As tech becomes a bigger and bigger part of how we live, Reservoir Q Global MD Shelly Porges talks about entrepreneurship, investment and the politics of business.
We are living through an immensely technology-driven era. Advancements in tech, and its applications across everything from medicine to machine learning, are changing the face of the world, and changing the way we live.
The exceptional progress taking place in the tech sector has created the ideal ecosystem for entrepreneurship, as a myriad of start-ups spring into being, solving niche problems facing humankind’s development, backed by investment funds and VCs.
According to Shelly Porges, managing director of Reservoir Q Global and Inspirefest 2017 speaker, tech has the power in this current environment to be the great economic equaliser.
“Technology enables us to reach almost every market. You look through the most indigenous communities … in the world, and while people may not even have electricity all day long, may not have running water, they all have mobile phones,” said Porges.
Tech has the potential to address basic human needs. Reservoir Q is an advisory and investment firm, focused on early-stage companies – particularly those fronted by women – largely in the clean tech, medtech and fintech spheres.
“All of those things are fundamental to the human experience,” said Porges. “It’s clear that I may not need another shirt, another dress, another pair of shoes, but I do need to stay healthy, I do need to be able to have access to clean water and clean air, and I do need to be able to transact value at whatever level.”
Tech can be instrumental in this human progress, but it’s not just the tech-focused start-ups that need to focus on tech. According to Porges, “All companies today need to be tech-enabled, even if they don’t describe themselves as tech companies … Companies that are not tech-enabled, or effectively tech-enabled, will limit their size and scale.”
A changing landscape
Porges certainly has the business experience and acumen to back up that claim. Having gotten her start in finance – with senior vice-president roles at American Express and Bank of America – she moved into entrepreneurship when she “saw opportunities to create value for banks and other financial institutions that went beyond the scope of what I could do within one bank”.
Since then, Porges has gone on to found or co-found four companies, and head up numerous others.
She has also chaired boards and organisations, often with a focus on advancing the successes of women. When sitting on the board of Financial Women of San Francisco, Porges launched Financial Woman of the Year to recognise leading women in the community, and to raise funds for a women’s scholarship fund.
“I’m most proud of having taken the opportunity, as I was moving along in my career, to also help other women to move along in theirs.”
To a certain extent, Porges views this as a never-ending effort. In the current state of play, she sees women trying to make it in a world that was designed by men, and feels a strong need to change the landscape.
More than that, she sees a need to change how women perceive their place in business: “We think of ourselves as more social beings [than men], but when it comes to our businesses, we work alone and we don’t necessarily network. We’re sitting there at our desks working so hard, but not developing those connections that can be so helpful in addressing whatever it is that we’re doing, or trying to.”
Porges says that, often, tough love is what’s needed to encourage women to take those extra steps to excel in their careers. She shared the advice she gives to those she mentors: “Buck up. This is what you have to do: negotiate for yourself, stand up for yourself, take risks and do things that maybe you weren’t raised to do.”
Funding the future
Porges is a child of immigrants – her parents fled the holocaust and made America their home – and that has driven her ‘can do’ attitude. It informs her strength in embracing failure, learning from it as fast as she can, and moving forward.
This attitude has perhaps been a benefit in the current political climate, ensuring resilience in the face of numerous challenges originating from the White House.
The areas that Reservoir Q works in can be heavily politicised, but none more so than clean tech. As recent weeks have seen President Trump withdraw America from the Paris climate accord, it has felt like a massive step back for those working to reverse some of the damage humanity has done to the planet.
And yet, businesses in the US have rallied, decrying the administration’s stance and doing their bit to uphold the agreement their president has cast aside, as well as advocating against sweeping cuts in STEM and research.
Across science- and tech-driven sectors, Porges says it will be up to businesses, rather than politicians, to pave the path to the future. This is where companies such as Reservoir Q, and the early-stage ventures they fund, come in.
“Certainly, we will be affected by the cuts in R&D and spending on science and innovation, but I do count on the private sector – both large companies and small – to pick up where the government is failing.
“Governments don’t lead, they follow. I think that by the time we get policies developed in government, it’s usually because the private sector has already forged ahead with innovation. Government realise it’s either got to regulate it or create some kind of framework for it, or create some kind of pipeline for it.”
As is clearly evident here, business and politics are heavily intertwined. You’d be forgiven for thinking that’s why Porges – a veteran of the banking industry and a serial entrepreneur – took her place in the political ring. But it’s not.
“I never, quite honestly, had any interest in politics at all. I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for 18 years, not at all involved in politics. I wrote one very small cheque once to John Kerry when he was running for president, and only because a friend asked me, not because I had a particular interest in politics. But when I moved to Washington DC in 2005 and, shortly thereafter, Hillary Clinton declared for president, I was so inspired by her that I said to my husband, ‘I have to go do this, and I don’t even know what ‘this’ is’.”
Following that decision, Porges worked with a number of people to raise a lot of money for the Clinton campaign. When Barack Obama cinched the nomination and the election, and Clinton was appointed as Secretary of State, Porges joined the US State Department as a senior adviser to the Global Women’s Business Initiative and the Global Entrepreneurship Programme.
‘It’s very destabilising when such a big cohort does not have an opportunity to participate economically in their countries’
– SHELLY PORGES
These efforts, designed to develop entrepreneurship in communities all over the world, worked to support entrepreneurs and bring resources and organisations such as Startup Weekend to their neighbourhoods.
“We were looking to advance entrepreneurial ecosystems with the belief and understanding that, when people are economically empowered, there’s greater stability and security in a country. [As there is] when there’s democratisation of empowerment, which is what entrepreneurship really does.”
Porges cites the Arab Spring as a demonstration of this theory in action. It, she said, started out as an economic revolution, as young people in those regions came to understand that they did not have the same opportunities as their counterparts around the world.
“Initially, it was about young people looking at what was going on around the world – because they were all on social media – and they could see that, in other countries, young people had opportunities to really express themselves through entrepreneurship and control their own futures.
“It’s very destabilising when such a big cohort does not have an opportunity to participate economically in their countries.”
In 2013, Porges became the national finance co-chair of the Ready for Hillary PAC. When Clinton announced her decision to run in the 2016 election, Porges mobilised once more, co-founding Entrepreneurs for Hillary.
This may have been the last overtly political endeavour for the investor and entrepreneur, however: “At this point, I’m supporting a number of different candidates who I think are emerging leaders, but I’m pretty much back to the private sector as of the start of this year, so kind of coming back to my roots.”
The move isn’t entirely surprising. For a Clinton supporter, for someone whose focus is on developing fundamental sectors and essential supports, the world likely seems like a grim place right now. And yet, Porges remains positive about humanity’s future.
“I tend to be an optimist. I see so many examples of the world gone backwards, but yet I see other things where it’s causing reactions and people stand up and say, ‘No, I’m not going to take that. I’m not going to allow that to happen – not to myself, not to my family, not to other people’.”
In a world full of negativity, anger and intense political conflict, it’s certainly worth hoping that this optimism prevails.
Shelly Porges will be speaking at Inspirefest, Silicon Republic’s international event connecting sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM. Book now to join us from 6 to 8 July in Dublin.