Changing the Game, Rewriting the VC Playbook with Inclusion as Its Core Tenant
“This is a game shift — it’s never been done before, but you’ve got to start from the very beginning,” says Caroline Lewis (Class 24). Together with managers at two other funds — both Kauffman Fellows Mac Conwell (Class 26) and Gale Wilkinson (Class 23) — the trio has created a new investment entity meant to increase access to the VC asset class. The innovative model ensures that smaller, accredited investors, who are likely women and other underrepresented individuals in venture, can still participate even as the fund size grows.
Over the years, Kauffman Fellows have heralded new ways of raising and deploying venture capital funds. From the first DAO for professional VCs to Silicon Valley’s first VC fund consisting of 100% Black LPs, the investors in our network have consistently challenged the status quo of the industry with a willingness to look for the non-obvious, seek connections where there seemingly are none, and ask, “What if?”
In the latest instance, three Fellows are building an opportunity anchored in inclusion and access–allowing those who can’t typically meet venture capital fund minimums to access all three of their funds with one accessible investment commitment. Read: smaller investors can now contribute to large funds in a way that’s not been possible before.
We sat down with Caroline Lewis (Rogue Women’s Fund), Mac Conwell (RareBreed Ventures), and Gale Wilkinson (VITALIZE Venture Capital) to learn more about their partnership which allows accredited investors to invest in multiple VC funds with a minimum of only $10K per year commitment.
Q: Lightning intro round! Can each of you please give us the elevator pitch version of who you are and what your fund is focused on?
Mac Conwell and Rarebreed Ventures invest in amazing entrepreneurs thinking outside the box to spur innovation in areas traditionally lacking innovation. Through a $40M pre-seed and seed stage fund, Rarebreed pairs invested capital with dynamic founders in traditionally underserved geographic markets to drive outsized returns.
Caroline Lewis and Rogue Women’s Fund lead early seed-stage investments in women-led tech companies. Focused on identifying rockstar female founders in undercapitalized markets, Rogue’s $30M fund supports portfolio companies through active board participation, a sizable check up front, and a co-investor network developed over 10 years to help growing companies scale.
Gale Wilkinson and VITALIZE Venture Capital invest in people-first, data-driven software businesses that drive seismic transformations in the future of work. Through a two-vehicle model of a 400+ member angel syndicate and a $35M seed stage fund, VITALIZE backs founders who are leading the “Work Revolution,” providing active support with hiring assistance and investor relationships.
Q: Congrats on the new entity. What were the main motivations for getting this off the ground?
Caroline: One of the key tenants of the Rogue Women’s Fund is that 50% of our investors identify as women and nonbinary. In Fund I, our LP base was 65% women of which 90% had never invested in this asset class. As a fund gets larger you can’t accept checks under the typical minimum of $250K/$500K. I wanted to find a way to continue to encourage women to invest and be able to accept a small “entry point” check. I’m lucky Gale and Mac shared a similar vision, and I can partner with two GPs and firms I highly respect, with strong track records, and whom I inherently trust through our Kauffman Fellows connection.
Together we are building the pipeline of future investors who represent the fabric of our society.
Mac: Fundraising isn’t the same for everyone. There’s no straight line; there’s no standard playbook. There are other ways to go about fundraising–you just have to get creative. There are ways to create access to the broader population of accredited investors who may not be able to hit a lot of the minimums for these larger size funds, but you can still fit them in and demonstrate how powerful creating access can be in this asset class.
Q: To backtrack for a second, what are the current ways to get into early-stage investing?
Gale: If you want to get into early-stage investing, your options are still limited. You can be an angel investor or go to crowdfunding, but unless you have a robust network, access, and knowledge, it’s going to be challenging, and you will need a sizable investment pool to create a good portfolio size.
More mature, managed investments with a track record are out of reach unless you have a minimum of $250K. Our opportunity provides this access and sophistication.
Q: Why is VC such an enormous opportunity? What’s the market size?
Gale: VC is a $330B dollar industry. Although only about 2% of all US businesses are “VC backable” in any given year, this small industry has an outsized impact; venture-backed public companies are responsible for 21% of US GDP, 82% of total US R&D spend, and 38% of public sector employees. Since the 1970s, over 43% of all public companies were VC-backed, and over 60% of all public tech companies were VC-backed. If you have the means and you’re not investing in the private sector, you’re leaving money on the table.
Q: What changes would you like to see long-term in the industry regarding raising and deploying capital in VC?
Mac: We would love to see policy change, where we can see the seat limit for venture funds be significantly higher. That way as we grow our fund, and as we look to have a diverse pool of LPs, we’re not hamstrung by only going to pension funds and endowments. For example, I would love to be able to go to the people who were in Fund I (which was a $10M fund) and still be able to participate when I’m on Fund IV (which is maybe a $500M fund). The impact with their dollars may not be as much, but they may still want to be a part of what we’re building. They may want to be a part of what we’re growing and be able to have that in their investment portfolio. The way the rules are today there are very few ways to go about it.
What we’re doing together the three of us is creating a playbook for others to create that access.
Caroline: Incentives are slightly misaligned at an institutional investor level since often consultants and investment teams are rewarded short-term on portfolio value rather than the longer-term return on capital. This incentivizes firms to get bigger, drive up valuations, and chase name brands/and “hot deals” rather than maintain discipline in portfolio construction and focus on investing in companies with solid business fundamentals that will return capital. If you’re a fund or founder at all outside of this cycle, it is more challenging for you to get funding. Despite best efforts, institutional investors and fund of funds will always struggle to invest in the underdog GP on Funds I-III, despite knowing that these funds historically have the highest returns on capital. We not only want to reward the institutions that back us, but also reward individuals who are just now breaking into venture.
We can’t change the cycle unless we focus on changing the key inputs and outputs. Each of our funds, and this unique opportunity, is a small but significant step in shifting the industry.
When you start to have people who are diverse in this industry writing the checks whether it’s on the GP side or whether it’s on the LP side, that’s when you really start to change the game and change the cycle.
You can’t change the game with the same people. You have to get different teammates — on the entrepreneur side, on the GP side, on the check writer side.
Q: When you think about “changing the game,” what are the key elements to the current “rules” that need to change or must be in place in order to create a more equitable venture ecosystem?
Gale: We first need more under-represented funders (both individuals and institutional LPs) to write checks to under-represented GPs. Data shows that under-represented GPs are at least 3x more likely to invest in under-represented founders. So the first step is diversifying LP capital, which will eventually flow through to under-represented founders who currently receive a very small piece of the funding pie.
Q: Aside from access, what are the other value propositions for investors?
Caroline: One investment allows the investor to invest in all three incredible funds equally. They get diverse and emerging managers (all Kauffman Fellows), on Fund IIs, with different theses, at slightly different stages, and capturing different fund vintages. They have a professionally managed portfolio of 60+ start-ups from around the US. We are investing at the earliest stages in founders and in geos that the larger funds are too big to access — and combined we create a massive portfolio.
Q: How has your involvement in Kauffman Fellows aided in developing this new entity and your thinking behind it?
Caroline: It takes a lot of trust when partnering with other GPs when each fund is at least a 10-year commitment, and there are quite a few legal and technical details to work through on the backend of creating this investment vehicle. What we’re doing hasn’t been done before.
Kauffman Fellows pushes each of us to be inclusive, think creatively, build and invest with integrity, and learn from and leverage one another to build and innovate the VC ecosystem. Not only did we meet at Kauffman Fellows, but we have an inherent trust in one another, the success of our firms, and dedication to being good fiduciaries. Most importantly, we strive to be good humans while being the best possible investors. This wouldn’t have been possible without Kauffman Fellows.
When your desire for success is grounded in values and service, it brings about creativity and tenacity that every industry is in need of. The venture industry is still operating largely how it’s always operated and perpetuating the same cycle. There is a massive opportunity to bring new entrants, fund different types of founders and companies, and build the wealth of individuals that better represent the makeup of the US society.
This is a game shift, but you’ve got to start from the very beginning.
Other links and recent press:
- Catch Mac, Caroline, and Gale in a recent webinar where they introduce themselves and answer questions.
- Interested in becoming an LP? Indicate your interest here.
- Mac Conwell’s RareBreed Ventures uses innovative partnership to help raise $40M VC fund via Baltimore Journal.
- Rogue Women’s Fund teams with two others in unique fundraising model for hefty Fund II via Portland Journal.