Susan Choe was literally climbing in the Gobi Desert when she got the call that launched her into a new career in venture capital. She and her husband had climbed to the top of a hill to get a signal.
It was one of the investors in Outspark, the startup she’d founded and then left after a disagreement with the board over whether the firm should be sold. She swallowed her feelings, and left on good terms, somewhere between believing and trying to believe the next turn in her career would lead to better things.
“Believe me, that was really hard,” she said. “That’s why I was climbing in the Gobi.
It was soul filtering.”
The investor was Taizo Son, brother to SoftBank’s Masayoshi Son. “Do you want to come help us with Softbank and Sprint-related stuff?” he asked, as she remembers it.
The conversations evolved into founding a VC fund, Visionnaire, in 2013. At the same time, she had been in conversations to join Twitter as a senior executive. But she thought to herself, “I really like this guy. I’ve worked in corporate development, I’ve had my own startup, now let me try this. I can learn here.”
That same week, she discovered she was pregnant after three years of trying.
Six years later, she has a daughter who has grown up in the world of entrepreneurship and venture capital, and she’s founded a firm of her own, Katalyst Ventures, making her one of the few women VCs to reach the top echelon of the business.
Her investments have included Zipline, the drone unicorn delivering medicine in ; Flowcast, which is reforming the way small business credit scores are calculated; and Truvalue Labs, which helps investors measure ESG impact.
Choe reached out to me after my article about women entrepreneurs over 50. Women in venture capital are like unicorns themselves – and it was fascinating to hear the twists and turns of her story. It was clear how narrow a path she’d walked, and how crucial support from mentors has been, including male mentors. What was also clear was the emotional toll that succeeding in a man’s world, takes on women.
This is the subtext, and sometimes the text, of many interviews I do with women – though for years I haven’t included it in stories, because it felt somehow like it didn’t belong. It’s only lately that I’ve begun to realize how much other women shared this feeling. It’s that sense that what we thought was important didn’t even belong in the room, there were a lot of signals telling us that wedidn’t belong in the room.
“I wish I had other female founders I could have spoken to,” Choe said. “In my generation, there just isn’t a lot of women who were allowed to found companies or be an exec without abandoning their personal lives.”
“Even now, I have to say the same. I still ask myself: Is this normal? I’m not sure what normal is, for a woman in this place.”
The World Of Men
The emotional subtext rarely comes up in interviews with successful men. In part, that’s probably because they don’t talk about their feelings as much; and in part, that’s probably because men are so comfortable with success. It’s expected of them, and they expect it.
I was at a women’s empowerment breakfaster recently, where the publisher of a major publication blithely described how he’d finished up a job in investment banking when someone called to drop a great new publisher job in his lap. I wondered how he could be so insensitive, to describe the ease of his career in front of an audience of women who had probably struggled for every step up the ladder?
On the surface, his call looks like the one Susan Choe got. Two experienced, well-networked people got recruited for high-powered jobs. But there’s a fundamental difference. I’m sure he worked hard, but the Ivy League-educated publisher waltzed through his career, because he knew his part in the dance.
There are no instructions for women who want to lead.
Choe started off in tech research and corporate development in 1995. In two separate stints, she worked at Yahoo, eventually running international operations. She’d also worked as the COO for a publicly traded holding company of Japanese gaming company NHN. At NHN she had the idea for a combination of a gaming company and a search engine but quickly discovered a corporate environment didn’t have the flexibility she needed to drive the project forward.
In 2006, she quit the high-paying corporate job to found Outspark, bootstrapping it with about $250,000 of her own money. It went from concept to over two million users and more than $7 million in annual revenue within just a couple of years, she notes on her bio. The company evolved into a platform for game developers.
“It was really tough recruiting, especially the COO. As a female in tech and games. It was like finding a needle in a haystack,” she said. She loved building an environment where people could thrive. “I meet up with a lot of our old teammates afterward,” she remembered. “We had five marriages come out of there.”
But she also decided that she’d like to hire someone – a CEO – who would take over some of the recruiting while she focused on building the company, which she loved. In retrospect, she believes, that was a mistake. He hired expensive talent, seasoned corporate executives who were good at a Series D level company, when Outspark was in an earlier phase.
That’s when the disagreement with the board happened. A few years after Choe left, the company was sold to Axel Springer. She’d moved on – but it was hard.
Success for women comes at a high personal cost. Because there are so few role models around you, it’s not clear what the rules of engagement are for women – when to fight, when to wait, when to back down. Where men can often just “go with their gut,” women have to level more questions at themselves before they respond.
At several points along the way, mentors were important. Choe mentioned Rosemary McFadden, now managing director at CSFB, which acquired DLJdirect. “I worked for Rosemary covering greater China at DLJdirect,” Choe said by email followup. “I learned quite a bit about international deal making, including dealing with male executives: Ignore their bias and push forward with laser focus, and persevere.”
McFadden stood 5-foot (in heels) and started her sentences with ‘Listen, Missy.’
Choe appreciated the toughness McFadden instilled in her
She also listed Son as a mentor. In venture capital and among fast-growing entrepreneurs, male mentors are particularly important, partly because there just aren’t women to be mentors. The percentage of women in leadership roles at venture firms only rose to 9.5 percent in 2018 from 8.9 percent, says All Raise, a non-profit that focuses on promoting diversity in the industry.
It’s also riskier for a woman to mentor other women. In an HBR interviewabout their book, Athena Rising, authors David Smith and Brad Johnson noted:
I also just want to note that when a guy stands up and publicly promotes and sponsors a woman, we find research showing that his end-of-year evaluations actually go up. When a woman is a public sponsor for a junior woman, her evals are more likely to suffer. You know, she’s viewed as showing favoritism; he’s viewed as a champion for diversity. So there’s even some inequity there, but all the more reason men have got to be willing to engage here.
I asked Choe for examples of the way she handles succeeding, and now leading, in the world of men. It was clear from our conversation that conflict is rarely her style. For instance, when her startup board disagreed with her vision, she noted, she could have gone to the press – but didn’t.
One of the reasons she founded Katalyst, while still remaining active at Visionnaire is that she brought a general partner to help after her daughter was born. Eventually the firm, which had raised $90 million and deployed its capital, only needed one leader. Meanwhile, the firms that she’d invested in needed more investment.
Eventually, there were a handful of limited partners, including the ex-CO of Temasek, among others, who convinced her that she could open her own firm. (She remains involved in Visionnaire.) “Most of all, Zipline, HelpShift and others reminded me of the need to push through the challenges of evolving a fund,” she said.
“My LPs appreciated that I was very transparent and performing,” she said. “They told me “You’re good at the one thing, which is picking winner companies.”
Katalyst launched in January 2018. It has three employees and has raised $47 million, with capital deployed into 14 companies. Four of them came from Visionnaire. Some 45% of the capital is deployed with companies where the CEO or CTO is a woman. “It’s really cool, especially because the capital is from a bunch of Asian men,” she said.
The firm focuses on early stage enterprise companies using AI. Her daughter has been in many conference calls and recently asked Choe, “Mommy, what’s a valuation?” which made her laugh. The number of women in the portfolio adds a sense of social responsibility, Choe notes. “I don’t want women to be let down.”
She often lets things unfold before she steps in. “I don’t walk into big board meetings and feel fear,” she said. “I listen more. I observe the interactions. At the usual first board meeting, everybody is sort of trying to establish their persona.”
She’ll wait for a moment to make a powerful fact-based point, which speaks for itself. “I try to be me. I don’t have to piss in the pond and be more male than them,” she said.
I pointed out that sometimes, conflict is unavoidable. Yes, Choe acknowledged.
When that happens, courage is the asset that counts.
“I’ve had a company that was advised by well-meaning but aggressive old school advisors.
They missed the comp line goal by 80-90%. I said ‘No, here you signed that you’d reach this goal by this date’,” she told them.
“Rather than coming back with a plan that says how they’ll address this, they try to sue me.”
She told them that if she got off the board, she’d write off the investment. “There are times when you have to fight fire with fire,” she said.
In another case, when a CEO tried to self-deal she went to the potential acquirer to disclose what had happened. “These are the values I hope my daughter has,” she said.
The hardest points, she says, are when she has to say no to a really good founder, or when one of the portfolio companies is not doing well. “I’ve been in their shoes so I can really think about them,” she said. “But if I don’t perform, I can’t fund the next Zipline.”
Now that she’s become a general partner, she is putting more thought into how to bring more women into her profession. “Women’s style is a lot more nurturing, and close to heart. We have to learn how to delegate better,” she said. “I’m always working on that.”
“But a lot of real mentoring relationships are needed. A lot of my male allies are older white men.”
The conclusion she’s come to is that women haven’t been shown how to be a mentor.
That’s the next step, then? For someone who keeps climbing, it’s obvious: Once you’ve figured out how a woman can lead, you figure out how to teach other women to do it.
Originally published in Forbes, Sep. 30, 2019