootcamp has strong parallels with Seth Godin’s altMBA around topics covered (soft skills) and the market opportunity (with many Fortune 500 companies paying for their employees). Further, altMBA has created a course that is an intimate, scalable, online experience.
  • For both First Round and USV, they can learn from examples like 4.0 Schools and altMBA when it comes to fostering learning & development and engaging communities remotely.
  • Will First Round surface more consistent themes of need and build more structured programs to support their leaders within their portfolio companies? Will they draw more on and support leaders within the network to support programming like USV?
  • How will USV’s second iteration of its Network Leadership Program evolve? I suspect there will also be increased cross-pollination across different learning & development efforts.
  • Which other VCs are already doing this, how many will do this more formally / by staffing people to support? At what size of fund, maturity of VC, for what styles of investing, or for what stage of investing does this approach make sense? Will approaches converge or is there room for new innovations?
  • All of these have broader ramifications for learning and development at scale, which I think USV analyst Zach captured well in this post.



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David Fu

David Fu


davidfu.co | Ever-evolving, global ed & innovation entrepreneur | CEO Streetlight Schools | expansion lead 4.0 Schools | ex-i-banker | Joburg Global Shaper @WEF