As part of a continuing series of interviews with women entrepreneurs making a difference, I turned to Jalak Jobanputra, founder of Future Perfect Ventures to discuss her views on today's VC community and innovation.
Tell us about the Fund you are running and why you chose to embark on such a venture?
Future Perfect Ventures is a new fund based in NYC that is the synthesis of my 20 years of working in the global VC, media, telecom, social impact, education, fashion and technology industries. As more people use more technology around the world, we are seeing new applications and usages of data which will result in the next generation of multi-billion dollar companies. The entrepreneurs and investors who have a multi-disciplinary and global perspective are the ones who will be the most successful. I look around me and don't see enough early stage investors that fit this profile.
The fund's thesis is around "Interpretative Intelligence" - not big data, but the usage of data to make our lives more seamless with technology. Right now data is overwhelming our lives and for the most part not enhancing them enough. The companies I am in investing in make data intelligent and more human (although I think it will be a long time before any machine can truly replicate the complexity of human interactions and thought processes). The point is to spend less time interacting with technology and more time living life or running a business. However, I'd like to see the underlying sensors and technology help us to make better decisions than we otherwise would have made without the technology.
I've always believed that "to whom much is given much is expected". I've been fortunate to have had a wonderful life to date full of supportive family, friends and colleagues as well as challenges that have provided valuable learnings along the way. I know I'll be adding a lot of value to the entrepreneurs I back through these networks and experiences - I wouldn't start a fund unless I was sure of this.
I have always preferred to be ahead of the curve instead of on the curve. I invested in wireless spectrum in 1996, video on demand in 1997, tablet applications in 2000, in wearable technology/sensors in 2004, personalized online video advertising in 2005, speech recognition in 2005, the NYC ecosystem from 2007-2010 and mobile applications in emerging markets (Africa, India, LatAm, Southeast Asia) from 2011-2012. Throughout my career I've shown an ability to spot emerging trends and markets. I am thrilled to create a portfolio of companies headed by diverse entrepreneurs committed to Interpretative Intelligence as well as common values - while creating a healthy return for investors in my fund.
Not long ago it was a distinct disadvantage to be different. The career office at Penn told me I should consider changing my name in the early 1990s since it was a difficult name to pronounce, and I was graduating in the middle of a recession. I refused - the firms that weren't intimidated by pronouncing a foreign name were the ones I'd want to work for anyway. I started off my career in investment banking on Wall Street in 1993, where most people in positions of power looked the opposite of me. Fast forward to 2013. Over the past year I've seen a steady number of deals come my way given the different point of view I represent to an entrepreneur. The world is increasingly diverse, and the smartest entrepreneurs understand that they need investors who they can collaborate with, as well as investors that represent the diverse world they are creating technology for.
As a woman in the VC community, what do you see as your biggest challenges?
VC is a male dominated industry. Early in my career, I had challenges in being heard - whether in a board room or meetings amongst partners. I'm a petite ex-ballerina who loves fashion and definitely has a feminine streak. That being said, I can name every member of the 1986 Mets World Series team (I grew up being a frustrated Mets fan until that magical year), love to rock climb and have traveled around the world by myself to places like Burma (before it opened up to the West), the Congo, refugee camps in Kenya, and the most desolate parts of the Himalayas. I've motorcycled along the Mexican Sonoran coast. You realize the biases that exist in everyone when you are an outsider - and more often than not, early on in my career I was ignored or underestimated. Over the years I've learned how to be better heard in this environment - and having a strong track record certainly negates questions around competency.
At the end of the day being a successful VC is about finding the best entrepreneurs to back and collaborate with them to grow highly successful companies. My unique point of view, coupled with my extensive experience, now puts me at a distinct advantage. The numerous challenges I've faced by being so different have made me more resilient - and resiliency is the hallmark of any successful person. Of course, I want to see more women investing and more diversity amongst senior partners in the industry - and hopefully will see it in my lifetime. We cannot fund the future of innovation through the eyes of a narrow demographic.
Who inspires you?
My parents. They came as immigrants to the US from Africa at a point when there was a lot of political turmoil, although they had a stable life. They moved to a small town, had to learn a whole new way of living, and we all encountered prejudice. They were highly educated and responded to the prejudice by teaching, not by being spiteful. Every Diwali my parents would invite the neighbors over, and bit by bit awareness and appreciation replaced ignorance. I've often thought about this as I've stuck it out in the VC industry, in a world that ironically has not always been open to a different type of person with a different point of view. Over the past 15 years, bit by bit, with many successes and some failures under my belt, I've proven my staying power in the industry. You can't be discouraged by points in time but need to work towards building the future you want to see. My parents have always handled themselves with grace, and have instilled in me a sense of purpose, values and integrity that I am so thankful for.
If you had a crystal ball, what would you change first in your world?
I'd want the world to be a true meritocracy, where the best and brightest people, regardless of gender, schooling or ethnicity, are successful, where children around the world are able to get equal access to quality education. When I trained women entrepreneurs in Tanzania in 1999 - I saw firsthand how much they were able to achieve with just a modicum of training and I strongly believe that people will soar if you provide them with wings. If we want to overcome the global challenges we face, I want participation from the resourceful villagers in India as well as CEOs of major corporations.
What keeps you up at night?
I have a lot of opportunities coming my way - and it's a good problem to have but I can't possibly individually help everyone who reaches out to me. I've always believed that with great opportunity comes great responsibility but I think that a balanced life is also key to long term success and impact. So maintaining that balance, especially as I embark on this fund is important to me. I keep in mind that they are not mutually exclusive. I've had some of the best ideas and inspirations come to me when I've been hiking on vacation or walking through 2000 year old ruins somewhere in the world. So never underestimate the power of downtime!
What's next for you?
I'm excited to be an entrepreneur again and create a fund with an inclusive culture that reflects all the advantages of being based in NYC - from a geographic and cultural perspective. I'll continue making investments in companies that are going to change the world we live in. I look forward to working with the next NYC administration as I did with the Bloomberg administration in ensuring that every citizen of the city has broadband access, workforce training and strong K-12 education to prepare them for a digital future. I want to continue to be as curious and appreciative of the world we live in as I have always been (and when I lapse on that front, I channel my 3 year old nephew who is one of my favorite companions!) And I'll continue my decades old work on initiatives around education reform, women's/girls' rights globally, and social entrepreneurship. And maybe finally get to see the 7th continent. I really believe the best is yet to come, for me personally and professionally, as well as for the broader world. I feel so fortunate to be alive at this time!
For additional information about Jalak, follow her at @jalak on Twitter. If you have suggestions for other women innovators to interview, I'd be delighted to receive your ideas at @susanmcp1 on Twitter.