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“Have a good understanding of your strengths.” with Penny Bauder & Vanessa Liu

Another myth I’d like to dispel is that women aren’t starting businesses — we are. The way I like to look at this is, how do we help these women get their businesses to a scalable level? But, this is not just a job for women to help other women. Men need to be allies […]

Another myth I’d like to dispel is that women aren’t starting businesses — we are. The way I like to look at this is, how do we help these women get their businesses to a scalable level? But, this is not just a job for women to help other women. Men need to be allies to women in tech — that is absolutely critical.


Vanessa Liu is the VP of SAP.iO, a global organization responsible for building an ecosystem of startups around SAP. In her role, she is overseeing SAP.iO’s North American Foundries in New York and San Francisco, including programs devoted to women and diverse-led B2B enterprise tech companies.

Vanessa was most recently the Chief Operating Officer at Trigger Media Group, a $22MM digital media incubator. In her role, she co-founded, incubated and oversaw business operations and strategic initiatives of Trigger’s portfolio companies: InsideHook (the essential digital lifestyle guide for adventurous and discerning men) and Fevo (SaaS technology bringing friends and networks together for group experiences at live events). Vanessa currently serves as a board observer of Fevo and is an advisor or investor in start-ups including Bounce Exchange, Grata Data, GroundSignal, Knotel and Narrativ. She mentors female founders through Declare’s Lead Program.

Previously, Vanessa was an Associate Partner at McKinsey & Company’s Media and Entertainment Practice, based in Amsterdam, London and New York. In this role, Vanessa was responsible for serving clients in a variety of media and high tech sectors including online advertising, magazine and newspaper publishing, television, video content production, and information services, particularly on issues of digital media strategy, emerging market strategy, growth and innovation. Vanessa graduated magna cum laude with an AB in psychology from Harvard University and cum laude with a JD from Harvard Law School. She was a Fulbright Scholar at Universiteit Utrecht in the Netherlands where she conducted independent research on the International War Crimes Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and the International Court of Justice. She serves as Vice President, College Alumni Affairs, of the Harvard Alumni Association.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Ihave always been inspired by innovation — from the age of 12 through my senior year in college, I actually wanted to be an astronaut and spent much of my adolescent life learning about science and innovation that way. In college, I switched gears and decided to go into law, doing research on the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and going to law school. However, I realized very quickly that addressing atrocities years after the fact wasn’t satisfying. I wanted to be a part of the solution in terms of economic development and to prevent these atrocities from ever happening in the first place. So, I started working for McKinsey and went into management consulting. On my third project, I was staffed on a digital media project. I was tasked with helping my client launch a new free internet service provider for the Dutch market. We had 6 months to create a business plan and to launch the service. I was immediately hooked. While at McKinsey, I worked with media companies — newspaper and magazine publishers, broadcasters, information services companies — where I crafted their digital plans and launched new businesses for them.

After 8 years though, I realized I had outgrown my time at McKinsey. I didn’t want to give businesses back to clients to run; I wanted to continue running them myself. At a time when many would regard as least optimal to start a business — I had just moved back to NYC from London and delivered my second child — I teamed up with a business partner and we launched a venture startup studio, called Trigger Media. Over the course of 6 years, we co-founded two portfolio companies — InsideHook, a digital lifestyle publication for men 35–50; and Fevo, a platform that enables groups to purchase experiences together. As the co-founder and interim CEO of both companies at various moments, I realized firsthand how much more difficult it is for women and diverse entrepreneurs to get funding — not because they don’t have the ideas, but often because they don’t have access to the right networks. I joined SAP.iO because I wanted the opportunity to help other underrepresented founders gain the access they deserve to help propel their businesses forward.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

It’s been a great learning experience to work with 50 startups over the last two years. The most interesting stories are from those individuals who have grown by leaps and bounds through our programs. Many of the founders we work with are exceptionally skilled on the technical side but are hesitant to share why they are doing the work they are doing. For example, one of our founders was the first Latina engineer at Twitter. Every time she had a sales meeting, she would dive straight into her product, which is a platform that helps companies recruit more diverse candidates. We worked with her to tweak her sales pitch so that she could surface why it’s so important for companies to do this work based on her personal experience — and she immediately closed a couple of deals back to back. The ability to have impact in such a short time frame is incredibly rewarding.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

This wasn’t when I was first starting, but rather just 3 years ago. I was at a senior executive conference and mistook a well-known figure (who shall remain nameless) for an investor whom I had never met in person but expected to be the conference. He was extremely gracious, letting me launch into a five minute update on where the business was, before he said that he wasn’t my investor, but was interested in becoming one!

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

AtSAP.iO, we are focused on providing opportunity for underrepresented founders. The long-term trajectory of technology depends upon who is at the table when solutions are crafted. To be good stewards of technology, SAP has a duty to be particular about who we choose to work with. We need to be prepared to answer when we make technology better: better, how? And better, for whom?

The ability to both discover and support brilliant creators and entrepreneurs who have historically not been a part of the conversation is a game-changer. Often, access to opportunities is not always equal, which is what we provide. Take for example, what we have been doing with Jasmine Crowe, and her food waste management startup, Goodr. Through the Foundry, she now not only has SAP as a customer, but also several others she met during the course of the program. I can’t be prouder of what we’re doing with our founders.

With only 13% of U.S. venture funding going to companies with at least one female founder, we know that we have a role to play to surface innovation. This is why SAP has made a commitment — called No Boundaries — where 40% of the companies we fund or accelerate will focus on women and diverse entrepreneurs. Over the next 5 years, we will be working with over 500 startups, where at least 200 will be founded by underrepresented founders. What sets us apart, as we know some of our peer companies enable startups too, is that we are doing this at a completely different scale and with an inclusive lens.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

AtSAP.iO, we are always working on exciting new projects! We are continuously recruiting for future cohorts of our Foundries and increasing the breadth of industries and functional areas that are covered. Over the course of the coming months, we have upcoming cohorts in retail innovation tech for NYC and travel tech for SF. There is so much potential within those spaces as they represent areas where each and every one of us are eventually end consumers, and our customers are asking for innovations that will improve the experience for all. I am always looking forward to meeting the founders of the startups we are going to be working with, and to be able to see how they can impact our customers while they embark on the hockey stick of growth.

We are also gearing up to host a women-in-enterprise-tech summit in partnership with Work-Bench this spring. We are very much looking forward to the opportunity to inspire many women founders — it’s a growing cadre!

Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

Absolutely not! I think there is definitely more awareness now when it comes to the lack of women who have opportunity to funding, but in order to make a difference, it is about continentally working to provide access to female founders, not only at the early stages, but for later as of Series A and beyond. In the U.S. alone, there are close to 13MM female-founded companies, but only 1.7% generate over $1MM in revenue — this shows that there isn’t a pipeline issue, but a scale issue. These women are not getting access to the funding and networks they deserve, and I am passionate about changing that.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

Inmy opinion, something I’ve noticed more in women than in men in STEM or Tech, is that we as women tend to be shyer when it comes to talking about our accomplishments. Men are quite open about sharing their successes but women tend to hold back, preferring to let the work speak for themselves but often times it isn’t noticed or recognized or worse yet, someone else takes the credit. This leads to situations where many women have to prove themselves continuously. Women should get more comfortable sharing successes and amplifying each other — put yourself out there and discuss your work. You never know what might come of it.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?

One myth I’d like to dispel is that it’s rare to be a woman in tech. There are plenty of women currently working to get into the field, and a record number of women are graduating with careers in STEM. The belief that it’s a rarity for a woman to work in tech is outdated.

Another myth I’d like to dispel is that women aren’t starting businesses — we are. The way I like to look at this is, how do we help these women get their businesses to a scalable level? But, this is not just a job for women to help other women. Men need to be allies to women in tech — that is absolutely critical.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Have a good understanding of your strengths: ask your peers, your managers, your reports, friends and loved ones what you are good at. Using your strengths is a foundation for leadership success.
  2. Make the ask: many women, myself included, are hesitant to ask for help — so as not to be perceived as pushy or because we are ingrained at a young age not to focus on ourselves. I remember accepting the salary level of my first job, on the spot — without ever questioning if it was fair. I found out years later that many of my male peers asked for more and received it — it was there for the taking!
  3. Get perspective so you can be strategic: Most founders often overlook how partnerships with corporates can provide a critical distribution channel that can be a gamechanger. We enable our startups to plug into our customer base of 400,000+; having the ability to be strategic and look for these types of opportunities can mean the difference between success or failure.
  4. Shape your success: Believe in your ability and visualize what success can look like — this will make you laser focused on what you need to do to succeed. Jasmine Crowe, whom I mentioned earlier, is a master at this — she once put it out on Twitter that she was going to find a way to develop a partnership with Google. With that tweet, she got a connection through one of her followers and is now in talks with them on a pilot!
  5. Bring your whole self to work: I used to compartmentalize work separate from my personal life, but over the years, I’ve realized that it’s an asset to show that I’m a working mother. I don’t try to hide it or make excuses; in fact, I know that it’s inspiring to bring that part of me to the workplace. All of our founders have met my children!

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

Give your team the space to be creative. Show how meaningful it is to fail, and to learn from those mistakes, so that there isn’t a fear of failure. Make sure your physical space is set up to encourage serendipitous conversations.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Ihave two pieces of advice on this. First, create opportunities for people on the team to become leaders themselves — this not only means a meaty role, but also providing the support so that they can learn the ropes to be good managers themselves.

Second, be open to showing the team that you sometimes need help too. It’s powerful to let your team members know where you are vulnerable and how they can engage with you. Being authentic and bringing your whole self to work allows you to drive at deeper relationships with each and every one of your team members.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Absolutely — there are many in my life but two especially come to mind from my earlier career with McKinsey. Wendy Becker and Menno van Dijk were my mentors during my time there, and still inspire me. They not only helped me while I was at McKinsey but have been sponsors to me in life. They have opened doors for me and pounded tables to get me in front of the right opportunities.

Separately, I also am extremely grateful towards the late astronaut Dave Walker who was my first mentor. I had the fortune to meet him when I was 14 years old, when he led a NASA / Young Astronauts student delegation I was a part of to what was then the USSR. For years afterwards until his passing in 2001, he always checked in on me, faxing me (this was back in the day of faxes!) congratulatory notes when he heard about my accomplishments. While in college, he was the commander of several space shuttle missions and always made it a point to have me join his family to watch the launches. He not only inspired me but was continually invested in my education and made sure that I followed my dreams. Whenever I’m reflecting on my career, I often ask myself, “What would Dave think? Would this make him proud?”

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I feel as though there is so much left to do — but my focus area is to help innovative leaders who are traditionally underrepresented in finding access to the opportunities that they deserve. To date, I have worked with over 50 different founders and their companies, and I want to increase that by tenfold (within the next year!).

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Like many others, the topic of climate change is top of mind for me. I recently saw Olafur Eliasson’s exhibit and images of his Ice Watch project where he brought large glacial ice blocks from Greenland to city centers including Paris and London to tangibly show the experience of melting ice. Coming out of that exhibit, I thought, what If we could get each public school in the US to do a similar experiment with large blocks of ice? I think this could potentially change the conversation we are currently having and encourage our representatives to take action.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“You can do anything you set your mind to.” I live by this, and wholeheartedly believe in it. As a founder, you have to have this optimism and conviction to get you through uncertainty and hard times. Nowadays, I pick up a new skill or dust off an old skill that needs polishing on an annual basis — this year, that happens to be weightlifting, something I never thought I could do well!

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Iwould choose Ruth Bader Ginsburg — she is an incredible jurist and has remained such a remarkable figure throughout her career. I would love to talk to her about her perspective of what future generations should tackle, and how we can continually inspire people so there can be more RBG’s in the world.

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