Venture capitalist Ann Miura-Ko discusses business, books and the magic of getting started
Ann Miura-Ko has been called “the most powerful woman in startups” due to her early buy-in on companies like Lyft, Twitter, Twitch and Refinery29. But when you ask the 43-year-old all-star investor about taglines like this from business profiles past, she laughs. She’s just glad to see that the investment space is no longer as lacking in women leaders as it was when she was starting out.
After graduating from Yale in 1998, she asked her boss at McKinsey and Co. if he knew any female partners. He didn’t. Now, after forging her own way as co-founder of the approximately $401 million Floodgate Fund, which focuses on companies in the earliest of stages (when they’re little more than PowerPoint presentations), Miura-Ko acts as a mentor to rising business leaders.
During this interview with Deseret, she sits in front of a colorful bookcase in the Palo Alto, California, home she shares with her husband and three kids. Right now, she’s reading “The Four Winds,” a novel by Kristin Hannah, but with a bachelor’s degree in engineering and a doctorate in mathematics and cybersecurity from Stanford, Miura-Ko has more than a few technical books on the shelf as well. Through all her education and experience she’s become an expert in good ideas.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What’s the root of success?
I really do like being a little bit different. I was never 100% focused on “What do other people think?” and “How am I doing compared to everyone else’s timescale?” My mom always described me as a weird kid. Ambition was part of that. When I was 2 years old, I was jealous that my older brother played the violin, and I begged for lessons. As a fifth grader, I was doing a kids summer program at a local community college. My mom told me I had to take one math class, but I could choose another. When I came home, she realized I’d signed up for an adult class on negotiations.
What inspired you early on?
When I was a junior at Yale, I met the CEO of Hewlett-Packard and got to shadow Ann Livermore, who was the first female executive I had ever seen. My vision of the impact I could have opened up to me. I remember seeing a picture from that externship where I was sitting exactly where Bill Gates had sat, and I thought to myself: Oh, my dreams are so myopic! They’re so focused on things that I know, rather than the unknown.
What’s it like being an Asian American woman at the executive level?
Being Asian American in venture capital or tech is not unusual. What’s unusual is getting to a leadership position. The representation of Asians at the executive staff level is sorely missing relative to how many people come into the industry. I think that has to do with the often-false perception of Asians as quiet and maybe not forceful or charismatic. I think being a woman is different because there aren’t as many women in the tech and finance sectors to begin with. That’s why I co-founded All Raise — to try and increase the number of diverse founders and funders, because I’ve seen what different voices can do to improve decision-making.
Why is it important to be a mentor?
Putting your belief in someone who has nothing proven is really the essence of venture capital. It’s about believing before the rest of the world believes.
How do you recognize a good idea?
The reason we invested in Lyft, which was called Zimride at the time, was the storyline. In 2010, there really weren’t many startups in the transportation space. The founders said, “Look, transportation is about to change, and it’s going to be driven by social networks. It’s important because with every transition, from canals to railways to highways, the fabric of the country has changed, including where cities are built.”
Their first take was a platform sold to universities to empower people to have carpools. That was all right, but we were really in love with this bigger transportation story. Co-founders Logan Green and John Zimmer had been pitching up and down Sand Hill Road, and they couldn’t find any takers. I was just getting started with my venture career; I didn’t even have an office at the time. We were sneaking into the Stanford law school dorms for meetings. We were all at the inception of our careers, and it was a bet on each other.
What do you look for in startups?
You don’t become a better investor by figuring out all the ways something can go wrong. You become a better investor by figuring out how something can go right. The downside risk in investing is one times your capital. Whatever you put in, that’s all you can lose. But what you can gain if you’re right is thousands of times that.
What advice do you give to others?
Think about decision-making. You can actually become better at making decisions by studying how and why you make certain choices and then writing your answers in a journal. You can apply the method to everything from cooking to business, to education, to parenting. You’ll become a better decision-maker through exposure to different ideas, too. In every decision we make at Floodgate, I’m always trying to think about the opposite side of an argument. I try to live that.