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When Sara Adler started looking for a new career, she had relevant VC experience and high profile corporate development roles at Facebook, Dropbox and Airbnb. Getting an offer from a top VC firm wasn’t the main challenge: the conversation around gender discrimination has most VCs looking to bring in a woman. In Adler’s case, the issue would be the terms of the offer.
Right now women even in positions of influence and leadership struggle with pay gaps, largely blamed on women’s negotiation skills in the hiring process. So when Adler sat across from a general partner with less experience, offering her a title two rungs below his own, she walked out and helped start her own VC firm, Wave Capital. We sat down with Adler to talk about her journey building a seed fund.
Emily Joffrion: With women like Mary Meeker and Aileen Lee starting their own funds, it feels like a lot of women are opting to pave their own way instead of joining a firm. Why did you decide to go this route?
Sara Adler: Right now diversity and inclusion is a huge conversation in venture, so many of these firms are looking to hire a women. Just one, though. And my case, big firms were still trying to justify bringing me in on a lower level even after a very successful career in venture and corporate development.
When you are being offered less than you’re worth out of the gate and coming in as one woman out of 15, it’s hard to change that culture. There are more women taking that step and being that first women and I applaud them. That work is critical. But I didn’t want to join a culture that was already set. I wanted to start something from scratch and build the firm’s cultural identity in a way that reflected my values.
Joffrion: How does someone start a VC fund? How did you get started?
Adler: It’s not dissimilar to starting a company: you have an idea that meets a specific market need and you find people who like to work together who have a diverse set of skills and experience. We saw an opportunity to be a close partner to early stage marketplace founders and found investors who believed in us and our vision. Once we felt conviction that our approach would be differentiated, we were all-in on figuring out the way forward. There was no turning back. It’s that same kind of conviction we look for in the founders we back.
Joffrion: What else makes a successful founding team?
Adler: I think about culture as the fingerprint of the founders on a business. What they value informs everything they do. At our stage and at the stage of the seed companies we advise, having founders that complement each other is critical. You look at skills, experience, passions, temperament — all of the factors contribute to the culture.
That was a big part of what drew me to start Wave with my two partners, Riley Newman and David Rosenthal. It was clear to me early on that we brought different skills to our partnership. Contrasting my corporate development background, Riley built Airbnb’s data science team from the ground up and has an appreciation for what it’s like to build an early stage company. David came from the venture industry, bringing with him a deep understanding and passion for how to build a venture firm.
Joffrion: How have you balanced starting a venture capital firm with motherhood?
Adler: When I decided to start Wave with my two partners, I was 7 months pregnant with my second child. I was nervous to leave a great position at Airbnb where I had maternity leave, but my partners helped me see that we, as founders, get to set the tone for how we want to balance work and family life. We create the policies that reflect our values. We chose to all take equal amounts of parental leave and support each other to be more balanced and supportive of our families.
Joffrion: What’s the biggest lesson you learned in building Wave Capital?
Adler: When you start something instead of joining something, you trade infrastructure for ownership. That can be hard in the beginning. It means you do everything from putting furniture together to making a pitch deck for an LP meeting. It also means we set the culture. How we make decisions, the type of founders we want to work with, the brand we’re building, that’s on us too. I have to admit, I don’t love all parts that come with setting up our infrastructure. But the feeling of being a true owner in this is something I wouldn’t trade for anything.
March 5, 2019 at 09:35AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs