When Monique Villa moved to Nashville from LA at the end of 2017, she had only set foot in Tennessee a few times; she had very little exposure with the Southeast as a whole. So the natural researcher set out on a tour to learn about her new home.
“I set out to take a couple of months to learn about my new geography. So I went to Birmingham and Huntsville and Memphis and Louisville and Knoxville and the Triangle and Atlanta and Chattanooga,” she describes.
Villa wanted to see the character and culture of each city, of course, but she also kept a business lens over her eyes: that of a venture capital investor. She started her career in startups at a very early-stage TOMS, and from there progressed into business development, consulting, and eventually the VC world.
Unlike many in her industry, Villa never worked in San Francisco, and never seemed to feel the enthrall of Silicon Valley that until recently had captured the tech industry.
“[One firm I worked for] had a big focus on emerging markets and what was happening outside of Silicon Valley. That was sort of a novel concept at the time, and now it’s become almost a cliche out of necessity for the industry,” Villa says.
“I always felt like there was something to be said for people who had a different perspective to share.”
So when she became a Tennessean, Villa was eager to explore the uncharted (to her) territory of the Southeast’s startup scene.
“From that, I came to the conclusion that there was really strong foundations in terms of different industries and that each city has its own set of core competencies, but the one prevailing theme was this difficulty with early-stage capital,” she says.
She tells Hypepotamus that each southeast city she visited was strong in its own industry sectors, but there were a few commonalities between them. One was that widely-reported lack of early-stage capital.
“There’s this theme where people say, ‘Well, there haven’t been as many large exits in this part of the country.’ Why is that? I really believe it starts with that early-stage capital formation,” she says.
She also noticed a lack of connectivity, even between startup leaders in the region. Villa felt that “relatively little communication” prevented startup communities from sharing resources and knowledge.
She returned to Nashville with a determination to start looking more deeply into these challenges, and eventually to contribute to solutions. Her efforts were quickly formalized into Modern Capital, a research and education organization that supports founders and investors in the Southeast.
Modern Capital currently has two main components: research and education. On the research front, Villa and her team have begun pulling together statistics on different aspects of the southeastern startup ecosystem.
Their first report, for example, assessed the current state of Tennessee’s female founder ecosystem.
The second component, education, comes together in a Venture Fellow program Villa has spearheaded. Current undergraduate and graduate students at local schools like Vanderbilt get the opportunity to learn from Villa and other mentors, explore startups and VC investing, and contribute to research like the Female Founder Report.
The Venture Fellow program is underwritten by Launch Tennessee, a publicly-funded entrepreneur support organization.
“It’s really about creating a small community here so they can learn more of the context around venture capital, get to know founders, get to know industries, build their own network and then hopefully be a launchpad for their careers,” says Villa.
Somewhat organically, all of the Venture Fellows thus far have been young women. Villa says that, while not intentional, one goal of Modern Capital is to provide “a pathway for women to get into venture capital.”
“I feel pretty confident that coming out of this, they would be in a position where they could apply for jobs that appeal to them, whether in the venture industry itself or for a startup.”
Villa herself is one of those valuable connections that aspiring VCs could use. As she was focusing on building a framework for Modern Capital, she began working for an old contact at an early-stage LA-based VC firm on a part-time basis.
That part-time role at Mucker Capital quickly morphed into more, as the firm was in the process of looking to expand into new geographies to source startups for its fund and accelerator program. Mucker Capital offers all of its portfolio companies a unique, long-term accelerator that helps them with strategy, go-to market, product and branding in what Villa says is a “dedicated, personal approach.”
Villa saw that Mucker Capital was excited about the potential she described in Nashville. They were used to entering uncharted territory, as one of the first LA-based tech VC firms.
“They moved to LA when people in San Francisco thought that was a crazy idea. They saw an opportunity and really wanted to support founders at that early-stage.” Now, Villa says the team sees that opportunity in the South.
Villa is now a full-time investor on the Mucker Capital team, sourcing startups “broadly” across the Southeast. Thus, as she heads into her second year as a Southerner, Villa is bringing not just an intuitive investor’s eye, but also a West Coast-rooted pocketbook, to bear in her adopted home.