Olivia Gaudree of Fuel Venture Capital: “Mentoring alone is not enough”

We have to stop leaving intellectual capital on the floor, regardless of gender, race, pronouns. We have to look outside the historical picture of what a VC employee looks like. We need to be open-minded enough to look at the minds beyond the physical appearance of body and gender. As part of my series about “the […]

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We have to stop leaving intellectual capital on the floor, regardless of gender, race, pronouns. We have to look outside the historical picture of what a VC employee looks like. We need to be open-minded enough to look at the minds beyond the physical appearance of body and gender.

As part of my series about “the five things we need to do to close the VC gender gap” I had the pleasure of interviewing Olivia Gaudree. She is grateful for the mentorship she has enjoyed from a number of people throughout her life, and is acutely aware of this as a principal vehicle that guided her to the influential position she finds herself in today, as Core Analyst at Fuel Venture Capital.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” that brought you to this career path?

I was born into an entrepreneurial family and, from a really young age, witnessed how my grandfather and father would build entire businesses from scratch. This fueled my interest in self-starter types who went on to dream up big ideas and work hard to realize them. I knew that I wanted to do something in business.

Once I got to high school, I noticed most of my classmates drilling down in AP classes and building resumes of extracurricular activities to build impressive — but traditional — college CVs. I wanted to stand out. I took AP courses and excelled at them, and was involved in some extracurriculars, but I also applied for — and ultimately earned — internship positions at investment management firms in my hometown, while still in high school. I went to intern at Blue Shores Capital, a boutique hedge fund in Boca Raton, for three consecutive summers.

That environment and the mentorship I received there, along with a summer internship at Thomson Reuters in New York City while I was in University, taught me skills I never would’ve picked up in AP classes or on the debate team. They were crucial stepping stones to the role I have and cherish today at Fuel Venture Capital, which has grown to become one of the largest and most active VC funds in the Southeastern United States. Today, my most important mentor is Maggie Vo, who leads our investment strategy as Chief Investment Officer (and Managing General Partner) of Fuel Venture Capital. As a successful female VC who took me under her wing since the first day we met, she’s become one of the most important figures in my career.

Can you share a story of your most successful Angel or VC investment? In your opinion, what was its main lesson?

As part of the investment team at Fuel, I am intimately aware of the details that go into due diligence and the selection process of the companies that ultimately will make their way into the fund.

We are really proud of how our founders have shown leadership through the pandemic, weathering the hyper-challenging conditions that cropped up basically overnight with agility and grace. It’s a cliché, but the lesson I learned, by witnessing the madness firsthand, is that success during a normal economy is good, but success in tough times is what ultimately decides the fate of startups.

Many of our portfolio companies have seen exponential growth riding the digital tech adoption trend that took hold once traditional businesses had to close because of the pandemic, pushing late adopters to try services like ghost kitchens for the first time. But not all startups have been as fortunate, and our theory is that that’s because they didn’t pivot at the right time or move as quickly as they should’ve when things turned bad in March.

Can you share a story of an Angel or VC funding “failure” of yours? Is there a lesson or take away that you took out of that that our readers can learn from?

Luckily, my VC career to date hasn’t registered any big mistakes I’d qualify as “failures.” Nonetheless, I find it hard to label anything an outright failure because I try to live by a philosophy that views challenges as opportunities and what people call “failures,” I consider growth and lessons. It’s important to keep that kind of glass-half-full perspective in any career, especially one as turbulent as VC.

But in an attempt to answer the question at least somewhat, I’ll say this: One of our portfolio companies is currently facing some major risks and difficulties because of the pandemic. They’re in the live-events space, which has taken a huge hit. The cancellation of large gatherings and indefinite postponements of various events have led to some deals falling through, or facing major hurdles. But while the wind is currently not blowing in their favor, we don’t consider them a failure. We’re using this as an opportunity to be creative, agile and supportive.

We helped them find ways to reduce their burn rate and maximize capital efficiency, so we’re now looking at a longer runway than we were five months ago. That’s a significant victory.

From a VC fund´s perspective, we have applied a phase-investment approach, where we invest capital in phases, which are triggered when a company reaches predetermined KPIs. This approach serves us well in the current covid environment because it reduces our downside risk.

Was there a company that you turned down, but now regret? Can you share the story? What lesson did you learn from that?

Fuel Venture Capital fund follows a very structured and comprehensive, rigorous due diligence process. So honestly, no — I don’t have any regrets about companies we declined to invest in.

But when passing on investment opportunities, we make sure to maintain a good relationship with the founders. There are many factors that lead us to ultimately decline investment. But that doesn’t mean that we won’t reassess a company in the future.

Ok let’s jump to the main focus of our interview. According to this article in Fortune, only 2.2% of VC dollars went to women in 2018. Can you share with our readers what your firm is doing to help close the VC gender gap?

It’s not a coincidence that capital raised by women mirrors their representation in venture capital firms. Women really can’t have a seat at the table if they are not in the room. So at Fuel Venture Capital what we do is we hire, mentor, and promote women internally and invest in woman-led firms. I would not be here if the firm did not actively look to support, hire and promote women. The competition for my position was intense. I was up against really intelligent, experienced analysts with impressive resumes.

I say with confidence that I was not hired simply because I’m a woman. If a better, male candidate was up against me, he likely would’ve gotten the position. But I know I was given proper consideration among the pool of applicants, despite my gender, which unfortunately is not the reality all women in VC face.

Can you recommend 5 things that need to be done on a broader societal level to close the VC gender gap. Please share a story or example for each.

At a macro level, it’s really important to mentor young girls, early on — from elementary school forward. It’s hard to aspire to something if no one is encouraging you and nurturing your curiosity and interests. There are a lot of communities today, such as FemmeStreet and Female Founders Alliance, that help to support women entrepreneurs, founders, and other types of businesswomen.

But mentoring alone is not enough. It is vital to encourage investment in STEM programs that are geared towards girls. Once they are in the pipeline with the right educational tools and are being actively mentored, it’s a much easier step to actively recruit women in decision-making positions.

Law firms, accounting firms and investment firms have done many studies to determine the reason they lose great woman employees. In the end, it boils down to: Life gets messy and complicated, especially when kids are involved. Even during the pandemic, women have carried more of the burden of childcare over their partners. A firm’s ability to navigate the personal complexities of high valued employees is crucial.

Allowing employees to work from home, both male and female, is a great start. COVID has put us on a fast-track to home offices, but I think that we need to continue to have the flexibility to harness the brilliant minds of great people, regardless of their personal lives.

We have to stop leaving intellectual capital on the floor, regardless of gender, race, pronouns. We have to look outside the historical picture of what a VC employee looks like. We need to be open-minded enough to look at the minds beyond the physical appearance of body and gender.

The last point would be a better measurement of data on diversity in the VC and startup ecosystem. We can’t truly begin to analyze the space when it comes to diversity and women when we don’t have tracking of the current scenario. Really digging into the numbers and focusing on specific verticals from a regional and global level, will help us understand what the numbers are telling us.

You are a person of great 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. 🙂

We know by looking at the numbers that more women are graduating now than ever before, outpacing men. So we know skilled women are out there. We also know through studies conducted by Goldman Sachs and Columbia University that companies that employ a large number of women outperform their competitors on every measure. So why are there not more women in VC?

It’s very clear, given the statistics, that women’s competence is proven. So why the disconnect? Part of the answer lies in the confidence gap. Confidence has remained elusive for many women and it has held a lot of women back. The gap that separates the sexes represents a unique challenge for women. Because we are less confident in general in our abilities, we tend to not pursue ambitious opportunities. An internal study by HP showed that, when they looked to get more women in top management positions, they found that the women would only apply when they felt they met 100% of the qualifications, whereas, for men, the ratio fell to 60%.

The thing is, confidence can be acquired and it can be taught. The gap can definitely be closed. You have to recognize your own relationship with confidence and work forward. It is not easy but it is something that is attainable and achievable. Supportive firms, co-workers and mentors go a long way to fortifying your confidence. Building your confidence does not mean you will not have failures. But does mean you can weather those failures and allow yourself to learn from them.

A lot of people enter VC once they have years, even decades of experience in a particular sector or vertical. What I did have, and still do today, is the confidence that allowed me to aim high. Learning quickly along with the solid mentorship that I get, gives me the confidence to keep pushing higher. Confidence to take the opportunities presented leads to the organic output of experience.

Teaching women to have confidence in their current and future intelligence and abilities is crucial. That’s the movement I would like to start, promoting women’s confidence and encouraging them to take risks, urging young women to join competitive teams at schools, to take leadership roles, and to take internships as early as they can. To put themselves out there, that’s the key to the future of women.

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

“There is always another angle.” Just look for the angles. You may be the only one who sees it so explore it and run with it.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I didn’t choose a female entrepreneur or someone from the VC ecosystem, but I did pick a woman who is in a prominent position. Gwen Ifill, the moderator and managing editor of Washington Week and co-anchor and co-managing editor with Judy Woodruff of the PBS NewsHour, is someone I really admire. She was the first at many things, and she really laid the groundwork for women, especially for women of color.

Gwen was visible to young girls who saw someone who looked like them and she gave back to the community by mentoring, encouraging and promoting women in journalism. I admire that, while her journey was marked by significant racism and sexism, she was able to persevere. We can all find inspiration in that.

This was really meaningful! Thank you so much for your time.

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