Operator Collective brings diversity and inclusion to enterprise investing

When Mallun Yen started Operator Collective last year, she wanted to build an investment firm for people who didn’t have a voice in Silicon Valley. That meant connecting women and people of color with operators who have been intimately involved in building companies from the ground up, then providing early-stage investment.

She then brought in Leyla Seka as a partner. Seka helped build the AppExchange at Salesforce into a powerful marketplace for companies built on top of the Salesforce platform, or that plugged into the platform in some meaningful way to sell their offerings directly to Salesforce customers. Through that role, she met a lot of people in the startup world, and she saw a lot of inequities.

Yen, whose background includes eight years as a VP at Cisco, and co-founder of Saastr with Jason Lemkin, wanted to build a different kind of firm, one that connected these operators — women like herself and Seka, who had walked the walk of running substantial businesses — with people who didn’t typically get heard in the corridors of VC firms.

Those operators themselves tend to be underrepresented at investment shops. The firm today consists of 130 operator LPs, 90% of whom are women and 40% people of color (which includes Asians). One way that the company can do this is by removing rigid buy-in requirements. LPs can contribute as little as $10,000, all the way up to millions of dollars, depending on their means, and that makes for a much more diverse pool of LPs.

While Seka admits they are far from perfect, she says they are fighting the good fight. So far, the company has invested in 18 startups with a more diverse set of founders and executives than you find at most firms that invest in enterprise startups. That means that 67% of their investments include people of color (which breaks down to 44% Asian, 17% Latinx and 6% Black), 56% include a female founder, 56% have an immigrant founder and 33% have a female CEO.

I sat down with Yen and Seka to discuss their thinking about enterprise investing. While they have a far more inclusive philosophy than most, their general approach to enterprise investing isn’t all that different than what we’ve seen in previous surveys with enterprise investors.

Which trends are you most excited about in the enterprise from an investing perspective?


Enterprise investors remain flexible as they navigate COVID-19

One would think it’s a given that investment strategies would change in the strange times we find ourselves. With the economy staggering and so much general uncertainty, it seems caution would be the watchword of the day, especially in the enterprise. But enterprise investors aren’t necessarily looking at what’s going on right now.

As startups make their way into the enterprise, they often grow from a single product to a platform offering, which means such investments tend to be a long haul that can take a decade or longer to mature and exit or IPO. The bigger the approach, the longer the sales cycle, so even though sales motion could be stalling now, it doesn’t mean VCs are just giving up on these types of investments.

Savvy investors understand that this is going to be a long game, and the current situation driven by a worldwide pandemic won’t necessarily change their approach significantly.

We asked a number of enterprise investors if they have changed their approach in light of the pandemic and its knock-on economic impacts, how the current environment has changed their relationship with existing portfolio clients and how well those clients are coping with the new reality.

  • Theresia Gouw, Acrew Capital
  • Diane Fraiman, Voyager Capital
  • Casey Aylward, Costanoa Ventures
  • Hope Cochran, Madrona Venture Group
  • Leyla Seka, Operator Collective
  • Max Gazor, CRV
  • Navin Chaddha, Mayfield
  • Matt Murphy, Menlo Venture Capital
  • Soma Somasegar, Madrona Ventures
  • Jon Lehr, Work-Bench
  • Steve Herrod, General Catalyst
  • Jai Das, Sapphire Ventures
  • Ed Sim, Boldstart Ventures
  • Martin Casado, Andreessen Horowitz
  • Vas Natarajan, Accel
  • Dharmesh Thakker, Battery Ventures

[Editor’s note: Our prior enterprise survey failed to include any responses from female VCs and did not meet TechCrunch’s standards for diversity and inclusion. We regret the error.]

Theresia Gouw, Acrew Capital

With the pandemic having such a huge impact on the economy, how has this changed your investment approach and the types of companies you are more likely to invest in?

We remain committed to our five core thesis areas: security & infrastructure modernized, financial services rebuilt, work reimagined, data interconnected, and community activated. We break out each of our thesis areas into anywhere from 10-20 sub-sectors.

We have been continuously reprioritizing which sub-sectors will likely see business growth as well as opportunities to make a positive difference to a world grappling with COVID. There are still many unknowns and we closely watch company formation and funding to see where there might be particular concentration of entrepreneurial activity, which we take to be a positive sign that a market is robust and ready for significant investment.

Within enterprise software, we’ve unsurprisingly seen an acceleration in enterprise demand for communication and collaboration software. We’ve historically maintained a thesis that enterprise communication is an untapped, shadow set of data about workplace productivity and knowledge. With swaths of workers working remotely, capturing insights from these conversations provides a significant opportunity. This applies to industry verticals as much as it applies to functional software that sells across industries and focuses on a particular type of communication. We believe the key is that both employees and employers find these insights to be beneficial.

Lastly, we’ve also seen a growth in software and data that help enterprises navigate disruptions in supply, demand, or other aspects of their business.

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