Shad Azimi: “Putting yourself in a position in which you can reach your full potential”

In our consumer venture fund, every investment we make has what we call an ESY component. Better for Environment, better for Society, and better for You. My firm’s principles are centered around investing in mission-driven companies focused on social good. Finding talented visionaries is only the beginning. Our job is to build an ecosystem around these […]

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In our consumer venture fund, every investment we make has what we call an ESY component. Better for Environment, better for Society, and better for You.

My firm’s principles are centered around investing in mission-driven companies focused on social good. Finding talented visionaries is only the beginning. Our job is to build an ecosystem around these entrepreneurs that allows them to take actionable steps in order to transform great ideas into businesses that make meaningful impacts on this planet.

As a part of our series about “Social Impact Investors”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Shad Azimi, Founder and Managing Partner of Vanterra Capital.

Shad is a Managing Partner and the Founder of Vanterra Capital, a leading venture and private equity firm. He has more than 20 years of investment experience with a successful track record in the Consumer, Sustainability, and Health & Wellness sectors. Vanterra’s Accelerator Fund is a dedicated fund launched to specifically focus on utilizing the firm’s unique capabilities to help mission-driven consumer companies scale and drive meaningful change.

Prior to founding Vanterra Capital, Shad was a Principal at GoldPoint Partners, a 15 billion dollars private equity program. He received his B.S. with dual concentrations in Finance and International Business with Honors from the McIntire School of Commerce at the University of Virginia. He earned his MBA as a Beta Gamma Sigma graduate from Columbia Business School.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

My mom always wanted me to be a doctor. It’s always considered an honorable and noble profession, but it was never my calling. I was even pre-med my first year in college until I passed out while dissecting a fetal pig in Biology 101. I failed out of that class, transferred to the business school, and immediately loved it. I learned early on that you have to pursue what you are passionate about.

Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?

In my first job out of college, I was working at a prestigious investment bank. The firm had a big presentation and I was in charge of putting together the pitchbook. I worked non-stop for five days straight; I was so sleep deprived that I was practically hallucinating. I finished the pitchbook mere hours before the flight, so I picked up the books from the printer, jumped in a car, and jetted to the airport to catch my flight. Six hours later, I landed and went straight into the meeting where all of the partners of my firm were already seated in front of the clients. They were relieved to see me… until everyone opened the pitchbook to page one, which was blank. So was page two and three and every other page in the book. I flew six hours to hand out a pitchbook presentation with 60 blank pages. Needless to say, my bosses were not happy.

So, if there is a lesson in that story, it’s this: always check your work before you walk into a meeting!

Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?

I’d say I reached a “tipping point” in my career when I finally started to trust my own investment style and instincts. Early in my career, I would try to emulate what others were doing and often ceded my judgment to those who had more experience or a deeper resume than mine at the time. Like most in the investment field, I would sometimes succumb to a herd mentality.

So, my advice would be to study as much as you can about the best in your respective industry and cultivate mentors. Success leaves clues. But ultimately, everyone needs to develop their own process and style that is true to who they really are. You need to have enough faith and trust in yourself to be willing to do what others are not. I think that will make you uniquely successful.

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

I’ve been fortunate to have several mentors during various stages of my career. These were folks within organizations that I sought out because they possessed something special that I wanted to learn from. Each mentor had a specific quality that I admired. They were either a charismatic leader who could motivate teams, deeply analytical, or had a superior decision-making process. In some cases, they simply had innate intuition and knew what questions to ask that would make or break a deal. So, I tried to learn different traits from different mentors and then synthesize those learnings into my own style.

But the mentor that I am most grateful for would be my father. He was in an entirely different industry, but he taught me work ethic, humility, and — most importantly — grit. On the day of my college graduation, he pulled me aside while I had my diploma in hand and he told me something that I take with me every day of my life. He said, “Son, there were circumstances in my life that required me to take the safe route — to follow a career path that was never my true calling because I had to provide for you and the family. But I did that so you would have the ability to take risks and do what you really love. Never compromise.”

You have been blessed with great success in a career path that many have attempted, but eventually gave up on. Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path but are afraid of the prospect of failure?

I think everyone’s definition of success is relative and deeply personal, but I would say that if you can achieve happiness in your career path, then monetary and other traditional definitions of success will naturally follow.

To me, success means achieving these three things (which I feel I now have):

  1. Surrounding yourself with people who inspire you and who you enjoy working with.
  2. Putting yourself in a position in which you can reach your full potential.
  3. Ensuring that you have ownership and equity in what you do. This can be equity in your company or it simply can be responsibility for a specific projection or group that you can greatly impact.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main part of our discussion. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share a few things that need to be done on a broader societal level to expand VC opportunities for women, minorities, and people of color?

I think VC investors gravitate toward people and opportunities that naturally come to them. This creates a repetitive and sometimes closed cycle that’s hard to break. In order to break this pattern, investors have to be willing to look outside their natural deal sourcing channels, but the pay-off is worth it. There is an enormous, untapped pool of women and people of color who are equally or more talented but have less access to traditional capital sources. So, not only it is the right thing to do, but it also leads to less competitive investment opportunities.

You are a VC who is focused on investments that are making a positive social impact. Can you share with us a bit about the projects and companies you have focused on, and look to focus on in the future?

In our consumer venture fund, every investment we make has what we call an ESY component. Better for Environment, better for Society, and better for You.

My firm’s principles are centered around investing in mission-driven companies focused on social good. Finding talented visionaries is only the beginning. Our job is to build an ecosystem around these entrepreneurs that allows them to take actionable steps in order to transform great ideas into businesses that make meaningful impacts on this planet.

What you are doing is not very common. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were going to focus on social impact investing? Can you share the story with us?

It was more of a process than a specific “aha” moment. This is still a relatively new asset class. Many people assume that social impact investing is very black and white; social impact investors evaluate a company and determine whether it’s doing good or not. But we believe it’s more of an ongoing process. Even after we make an investment, we have to constantly iterate with the company to continue making sure it’s finding ways to be better. We are constantly evolving and improving our model of doing this.

Can you share a story with us about your most successful Angel or VC investment? Or an investment that you are most proud of? What was its lesson?

One of our companies that I am very proud of is Naadam, a sustainable and ethical apparel company. Naadam goes straight to the source of the world’s best cashmere, Mongolia’s Gobi Desert, and works directly with herders to deliver high-quality, sustainable cashmere clothing at prices that are fair for them and their customers. It’s a company that we backed early on and have continued to support. I personally sit on the board and have been actively involved. It’s been a tremendous business success, but just as important, it’s been an embodiment of our investment thesis. What is especially unique about Naadam is that social impact is present in every single aspect of their business. Since 2013, it has been committed to transparency, ethical practices, cultural preservation, and environmental sustainability. The company even has a Social and Environmental Impact Report to formally outline its commitments and framework on people, product, planet, and progress through 2025.

Can you share a story of an Angel or VC funding failure of yours? What was its lesson?

It’s so true that you learn far more from your failures than you do from your successes. A few years back, we invested in a low glycemic healthy snacking company, which grew like a rocket. The product market fit was right, the branding and messaging was tight, we had favorable industry tailwinds, and we had a ton of momentum. The founder was a passionate visionary who really wanted to improve consumers’ diets and address diabetes. But ultimately, the company crashed because they weren’t able to do the fundamental blocking and tackling required to execute a successful business plan even though management had the right vision and best of intentions.

It was a valuable lesson. No matter how good or disruptive an idea or product is, you have to be able to marry tactical execution with your vision.

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

We’ve passed on a lot of “homeruns”; there are too many to count! But I don’t regret those decisions. You have to develop a reliable and disciplined investment process that is repeatable over a long period of time through multiple cycles. I feel that many venture investors, in particular, conflate success with luck. You may sometimes get lucky with a “spray and pray” approach, but that isn’t our style. Hence, we have passed on many exciting companies due to valuation, structure, lack of capital efficiency, unrealistic expectations of entrepreneurs, etc. Our objective is consistent and repeatable success over time.

Super. Here is the main question of this interview. What are your “5 things I need to see before making a VC investment” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

If I were to break down what we look for into five things, they would be:

  1. People: Human capital is the most important aspect. Finding partners who you trust and who are fully aligned. They must have good judgement and tenacity.
  2. ESY: Is what they are doing either, i) better for Environment, ii) better for Society, and/or iii) better for You? Are they making a positive impact to this world?
  3. Opportunity: What is the business model and what is the edge? What is the Industry backdrop, market potential, drivers of the business that make this investment interesting?
  4. Deal: Valuation and structuring. We try to structure deals to maximize upside and mitigate downside. We use all of the analytical tools, but ultimately investing is both art and science. You have to have the intuition to ask the right questions.
  5. Fit: How do these all fit together? In my opinion, the best investors are those who are able to take seemingly disparate thoughts/ideas and make them fit. Moreover, great investors are able to filter out all noise and external factors and focus on what’s important.

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. 🙂

I’d say the greatest good that someone can do for themselves and those around them is to improve their health through better eating habits.

The standard American diet is loaded in starch, sugar, and processed foods, which has led to an obesity crisis. Americans consume 3.5x the recommended amount of sugar, and 10.5% of the population has diabetes.

I think changing one’s diet is a relatively simple behavior that can have a huge impact on themselves and the cost to society. And eating clean is getting a lot easier with the massive proliferation of “better for you” emerging food brands.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

There is not one specific thing that I would recommend. I think it’s a series of small decisions that people make in their everyday lives that will add up to a meaningful impact. So, I would urge folks to be mindful of the consequences of their everyday decisions.

How will this food that I put into my mouth affect my health? Did this shirt that I purchased online help or hurt those who manufactured it? How will the 10-box Amazon shipment to my apartment affect the environment? Should I take an Uber to work or ride a bicycle? There are dozens of micro decisions that we make daily that have a compounding effect.

We are very blessed that a lot of amazing founders and social impact organizations read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you’d like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this. 🙂

I’d have to say Joe Rogan. He raises issues in a thought-provoking and balanced way. And because he resonates with so many people, he has the power to influence.

How can our readers follow you online?

We prefer to have our companies that we back be in the spotlight rather than ourselves. But if someone want to get in touch, they can email

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!

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