170: MJ was one of the first venture capitalist in Silicon Valley. What a resilient story of overcoming the odds of being a woman in a men-dominated space to, in part, fund some of the most dynamic companies of this generation

September 25, 2020

MJ Elmore

MJ Elmore discusses how growing up, her older sister, who also attended Purdue University, was an early mentor figure for her. “In my family, we were five kids. My dad was a school teacher, and the likelihood was that we were going to go to the school at Indiana State University, not to Purdue. My sister sort of blaze the trail of no, I’m going to go away to school. She saved her money and worked during high school and did that, and I sort of thought, I can do that too. So she was the one who motivated me to go to Purdue and earn my way through college.” 

On this episode of Finding Your Summit Podcast, we talk with MJ Elmore, Angel Investor at Broadway Angels, Advisor, Limited Partner, and Former General Partner at Institutional Venture Partners (IVP), and Fellow at Stanford Distinguished Careers Institute who shares insight into her journey into the prestigious Stanford University. “When I first got out of Purdue, I worked for Hallmark cards in Kansas City, Missouri, which was a cool experience, and then I moved to California in 1977 and began working for Intel. I was going to business school at night at Santa Clara and not finding that a great experience and got the opportunity to go full-time to Stanford to get my MBA, and that was in 1980.”

What You Will Learn:

At what point in time did MJ Elmore start working for IVP? “I had been in marketing at Intel, and I really expected after I got my MBA, I would go back into marketing in Silicon Valley. But along the way, there was sort of a booming time for venture capital firms. They were really growing, really looking for more personnel. I was one of the few people in my class at Stanford who had Silicon Valley tech experience. So, since most venture companies pursue those kinds of investments, I got some interviews.”

MJ Elmore explains what makes a company typically do better business from an investment standpoint than others in their space. “We were really looking for ten times our money, and that would have been considered a hit. That was our goal, ten times our money in any one deal. So, then if you make ten investments, what you hope is that 3 of them make ten times your money, another 3 or 4 make five times your money or 2-5 times, or the rest of them return the money or lose. We have a saying, ‘you can only lose all your money,’ which sounds like a crazy thing to say. But if you think about it, if you have ten deals and one of them, you lost all of your money, but the other ones return somewhere between 2-10 times your money you didn’t really care you didn’t really care that you lost all of your money.” 

How did she work her way up into being a partner one year after she joined and not just a worker? “We didn’t really have a lot of associates in those days. We were really just a group of partners. But in terms of how I made my way, he and I hired everybody else in the firm. Some of those people who we hired, well, they were all men, and a lot of them were more older than me and more senior than me and maybe even had a bigger equity stake than I did. It was an interesting position, but I was still trying to find my way. I was still a newbie in the venture business. I was in my mid-20s.”

What was it like for MJ Elmore being the only woman partner? “The way you become successful in a venture partnership is to make your partners a lot of money. If you make good investments, they like you a lot. My mode was to kind of try to find great investments, and so it was going to be that the success would be the great equalizer for them to accept me, and truly I think they actually didn’t think of me that much as a woman. I had some of my partners say after they read the Alpha Girl book, they were like, and I think one of them even says this in the book, ‘MJ, I just thought you were one of the guys.’ And he meant that in a good way.”

What does MJ Elmore look for in companies with her over 38 years of experience? “What problem are you trying to solve? How big is the problem? How are you going to reach these people? I tended to focus on those kinds of marketing things. Is there a real market here? Will the dogs eat the dog food? What proof do you have that there is a market? How big is the market? How are you going to reach the customer?”

Mentors for Women

In today’s environment, is MJ Elmore seeing more women coming to the table feeling more empowered? “There has been a big push over the last few years. There is an organization that was formed called All Raise, and it was a group of women, some of the younger women in the venture business. It started kind of trying to really sort of in a systematic way to increase the women in venture, increase the women that got funding. Right at the same time, we were in the Me Too area.”

The Unpaid Work of Women

During this episode of Finding Your Summit Podcast, MJ Elmore also talks about the inequality of domestic work that women do compared to men. “Melinda Gates wrote a book last year, and she talks about women, the unpaid work with the home and the family when women are working. There is a huge disparity if you take a dual working couple, up to twice as many hours a week that the woman tends to put into home and family than a man does, and understand in today’s times in COVID, it is really exacerbating because the kids are home. They are not in school. There is a lot more unpaid work at home.”

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