Laura Sachar (LS): Others have followed similar path but generally mine is different than the norm. I went to Barnard College, then was an investment banker, then a financial journalist, went back to business school, then I started an advisory firm that had some success.  Next I started working in investing (GAMCO), which got me thinking about starting a fund and putting together a team that brought skills, experience and a point of view on strategy.  I started StarVest Partners in 1998 and started investing from the fund in 1999.  StarVest is a huge part of my career.  I had identified investing in internet and digital media early on as a huge opportunity.  To date I have invested in over 50 BTB companies- generally mid-phase companies.  We are generally on the Board and very active with each company.  We gain experience as we go.  

What led me to start my own?  I had the passion for starting a venture capital (VC) firm- I’d built some relationships with my previous experience, and I had a vision of where the world was going so I was able to put that all together.  There was a lot of buzz and excitement about the internet, which created an opportunity to explore that from an investment side. The opportunity was there, I just needed to see it and take it. By starting my own fund, I was in a position to make the investment choices.  I saw it as the most direct path to being able to execute on my vision and bring together the right partners.  

I founded StarVest with my partner Debbie Farrington. Her experience was more traditional with business services companies.  I had experience in internet, and the combination of these areas expertise was powerful.  Relationships were vital to me getting off the ground- For example, I was introduced me to the law firm that helped me launch the fund, and they didn’t take payment until after the fund was launched, which was obviously was extremely helpful.

“By starting my own fund, I was in a position to make the investment choices.  I saw it as the most direct path to being able to execute on my vision and bring together the right partners.”

How have you seen the technology space change since 1998?

There’s a lot more discussion about the woman angle now than when I started.  There have never been a lot of women in the industry, but it gets more focus and discussion now. Academia needs to focus on attracting women to STEM.  I’ve had experiences interviewing women who took only the most difficult curriculum, which then limited their interview potential. We need to build awareness in academia on how to get women to take the right courses, ace interviews, and generally compete with the larger pools of male candidates. Investing, and specifically tech investing is still certainly a male dominated industry.  There haven’t been any major changes in the makeup of the faces/voices in the room since I started in the industry.

“Investing, and specifically tech investing is still certainly a male dominated industry. There haven’t been any major changes in the makeup of the faces/voices in the room since I started in the industry.”

Any differences/challenges/opportunities you see with Cybersecurity compared to the rest of the technology companies you work with?

Veracode was the most significant one we’ve worked with- Bob Brennan was the CEO, and we’d worked with him before.  They had and still have a lot of female senior execs.  I give that credit to Bob- he recognized talent at the company and developed it (Sam King) and recruited other senior executive women.  One example is Sam King, who was developed up through the ranks and now is the General Manager of Veracode. 

We had myself and another woman on the board, which is also rare. We had a very well-functioning board, with good rapport and relationships. Everyone was very respectful of each other, with good communication, and decisions made in a responsible and efficient manner. When looking to bring on a new board member or senior executive, certainly the most important thing is to look for the right mix of skills and experience. From management to the board, there were so many talented women involved.

What would you say to a CEO who has read the data but doesn’t know why he should hire women….

The reason I do what I do is to work with talented people.  I like to think the CEO’s we work with are like-minded in that they want to work with the most talented people.  But if someone I was working with didn’t understand the importance of diverse voices around the table, I might help them expand on their understanding of how important culture is at the company.  Most CEO’s understand that, and consider themselves responsible for/stewards of the culture. 

The best CEO’s focus on and shape culture, and know that good culture doesn’t just happen. Bringing in more women at the top is one important way to send messages into their company about what’s important and the type of culture the CEO may want to build.  And that message becomes empowering to the rest of the org to make changes.  Tone at the top really matters.  You can talk about it with leaders all you want, but it’s my observation that the best ones really understand it and focus on it in their work, not just talk about it.

“if someone I was working with didn’t understand the importance of diverse voices… I might help them expand on their understanding of how important culture is….The best CEO’s focus on and shape culture, and know that good culture doesn’t just happen….Tone at the top really matters. ”

Can you describe a bit what it’s been like for you (maybe through time) of being a woman on the investing side?

I’ve been focused on doing what I have to do.  As it relates to managing my work/life balance, I just have made sure I have the support in place to do what I need to do well.  All the roles in my life are important, so just need to make sure I can do the best I can in all aspects.  

I think because we are a women-owned VC, that has been helpful to make sure we can attract strong CEO’s who know what they are getting and our track record stands for itself in terms of the companies we choose to work with.  

What advice would you give to a newcomer on being a woman in a male-dominated profession (tech or investing)?

Still today, we have the opportunity to stand out because there are fewer of us in the room, so we still sometimes feel like we have the pressure that we need to “do better” with our performance. Realize that there are things that happen in a room that are related to there being fewer women in a room that you need to be able to just accept and proceed forward.  

Any difference over time in Women founders?

Because we are in BTB (business-to-business), we haven’t noticed any difference.  Perhaps if we were in BTC (business-to-consumer), we probably would have noticed it.  Because we are focused on the mid phase, we haven’t seen much difference with women or men in their ability to raise money, probably because by the time they get to us, they’ve already proven their track record.

What do you think about the “women’s initiatives” that are popular these days- helpful or not?

They sound great in theory, but it depends on the program.  If it truly finds talented women and gets them experience in PE (private equity) or VC, then I think it’s terrific because sometimes for a variety of reasons women don’t always get that exposure.  One trick is finding women who are the right caliber, because otherwise it’s not helpful.  Anything that helps support smart women to get access is great. In college I didn’t know what all the career paths were and if there was a program that would have helped me get exposure to that, it would have been very helpful.  

What would you like to see happen, or what solutions have you seen, that will help us move towards greater diversity (gender diversity specifically).

Having two or more women on the board or on the exec team changes the dynamic and it’s a positive change.  Diversity at the top really does matter.  

My Takeaways

Laura’s story of being a female funder complements the last edition of Jen Andre’s founder story. Like Jen, Laura possesses a clear-eyed understanding of the power and financial dynamics at play when it comes to inclusion of women in the industry.  She forged her own path early on, and by starting her own fund, has been able to call the shots. She’s leveraged this from decisions on who she invests in, her relationship with her portfolio companies, and balancing her personal life. It strikes me that, like Jen, this unique path seems to have wrought a well-earned confidence. I was hopeful that Laura would tell me things are improving since she started 20 years ago, but unfortunately, she hasn’t seen any major shifts in the representation of female leadership at tech startups.  She was frank about the need for women to be aware of the challenges and develop additional skills to manage to this reality. Most importantly, she highlighted ensuring that there’s a strong commitment to an inclusive culture and tone at the CEO and Board levels.  

In my experience, these are critical factors- we’ll talk more about culture and inclusion in our upcoming stories. Hope you enjoyed this edition of CyberStories, and a big thanks to Laura for sharing her story!

  • Use your skills, industry knowledge and instinct to identify an opportunity. Combine these to forge your own career path, even if “non-traditional”.
  • Relationships are vital to success- develop and leverage them both in your external network, and within a company.  
  • Tone at the top really matters- look for companies with diversity at the management and board levels.
  • If you are in a position to work with someone to improve diversity and inclusion, try explaining the impact as it relates to company culture in order to increase others’ understanding.
  • The best CEO’s take seriously their stewardship role in the culture of a company and believe that inclusion is part of this role.  Look for this specifically when evaluating an opportunity.
  • Make sure you have structures in place that acknowledge and support the many roles you may have in your personal and professional life.