Valor Ventures, the all-female early-stage VC firm that invests in hyper-growth technologies, has brought on a new partner who brings a successful career at Fortune 100 electronics and mobility companies, a deep knowledge of the enterprise space, and a seasoned background in corporate innovation.
Robin Bienfait held executive and C-suite roles at Samsung Electronics, BlackBerry, and AT&T and sits on advisory boards at HP and Cisco. She launched innovation programs within most of these companies — bringing new technologies, research and acquisitions into established processes. Oh, and she holds 15 patents and a Master’s in Management of Technology from Georgia Tech. We’re officially impressed.
Hypepotamus sat down with Bienfait and Valor Managing Partner Lisa Calhoun (also the first woman to launch a VC firm in Georgia) to talk about why she decided to take on a venture role, how her experience in scaling new technology within enterprise will benefit Valor, and what hyper-growth technology really means.
After a successful corporate career in leadership roles with several Fortune 500’s, why the switch to an investor role?
Robin: Venture is a natural evolution. During my time with AT&T, Blackberry and Samsung, advising on potential investments and acquiring innovation was a significant part of the role.
I’ve always been in a venture-type space, not specifically with a venture firm, but it’s a natural evolution from what I’ve been doing for the different corporations that I’ve worked for and in some cases, for some of the advisory roles I’ve been in over the years.
What experience have you had with startups during your career?
Robin: I have deep startup experience — I’ve built businesses from scratch and have advised investments, corporate structure and leadership. I have consulted on multiple mergers, acquisitions, and been involved in many deals — ground zero of investing in innovation.
Much of my different roles within big companies — within AT&T and Blackberry and then Samsung — were in the space of corporate innovation, implementing new technologies or new processes as a brand new thing. So I’m kind of an interesting type of startup person, having built a business inside of a business. I kind of think of myself as a global entrepreneur.
How does Robin’s experience complement the Valor team?
Lisa: There are a lot of theories about what it takes to create a quality venture partnership. With my background in entrepreneurship and Sarah O’Brian’s background in finance, we were looking for someone to add to the team that had a first-class background in enterprise technology. Robin certainly fit that bill.
The sum perspective of Valor, as a whole, to now be able to get the perspective of Robin and her insights from the ground floor of what the enterprise is looking to inquire, is critical. Something like 82 percent of venture-backed exits last year were by corporate acquisition. So it is the primary exit path for venture-backed companies, and Robin has the best experience representing the industry around it.
Robin, what drew you to Valor and this partnership?
Robin: I went to an event in San Francisco and there were 97 startups; only 2 were minority led. Through grad school and even in my professional career I was used to be one of the few women in the industry — as an engineer — but I mostly expected more of a balance by now. So I thought to myself, what am I doing about it? How can I help attack this space? A friend introduced me to Lisa, and after multiple thoughtful conversations decided that this would be a fruitful partnership.
You’ve been in the mobile enterprise space for the last portion of your career. Is this an area you intend to focus on at Valor?
Robin: My experience may seem to be in the mobile space, but it was really much more than dealing with mobility. My career has been marked by innovation. At AT&T, I ran Bell Labs. I launched the Samsung innovation labs.
My focus with Valor will be similar: helping with the due diligence it takes to take novel ideas from concept to cure, and ensuring the startups in which we invest are constantly refining and growing their business.
Lisa: Because of Robin’s broad and seasoned experience, she has the network to enhance Valor’s growing portfolio. This partnership will be advantageous for our enterprise and the entrepreneurs in whom we invest.
You just announced your first new portfolio companies for this year. What is the common thread in the companies you’re looking to add to the Valor portfolio in 2017? Any insight on what you’re looking for?
Lisa: I interview startups regularly trying to find the best of the best in who is building hyper-growth technologies. A couple of things the portfolio companies are going to have in common: they will be growing rapidly where we can see it. Not only are they growing rapidly, but they’re at the frontier of where technology is going today. That’s the right space for the early-stage investor and that’s the portfolio we’re building: one of hyper-growth technology.
We look at how much pain the company is solving for the customer, even if at this early stage the customer doesn’t pay, if they’re too small to have a sales team per say, but that they solve a problem in the market.
We’re looking at a fairly disciplined strategy. We do a lot of interviews, a lot of research, and every day we get two or three portfolio potentials coming to our website. So while I’m not trying to give a number of investments, because our strategy is investing in quality, we’ll likely make 2, 3, maybe 4 investments this year. We’re not trying to hit a goal number of investments.
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