Venture capitalist Theresia Gouw has trailblazing in her blood. When she was 3, her family left Indonesia to escape persecution under the Suharto dictatorship and start a new life in the U.S.
"When I think about the risks my parents took and how much they gave up so my sister and I could have the opportunities we have, that's what really drives me," Gouw says.
Gouw's personal drive has helped bring much-needed change to the venture capital industry. In 2014, she left the venture firm Accel, where she was the first female managing partner, and co-founded one of the first female-led VC firms, Aspect Ventures. Five years later, Gouw co-founded her second venture firm, Acrew Capital, in Palo Alto, California. Melinda Gates backed both Aspect and Acrew through her investment company, Pivotal Ventures.
The Acrew team has invested in startups including expense-management platform Divvy and hotel booking app HotelTonight, returning a combined $2 billion to investors. One of Acrew's first investments was in the payments startup Finix, co-founded in San Francisco in 2015 by Richie Serna, the son of two formerly undocumented Mexican immigrants. A founder who shares Gouw's passion for changing the face of tech, Serna now has the challenge of pursuing aggressive growth at Finix without sacrificing the company's values.
"You can bring together 100 people from some of the best startups from across all of Silicon Valley, and everybody does something slightly differently," Serna says. "So the question is, how do we make sure that we bring the best skill sets, processes, and practices from all these organizations, but make them uniquely Finix?"
Serna: Theresia, your career has spanned booms, busts, bubbles, and now even a global pandemic. We're about to double the size of our company. What are some of the biggest pitfalls we should look out for as we grow?
Gouw: I think the biggest thing that I've seen, especially when growing your company, is to make sure that as you're hiring people, you don't give up on any of your core values. That's not to say you wait for the perfect candidate. There's no such thing. It's separating the urgent from the important. So it's an urgent need to fill this role, but the important thing is this person has to share Finix and Richie's values on A, B, and C. And if you're clear on what those things are, and never willing to compromise on them, I've seen that, in the short term, a little bit more pain of waiting to fill that slot pays off in spades.
Serna: As we grow and bring on senior leaders, new executives, and new talent, are there any tricks that you've learned on how to really get to know a person?
Gouw: I think there's no substitute for spending time with people outside of the interview process. It's obviously become more challenging since we're on Zoom, but I've seen people do some pretty creative things, like socially distanced walks. It's not just looking at somebody's accomplishments, but also why do they do what they do? Why is it important to them? Why does this make sense as the next thing that they're going to do?
Serna: I always start off by saying, "Tell me your story, and all the way from the beginning." And I always finish with, "What motivates you?" People typically say, "I like to solve business problems," but nobody's motivated by that, so I'll say, "What really motivates you?" One of the things we started at the beginning of Covid was this thing we call Finix Matters. At least once a month, we have an employee do a presentation to the entire company where they share their life story. The stories are incredibly inspiring, and have brought us all together in a very special way.
Gouw: I love that idea. I'm going to replicate that. We're only about a dozen people, so it won't take us that long.
Serna: Given the fact that so many things have changed in Silicon Valley, what lessons do you have for founders in my seat?
Gouw: Great entrepreneurs are incredibly focused on their companies and growth, but at the same time, the best ones know precisely when and how to step away from it. By that, I mean looking at what's going on outside, around you. Look at what's happening in the macro economy and to other companies like yours. That's where I think a great investor or partner can be helpful. Because at any given point in time, we are working with half a dozen other companies in slightly different stages and slightly different businesses. Sometimes that's incredibly helpful to see and share what's working, what's not, and what we've seen somebody do to adjust. I know recently you did something pretty amazing in showing how important diversity is to you and Finix.
Serna: Yes, this past year we brought in a special purpose vehicle specifically targeting Latinx and Black investors to have the opportunity to invest in Finix. One of the things that has always been important to me is creating not just a diverse company, board, and set of investors, but also a diverse capital table. This is something we're going to commit to for all future rounds: to always have at least 10 percent of our round going to investors of color. It's not just about representation. It's about allocation, attribution, and allowing others to break into this industry.
Gouw: I think it's essential. I've been around long enough to see that we are on the cusp of real improvement after many decades of not a lot of change. Unfortunately, those under-represented in the tech industry are not only Black and Latinx; it's all people of color and women. To give you a sense of how out of whack this is, there's $71 trillion in private assets being managed in the U.S., and 1.1 percent is managed by women or people of color.
Gouw: So what you're doing stands out. It makes a big difference.