Women in Business Q&A: Camille Samuels, Partner, Venrock

05/20/2017 02:32 pm ET

Camille Samuels joined Venrock, a venture capital firm that partners with entrepreneurs to build businesses that matter, in 2014. She invests in start-up healthcare companies with an emphasis on biotech, medical devices, and consumer health. Over the course of her career, Cami has served on four public board of directors and over a dozen private boards. Some of those boards, past and present, have included: Kythera (acquired by Allergan), Novacardia (acquired by Merck), ParAllele (acquired by Affymetrix), Spirox Medical, and Unity Biotechnology. She has also served as a board observer at many companies including Genomic Health (GHDX), Fluidigm (FLDM), and Syrrx (acquired by Takeda). Before her career as a VC, Cami worked at Tularik, Inc. and L.E.K. Consulting. She earned her Bachelor’s degree in Biology from Duke University and an MBA from Harvard Business School, where she graduated as a Baker Scholar.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?

People consistently describe me as demonstrating a unique combination of social extroversion, empathy, and geekiness. My extroverted nature is genetic, although it probably helps that I’m a native New Yorker. My empathy comes from experiencing my fair share of challenges in life. I lost my first parent at 13, and became an “orphan” at 32. I’m divorced and a mother of a special-needs child. In terms of my geeky side, I am indebted to my parents and my elementary school education. My father was an engineer and entrepreneur, while my mother was an economist who read 2-3 books per week. I was lucky enough to attend a really special all-girls elementary school, that taught us in subtle ways, that women are just as likely as men to change the world; either through innovations or through leadership. They didn’t promote a bitter or explicit feminist agenda, but instead a subtle, hopeful one.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Venrock?

One of my former partners used to frequently quip that: “It’s better to by lucky than good.” I’ve experienced a lot of good fortune, and have had the pleasure of working with amazing people; learning from many of them during my career. For example, I am indebted to the scientists at Tularik and Genzyme who helped me to understand the difference between industrial and basic science, and the manager at L.E.K. Consulting who taught me an invaluable lesson: simplicity is harder than complexity.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your career?

While most of my portfolio companies are trying to save the world from major diseases, I must admit that an investment in an aesthetics company called Kythera (saving the world from double chins) was one of the highlights. I made a seed investment, alongside the founders, in Kythera. I also had the privilege of serving on its board through its IPO and $2.1 billion acquisition by Allergan last year. I really put my heart and soul into it, and the reason it’s a highlight is that I know several ways in which my involvement changed the trajectory of the company.

Further, Kythera’s Chief Scientific Officer, Ned David, and I have worked together for a long time. Syrrx, the first company that Ned co-founded, was my first investment as a VC. Ned and I work together now on UNITY Biotechnology, a company he co-founded that is focused on making medicines that extend human healthspan.

In terms of challenges, it can be a struggle to manage all the balls in the air for me as a divorced mother of two young children. Exacerbating the challenge is that one of my children has ADHD and marked social challenges. He is an amazing and very challenging kid. To make my personal and work lives balance, I joke that I’m one of the biggest employers in San Francisco. I don’t know if I’m a great mom, but I am a really committed, hard-working mom.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?

Cultural fit is always important, but it really matters when you are a minority. Women in VC comprise only four percent of sizeable venture firms, so we are definitely in the minority. When I decided to join Venrock, I had other venture opportunities with higher compensation levels, but I chose Venrock because I felt it was a better cultural fit. I had a hypothesis that my longstanding friendship with Bryan Roberts, a partner at Venrock, meant that I would share the firm’s values. This has proven true: we share core tenets like teamwork, a growth-oriented mindset, pursuit of excellence, and being champions for entrepreneurs.

I believe that people should do what they love. I think you can take an incredibly talented person without passion, and they’re only going to be half as effective as a person 90 percent as talented, but who really loves what they do.

Finally, don’t go into venture capital just because it looks lucrative. There are easier ways to make money. However, if you’re really jazzed up about being a behind-the-scenes catalyst helping brilliant people who hope to change the world, then you’ll enjoy being a VC.

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career to date?

In my case, I have embraced, rather than run away from, attributes that are classically considered “feminine.” For instance, I’ve learned that it’s often lonely and frightening to be a CEO, and there’s some comfort in having someone who isn’t spewing out alpha maleness as your thought partner. Being a thought partner and a CEO’s “first call” is a role that the best VCs aspire to. That level of trust ensures we’re not in the dark about problems, and provides an ability for VCs to help and have an impact. Part of my success in being a first call is that I often feel safer to CEOs because of my empathy and gender. Of course, I need to provide sound thinking and sage advice in return.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?

I don’t. I think it’s a myth, unfortunately. There are times that I overbalance for one or the other. I constantly need to juggle a demanding work schedule and taking care of my family. However, exercise is a stress reliever and a source of joy for me. I’m a Zumba groupie, and enjoy hanging out with an eclectic, wonderful group of people who are silly while they’re dancing and working out. It’s a great antidote to the stress of my life. I also run the Lyon Street steps in San Francisco. It’s my Zen place when I reach the top and stare out to a beautiful view of the Bay. I enjoy keeping up with current affairs, hanging out with my kids, and when I find the time, I really enjoy seeing my friends and entertaining.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?

I think the biggest issue is that it’s harder for a woman to be tough and still be liked. As a senior executive, your job is to be tough-minded and to make hard decisions, but it’s also an imperative to be liked. I think women have to work a lot harder to navigate that balance.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?

I’ve spent my career in mostly male environments, and my formal mentors have all been men. However, I’ve always had plenty of female thought partners and career muses. The mentoring moments I remember most are the ones where I got constructive criticism. For example, during my first job, I impulsively and enthusiastically went into my boss’ office, before having my thoughts straight, and was overly verbose. He handed me a Post-It note and requested that the next time I came into his office, that I made sure my remarks fit on the small note’s dimensions. He helped me become much more concise and clear as a communicator versus my natural inclination to be super chatty.

Fast-forward to another mentor, Sam Colella. After my first VC exit, a portfolio company that was acquired shortly after we invested, he sat me down and said, "Now you've had a double. Not a homerun, but a double. You’re no longer just a young VC with potential. It's time for you to know what your shtick is. Go define your shtick." That’s when I realized that my combination of empathy, being innately social and being deeply geeky was my competitive advantage. If you're genuinely curious about people, you end up meeting lots of really smart people from various walks of life and asking thoughtful questions of those people. And, if you're geeky, you're deeply curious and open about both science and business. Sometimes the union of those skills yields an ability to spot trends early on. Or it might yield, "This person needs to work at that company.” Or, "This investor would love this deal."

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?

I admire Oprah. Maya Angelou famously wrote: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” I think Angelou describes Oprah’s superpower. She’s become incredibly influential and wealthy for helping people express their best self and for how she has made them (and us) feel.

There are many women I admire who are more directly in my circle, but I really hold my little sister in high esteem. She's a clinical psychologist who has experienced a fair amount of adversity. Despite that, she’s built a wonderful life for herself. She knows who she is, lives her values, and has always been a great supporter of me. Part of the reason she has been able to overcome so much is because she’s highly amusing and has a great sense of humor.

What do you want Venrock to accomplish in the next year?

Our job is to help entrepreneurs build exceptional companies. That’s what I want us to do this year and every year.

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