One of the best pieces of advice I have ever received is to ask for forgiveness and not permission. Whether you’re investing in or working at early-stage companies, you need to be very resourceful and active in reaching out to people and advocating for what you think is important.
Meet Kathy. Born in Beijing and raised in New York, Kathy Wang has worked at an impressive roster of technology firms including Amazon, Magic Leap, and venture capital firms including Andreessen Horowitz and High Line Venture Partners. As we see more fluidity between investing and entrepreneurism, we were eager to chat with Kathy about her perspectives working on both sides of the table.
Please tell us a bit about yourself. Where did you grow up? What did you study in school? Did anything along the way encourage you to become interested in technology and investing?
I grew up with my grandparents in Beijing. My dad came to the United States to get his PhD. I followed when I was seven. I’ve always been interested in storytelling and in high school and college, thought I might even go into journalism. I quickly realized, however, how important it was to genuinely understand the issues you covered as a reporter, which at the time included a lot of business and finance.
In my senior year at Penn, I learned about the boutique investment bank in New York called Allen & Company, which specialized in media investment banking. Allen is an old school, privately-owned merchant bank, meaning they both invest and advise. Part of their business model is they will invest very small amounts in early-stage tech startups like Dropbox, Airbnb, and Palantir. We would work with these companies as they grew and started to think about future capital raises ranging from Series A to IPO, focusing on helping companies to grow. That's where I became interested in tech.
Tech was Allen’s bread and butter and the early 2010s was a great time to be there because it was a period of extraordinary growth for a lot of consumer tech and enterprise tech companies. I had the opportunity to work on Yelp and Twitter’s IPOs, with Facebook when they bought WhatsApp and with Amazon when they acquired Twitch. After working with some amazing entrepreneurs and teams in such a dynamic, rapidly-evolving industry, I realized that I wanted to stay in tech.
What inspired you to move into VC?
Since my days working alongside early-stage tech companies at Allen, I’ve always thought it would be interesting to try venture capital. After I was accepted to Harvard Business School, I started chatting about it with different people. Coincidentally, I got connected with seed stage venture capital investor, Shana Fisher, who runs her own seed stage VC firm - High Line Venture Partners - and sits on startup boards for Andreessen Horowitz. I met with Shana, who agreed to let me work for her at High Line for the spring and spend the summer working at Andreessen.
What I loved most about investing was spending time debating and thinking about ideas. Coming from an execution-oriented background in banking, it was so different to spend time talking about questions like, “where do we think the future of education is going to go?” You’re always on the cutting edge of new ideas because the entrepreneurs coming in are constantly thinking about what is next. I found that so unique and intellectually stimulating.
After my experience in VC, I decided that I wanted to try out something more operational for the summer between 1st and 2nd year of business school. I do feel like when you are in investing, it’s easy to start itching to build something of your own. So I spent ½ my summer on the Amazon Video team as a Product Manager and then ½ my summer at Magic Leap on the Product Strategy and Business Development team. I loved working on product and strategy and working at Magic Leap, which is where I joined full-time after school.
When you were thinking about full-time opportunities, why did you choose going back into an operational role over venture capital?
For me, it is specific to Magic Leap. The company has spent a tremendous amount of time thinking through their technology roadmap and what they are going to do on the product side to get to launch. However, on the business side, it's still very nascent. Their business team is tiny compared to the size of the entire company. I see this as a unique role for someone without a technical background to go into a company that is so deeply technical. There are very few opportunities to add so much value at highly technical firms and right now in the company’s development and lifecycle, this is one of those times.
I love mixed reality and see it as the next computing platform.
Would you ever go back into VC?
I could definitely see that and have thought about going into VC directly after school. I think if this opportunity hadn't come up, I would have considered that more seriously.
Bill Gurley made what I think is the best argument for going into VC straight after school, which is many entrepreneurs who are starting great companies are a student's age or even younger. There is an advantage to being young and in VC because you automatically have a bond with these entrepreneurs- you have grown up seeing the same trends and can connect more naturally.
What excites you about Magic Leap's technology?
A big driver of what will move the entire mixed reality, augmented reality and virtual reality industry forward comes from the business side, particularly on the partnerships and content side to ensure that there are compelling experiences for people to use over and over again. The coolest thing and hardest thing about that is that this industry is applicable to so many things, ranging from consumer to enterprise to everything in between, so it’s really important to be focused on prioritizing your time and your goals.
Switching gears, it sounds like you have had the opportunity to work with some amazing people over the years. What are some of the best learnings you have had?
One of the best pieces of advice I ever received - from Shana Fisher during my internship with her - was to ask for forgiveness and not permission. Whether you’re investing in or working at early-stage companies, you need to be very resourceful and active in reaching out to people and advocating for what you think is important.
You have to convince entrepreneurs that you're the right person to work with their company and one way to do so is by being proactive.
There have been more strides being made to build more inclusive workplaces. What can help women break in and thrive in these industries?
One is definitely mentorship. This can be hard because there are so few senior female members on the investing and tech side. It is hard to get to know these women, and even harder to have the chance to work with them.
The other point is awareness around why a lot of these things are happening. A professor at HBS, Paul Gompers did a study on whether there are variables correlated to the number of female entrepreneurs VC firms invest in. One of the only things that he found correlated was whether the senior partners, which were all male, had daughters in their family. That is such an interesting finding and one that should get us thinking about what are the root causes of these behaviors?
What is one trend you are excited about
I listened to this Podcast with Kara Swisher interviewing John Markoff from the New York Times and it got me really interested in material sciences. Specifically, he talked about these synthetic materials that can change how light bends and how it might refract. The practical use cases include incorporating them into structures underneath buildings allowing the building to deflect earthquake waves. Another is painting them on windshields of jet planes so that when light and radar hits the windshield it doesn't get into the pilot's eyes.
Interesting news tidbit from this year
I have a fairly long commute to work so I’ve been listening to a ton of podcasts recently - 3 of my favorites
How I Built This with Howard Schultz of Starbucks - an incredibly powerful story of passion and persistence - one of my all-time favorite founder stories
Kara Swisher’s interview of Scott Galloway, an NYU professor and founder of L2 who predicted Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods a week before it happened, and what he thinks Amazon will buy next
A16z’s latest podcast on AI and machine learning - they do updates regularly and the conversations are a great way to keep up with what’s going on in the field
Female entrepreneur or investor that you'd like to meet and chat with
Not technically an entrepreneur, but I always admired Katharine Graham. She pioneered a new generation of standards in investigative journalism and did it with both business savvy and tremendous personal integrity, in a field largely dominated by men
Last piece of advice for readers
A friend pointed this out recently about the job search process and I thought it was incredibly insightful - it all comes down to risk arbitrage (hear me out!). What is it that others find to be very high-risk but you, whether because of your skillset, knowledge, background, perspective of the world or some other factor, view to be actually low-risk? Now go do that.
Magic Leap recently launched its first product, check out more here