We sat down with Esther Rodriguez at Oxford Capital's central London office earlier this year, who had recently been promoted from analyst to investor at the fund. Rodriguez is the curious case of someone who entered VC almost straight out of university, where she studied business management at the undergraduate level and then completed a Masters in real estate finance at Cambridge University, before joining Oxford Capital as an intern in 2017.
Oxford Capital is a UK venture capital fund with a portfolio that includes online GP service Push Doctor, fintech companies like Moneybox and Curve, and market research innovator Attest. Esther spoke candidly about her early impressions of the industry and where it might be headed in the future.
This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Scott Carey, Techworld: How did you get into VC?
Esther Delignat-Lavaud Rodriguez, investor at Oxford Capital: Hard work. I went to business school, which is the sort of place where you learn about venture capital.
Between finishing my undergrad and postgrad I did an internship at a financial advisory firm called Accuracy. I then jumped on a project building the business model of a startup and that is where it all clicked. It was a lot less financial and abstract for me, which I loved, and the second thing was relationships.
I had never had any VC exposure, I had no network - which is still something that you need today because it is part of the job - no real knowledge of tech, so what seemed on paper like a good idea, in practice was a lot harder. The objective was getting the networks in and building that knowledge up, so I started reading everything I could and started going to any events that were open to everyone - and that is where Diversity VC came in. One of the first events I attended was their first data launch.
Still, I wasn't very hopeful and had freshly graduated with no experience, which is not something that is easy to overcome. Then I was first to apply here at Oxford Capital to their internship and I got it, so I started as an intern in 2017. I was meant to stay for six months and then converted to full time as an analyst and got promoted to investor at the beginning of this year.
Is that access to networks still an issue, or is it improving?
For sure, but actually, maybe it is me being naive, but I feel like the main problem is not it being a boy's network but more an industry that doesn't get talked about much, it is not very big, and pretty individualistic, so I think it's more a lack of information out there and VC not being very well known.
At the end of the day I had no network, so it takes hard work, but it's not impossible, you just have to find the ways around it. With a bit of effort and intelligence and getting out there to find creative solutions to a problem means it is not impossible to reach VCs. So, where would you expect them to be? Somewhere they can find tech companies, so go to conferences and strike up a conversation.
On gender, I know it is a problem, but I think it is such a hidden problem. It is not something I can say I have experienced personally, but I know it is obviously a latent problem that exists, it's just that I have never come across anything that has made me think it really is a boy's club, unless you go on the website of some VC funds and see they have 12 white males there.
Also, the female VC network is really strong now and has gotten stronger. For example I am on this Ladies in VC WhatsApp group, which is genuinely useful for finding introductions and events and even some deal-flow sharing or CVs.
Have you ever encountered discrimination for being young and/or female in the industry?
Definitely not internally with the guys I work with, I really mean that and Tom [Bradley, CEO of Oxford Capital] is the best boss I could ask for and he has been genuinely empowering. I guess the only time at work where I have wondered if I am being asked because I was female or junior was when it comes to fundraising, which is part of my role here, so if it is an institutional fund I guess it is always nice to have a female, junior person on board, so I guess that is helpful to have. So I felt like my gender has been used to some extent, but never in a way where I was offended by it.
It has to be done in good faith right?
Yes and it is. Tom is trying to keep that bias in check as well.
I have had stuff, and I am still pretty junior, so I get sent companies by people here or externally for companies in femtech or consumer brands around beauty and I get sent it with notes like 'you are better able to judge the products' - and I am like: 'well, I have barely two years experience and I am pretty sure you are better placed to judge opportunities'. That is the only point where it is somewhat frustrating.
I don't want to generalise this because I think it is a very personal experience and I am very sure that other people have had negative experiences, and clearly the data proves it, but personally there is nothing blatantly obvious where I have been really outraged.
Also, I haven't yet got any portfolio management experience and I think a lot of the troubles come when you start sitting on boards, where the power dynamics are much stronger and you start to get into the corporate side of things. Again, I don't want to say there is no gender diversity problem in this industry, because there really is, but there is no experience that stands out to me that relates to that.
Tell me more about your diversity and inclusion role here within Oxford Capital.
We have come to the realisation that there is a lack of data in the industry around diversity and obviously Diversity VC reports are great but also the lack of data at the industry level comes down to the fact that data recording within funds is just pretty poor, so we have no historical data on diversity within our pipeline.
I guess there are two pieces to my role: improving data recording and participating in industry research. We gave our data to the British Business Bank for their report and are building out the Diversity VC toolkit, basically trying to do industry-level things. The second piece is what we can do within Oxford to improve that, so we have around five female entrepreneurs now in the portfolio and we had only one when I joined. To what extent is that related to me coming in and these efforts? Maybe to some extent, as one came through an event I organised dedicated to female entrepreneurs.
There has also been a big push on outbound efforts. Don't get me wrong, warm introductions are super important, they do bring high-quality deals. But also if you want to find the outliers and find teams that you wouldn't see otherwise you have to go and get to them. We have made cold introductions easier, with a form on the website and making sure that we actually look at them and they are logged straight into the CRM, so we met a lot more cold introductions last year than before.
Also, doing more true outbound, so a case of the investment team doing their research on a sector they like and reaching out to the entrepreneurs.
What do you think about funds that only invest in female founders as a means to redressing that balance?
The idea of making a fund that only invests in female founders, to me, is ridiculous. It shouldn't exist and it is completely counterintuitive to go to the radical end from all male to all female. On an investment thesis level, in terms of risk, that doesn't make sense to me and I very much dread that the conversation across technology and society is getting a lot more gendered than it used to be and everything becomes a male vs female conversation and I find that very sad.
It definitely, definitely isn't an investment criteria and a mixed-gender team doesn't get extra points for us.
How do you fight against unconscious bias here at Oxford Capital?
It is something we want to be conscious of and do something about but we value lots of industry knowledge and observation, that is true in our sector research as well, we like to progress industries.
Then we are adapting the internal process to make it easier for any deal we look at to have a second opinion, to play devil's advocate, keeping the bias in check to some extent, but for us it is more about progressing an industry and using that momentum to drive better investments.
What areas do you like to invest in?
As a fund we have six teams: ecommerce and marketplaces, AI and machine learning, digital health, mobility, retail, and fintech. We have a pretty even split on deep tech and tech-enabled businesses. Then there are latent themes of crypto, industry 4.0, foodtech and agritech.
In our portfolio, take Kirsty [Lloyd-Jukes] at LatenLogic and Irra [Ariella Khi] at V-chain, both deep-tech companies. They are the business people in the team but still heading deep-tech companies, so they have a fair understanding of the tech even if they aren't building it. Then there is Romanie [Thomas] at Juggle and Aneeqa [Khan] at Eporta, both running business and product at two tech-enabled companies.
We had a CTO event last week and there were female, ethically diverse attendees at the CTO level, so it's not based on data but anecdotally I feel like women tend to, even with a deep-tech background, build businesses with some sort of sustainability aspect or build a consumer brand, so a softer approach to business than male teams. Also, one of our main investment criteria here is we like mission-driven founders. We aren't impact investors but we like people who come in with a mission.
What do you hope to see in 2019 regarding how the industry may change for good and how you might support that?
Again, I wish that diversity weren't an issue and it still baffles me that it is. Again, I understand the debates around positive discrimination being unfair, well yes it is unfair, but if you don't shake stuff up then no one is going to do anything about it. So I do understand these new business models around investing in female-led companies, it maybe is needed, but I just really wish we didn't have to care.
I am very conscious that there is unconscious bias, and that is for everyone not just VCs, so for me people need to be conscious that it exists and needs to be kept in check, but if everyone cared less about background then the world would be a better place. Can you build a good company? Great. No? Get out. In VC anyway, not in general.
The tricky part of your question is how you get there, right? That is a case of switching people's mentality. I feel very powerless in the face of that and there are always small actions you can do and steps to take but I don't know how to change people's mindsets so they don't care who they have in front of them and where they come from.