The power to change wealth inequality lies in VCs like Sydney Thomas

12 Jan 2018

Sydney Thomas at the 2017 Fall Pipeline Angels Conference. Image: Sandra Garcia

Sydney Thomas wants to tackle big problems and, when she determined that VC was the key, she pulled up to the table and started talking.

Some people bide their time until the opportunity to take their rightful ‘seat at the table’ finally presents itself. If you’re Sydney Thomas, though, you go ahead and build that chair yourself because you are on an accelerated trajectory that is taking you places, fast.

On Twitter, Thomas describes herself as a “policy wonk turned VC”, neatly summarising her journey so far. When she decided to take that turn into venture capital, she went right to the top and reached out to Freada Kapor Klein cold, via email. “I developed this mentorship relationship with her and she actually put me in touch with my current boss, Charles Hudson, [managing partner] at Precursor Ventures.”

‘I realised that VCs held that key to the wealth inequality question mark that I had been searching for’

Keeping it real

Precursor Ventures is an aptly named early-stage investment fund based in San Francisco, and Thomas was the company’s first hire. Its mantra is ‘people over product’ and Thomas has outlined her focus on “real people”, such as those who earn less than $100,000 per year and/or small businesses with fewer than 20 stores. Her podcast, Be About It, sets about connecting VC to the real world – and, if you haven’t spotted that disconnect, you’ve clearly already forgotten Juicero.

“I think that investing tens of millions of dollars in Juicero just wasted tens of millions of dollars,” said Thomas – and this was before the ‘raw water’ movement took over as the latest craze enticing Silicon Valley spending.

For Thomas, better opportunities for VC investment are so patently obvious they are “‘duh’ creations”, and, with Precursor, she enjoys seeing the different types of problems that people in the US are solving and how they’re solving them. “They are just so different because they have such different lived realities,” she said.

Taking on wealth inequality

While she likes to keep it real when it comes to investment, Thomas is also an enthusiastic idealist, and she started out wanting to tackle a big problem.

“I came out of undergrad thinking through wealth inequality as my big question mark. Like, how can I solve it? And so I thought the first, the best place to go would be government.”

Unfortunately, this was too slow a route for Thomas. “I was there in 2010 when Congress was just pitifully inept,” she said. Realising she was too action-oriented for this line of work, she also learned what her next step should be.

“I was able to see how much more quickly the business community was able to mobilise and work and have a substantial impact,” she said. And so, she went to business school at Berkeley and came out at the other end with an MBA and numerous internships under her belt.

“I worked pretty much full-time throughout business school because I was so curious about everything in this new space, because it was so new to me. And I realised that, especially in Silicon Valley […] VCs held that key to the wealth inequality question mark that I had been searching for.”

As Thomas sees it, “[VC is] really this redistribution of wealth from these large foundations and institutions that we get investments from, into entrepreneurs who are building companies that have the potential to build themselves, and their communities and hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Sydney Thomas speaking at the 2017 Fall Pipeline Angels Conference. Image: Sandra Garcia

Sydney Thomas speaking at the 2017 Fall Pipeline Angels Conference. Image: Sandra Garcia

Thomas has seen her own power shift significantly in her transformation from government intern to a VC expert with a voice.

“I interned for Congresswoman Barbara Lee when I was an undergrad, it was the summer of 2009. I was just a minion, I was just an intern. I had no power whatsoever. I was just running around, eating a lot of cookies, drinking a lot of coffee, answering a lot of calls from constituents. And, this year, I was invited to a sit-down dinner with congresswoman Barbara Lee and Congressman Butterfield out of North Carolina, to talk with them both about diversity in tech –and, specifically, the venture capital community – as an expert,” recounted Thomas.

“If I would have stayed in my career being an intern at Congresswoman Barbara Lee’s office and worked my way up, I would not be considered an expert for at least 10 more years. And so, to have this seat at the table – being this young, but being in this industry that is so powerful – was, I think, in that instance, really clear to me.”

Diversity in VC

With her seat at the VC table secured, Thomas set about exploring another investment space. On Twitter, she spied a call-out for new members from Pipeline Angels, a network of angel investors creating capital for women and non-binary femme social entrepreneurs. Interest piqued, Thomas wanted in – but she’s not an accredited investor.

Disregarding this prerequisite to joining an angel investment community, Thomas reached out and asked how she could become a part of this organisation. It was worth the shot. Founder and CEO Natalia Oberti Noguera saw in her a good cultural fit for the network, if only they could find a way for her to participate. And so, the Pipeline Angels VC-in-residence role was brought into existence.

In this position, Thomas offers VC insight to the angels and entrepreneurs in the network while growing her own career with a stepping stone into angel investment. Once again, Thomas finds herself as a first, and Pipeline Angels hopes to add more VCs in residence this year to eventually change the face of venture capital by bring more underrepresented groups such as women, men of colour and non-binary people into the fold.

‘My concerns about the industry are not unique, and I have a group of women who have shared experiences to me and this can give me the kick-start of acceptance that I need to thrive’

For Thomas, who came to VC much later than many of her industry peers, the homogeneous state of the sector came as a surprise. This made her determined, along with her friend Siri Srinivas from Draper Associates, to find the statistically rare women of colour in VC and connect them.

The Women of Colour in VC network held its first ‘happy hour’ meet-up with about 20 self-identified women of colour in November 2016, helping Thomas to realise she was where she was meant to be. At the event, she realised: “My concerns about the industry are not unique, and I have a group of women who have shared experiences to me and this can give me the kick-start of acceptance that I need to thrive.”

Missed opportunities

Thomas said she is often described as “a breath of fresh air”, and she has all of the energy and enthusiasm that you expect from accomplished young professionals. But what really makes her stand out is how she has matched her idealism with the wisdom gained through experience. At just 29, she already sees herself as someone who has “lived three or four lives”, and it’s not lost on her how fleeting these turns of opportunity are.

It seems unreasonable to think that this firestarter in the investment community might never have found her calling but, from her BA in Duke through to that pivotal moment in her first career in New York City government, she had never even heard of VC.

“When you’re in undergrad and you don’t have friends or family in industries that are this exclusive, you don’t even really think about them as an option for you. And I think a lot of the programmes that are available for specifically underrepresented minorities in undergrad are targeted to helping you get into the companies that are well branded. Like, get you to a brand management role at Procter & Gamble, or get you to a banking role at Credit Suisse, or get you to a product marketing associate [role] at Google.”

Structuring a talent pipeline in this way means that individuals don’t – or can’t – explore all of the possibilities. “I think there’s not really a space for that in college, unfortunately. You’re kind of put on a track and you’re told this is what you have to do to finish the track,” said Thomas.

And so, I asked what her advice would be to an idealistic woman emerging from college with big goals.

“I would tell them to go where you’re passionate, and you’ll figure it out. But definitely don’t try to do something just for the fame and fortune of it, because that’s just boring.”

Elaine Burke is the editor of Silicon Republic