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Video interview with Trae Vassallo, Partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers. Since joining the firm in 2002, Trae has put her technical and entrepreneurial background to work with companies in two main areas of focus: Greentech and Consumer Internet. Trae works closely with the management teams of Aggregate Knowledge, a data-management and ad optimization platform; RecycleBank, a green rewards and loyalty network; Altarock Energy, a geothermal development company; and Fisker Automotive, an extended electric luxury automotive company. Trae helped sell Ausra, utility-scale solar thermal development company, to Areva in early 2010, and is currently focusing on smart grid and efficiency opportunities.
Transcript follows & video above. This is Part II of the interview.
What qualities & experience are necessary to be a woman venture capitalist?
To be a good venture capitalist, I think there are a couple of important things. As I mentioned before its very much a people job & so a lot of venture folks are great technical folks, great engineers but ultimately in the end you need to be able to communicate, relate to entrepreneurs, work with them through the bad & the good & influence & debate important topics. One of the things that surprised me frankly about the job is the extent with which you need those interpersonal skills & to pick up on those subtle cues.
And often it doesn’t come with the territory of being a technical person, does it?
No that’s why it takes a special type of person absolutely who can speak the language.
To have those 2 parts of the brain developed is quite an interesting combination?
Right the other thing that I’ve seen too, because you’re multi tasking, one of the benefits of doing what we’re doing is that we can take learnings from one situation & apply it to another. So some people are amazingly gifted at this sort of synthesis across seeing patterns & applying them in . I think the best venture capitalists are the ones who can raise up to that level, see those patterns & apply that level of pattern recognition. Those folks are able to really get to the heart of a question facing a company. That ability to not to get mired in the details, to uplevel & get to the heart of the problem at hand but also being able to synthesize across, look at everything & boil it down to the essence of what it really means for a company or for an opportunity.
So really getting to the heart of a company or service, this is really interesting because no one has really spoken about this before. Would you say that quality is also very important when you’re sizing up a startup, when you’re deciding whether they’re going to be viable or not?
Absolutely because it’s always easy to say no to an opportunity, you can always find a million reasons why not to do something! What’s hard is to find several reasons why something makes a lot of sense & take that big leap to ‘Ok we’re going to go do this & here’s why!’ And often times it does take a bit of a leap of faith. There’s usually strong rationale for it but it may not be obvious on the surface. I think great venture capitalists have a knack for seeing through that.
What is the key, from your experience, to bridge the gender gap with male venture capitalists, both for women venture capitalists & women entrepreneurs? I know you don’t see a great gap there, but many other people have fed back to me that there is a gap.
I’m probably a difficult person to ask that question. I did Masters Engineering at Stanford where I was of 10% group of women in a class of a lot of men & I guess I’ve never really felt like there’s a gap. I’ve just been one of the guys! I’m not sure that I can give you the most insightful answer on that one? Maybe that’s part of why I’ve been able to do this job because I don’t view it as a man or woman. That’s what I like about Silicon Valley, people say its a meritocracy, it’s what you’ve done. So its focusing on the product rather than a person.
Also you’re working for a firm that holds that value very high too?
Yes & KP has an amazing diversity of partners here & its important! It’s great to be able to work with people from all around the world & have 30% women partners at KP! It’s phenomenal, its great!
So you’ll decline to give me any feedback on that?
Again I can’t really talk to it from personal experience. It’s just because it’s not how I view the world!
Thanks so much Trae for your time today, I really appreciate it.
Part of the reason why you’re doing this project, I have a passion for women in technology,it’s imporant for me in one of the things I’m doing. I talked about the pipeline in a couple of instances in our discussion is getting young girls & kids (I focus on young girls) because I do think they get left behind in grade school excited & hands on with technology. I think that’s when it really starts & if we can get our young girls excited about building robots & fun things like that, then it inspires them. They can visualize themselves as engineers in college. So that’s one of the things that I’m trying to do outside of my job to help turn the numbers a little.
Yes I agree & I’m probably a bit older than you but I got a scholarship to study maths at Sydney Uni & I turned it down. And of course at this point in my life, I’m very sad that I did that. However it was the time! But I have had to teach maths to adult women & often see a veil come over their eyes as soon as I get to the mathematical part. They will actually say ‘I can’t do that!’ immediately without even trying! So it is an interesting piece that somehow there’s been some idea that we can’t do it or we’re not good at it which is definitely not the truth. Obviously people like yourself & other women who are sort of breaking that mold?
Yes but I had an interest in it from grade school & I do think it starts in grade school! So helping kids get excited about this is what technology enables me to do, whether it’s computer programming or building robots? I don’t think we do enough of that personally!
Yes, all over the world, I think? I guess you are a pathfinder & you are breaking that mold whether you found it by yourself or not, by helping young people see that there is a different option? Thank you again, that’s great, I really appreciate your contribution!