Early-stage venture fund Peterson Ventures has tapped Ilana Stern, the former founder of a company it backed eight years ago, to serve as general partner of the Utah-based firm. She will “spearhead” its Bay Area “efforts,” according to the firm.
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Stern founded San Francisco-based Weddington Way, a direct-to-consumer brand aimed at helping millennials shop for special occasions, in 2011. She ended up selling her company to Gap Inc. in 2016. After serving on the executive team there for just over a year, Stern took some time off to reflect before becoming a peer mentor to other founders. But she soon realized that was just not enough.
“After being a CEO for eight years with every minute accounted for and squeezing in ‘advice calls’ with other founders on a 45 minute ride to and from the airport, I was eager to give more of my time the way others had for me,” she told Crunchbase News. “This quickly turned into more, as I got absorbed in the startup ecosystem in a new way: as an angel investor and advisor to early stage startups. I was experimenting with the role of coach, not player, and it was a big shift for me after 15 years as an operator.”
At Peterson, Stern will focus on investing in companies in the consumer and enterprise sectors. She’ll also give Utah-based Peterson an on-the-ground presence – its first – in San Francisco. Stern believes her perspective as a former founder will help her be a better investor as she is able to be more empathetic and humble.
“At some base level because I’ve been there, I can make founders feel seen, heard and supported, which on a road that can sometimes feel very lonely, is very important,” she said. “I have seen and experienced a lot of the bumps, twists and turns that happen at different stages from finding product-market fit, to navigating a large enterprise – this doesn’t mean I know the answers but it does mean hopefully that I can ask some really good questions to help founders get to their answer to a challenge or big decision.”
Ben Capell, general partner at Peterson Ventures, agrees, saying Stern’s ability to connect to founders on a personal level and “obsession with building products, brands and experiences with the end consumer in mind” made her a good fit for the firm.
“As a former CEO, Ilana has seen firsthand how we work, and she knows what it’s like to go from startup to exit,” he said.
Capell added that Stern’s appointment “was a long time in the making, sort of a 10-year interview.” Stern was a student of Joel Peterson’s (the firm’s founder) at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business and then the firm was an early investor in Weddington Way.
Peterson learned Stern was exploring venture after the firm got reference calls from some Bay Area funds she was talking to.
“When we talked to her and learned that she was serious about making the move from founder to VC, we jumped on it and Ilana reciprocated,” he added. In Stern, he said, the firm “had a foundation of mutual trust and respect built over years going through the ups and downs of the startup journey together.”
As an individual investor and advisor, Stern backed a number of companies that she said span the next generation of consumer brands and tech as well as the next generation of B2B businesses that will power them, something she described as “commerce infrastructure.”
Salt Lake City-based Peterson Ventures’ portfolio consists of almost 100 companies and has over $130 million in assets under management. It focuses exclusively on early-stage investing into consumer and enterprise startups, typically investing $750,000 to $1.5 million while also reserving follow-on capital to support future growth.
Consumer portfolio investments include brands such as Ethos, Allbirds and Bonobos. Enterprise investments include SaaS platforms like Lucid and HireVue, which the firm believes “are disrupting the future of work with web-based collaboration tools.”
Peterson Ventures is part of the Peterson Partners, an independent investment management firm that has over $650 million in assets under management.
Davis Smith, founder & CEO at Peterson Ventures portfolio company Cotopaxi, believes Peterson Ventures is unique in that it was founded by a business school professor, not by the “typical” venture capitalist.
“Joel Peterson has taught and coached entrepreneurs as a Stanford professor for decades, and that spirit of learning and mentoring is deeply rooted in the culture and mission of his venture firm,” he said. “Given that spirit, it’s not surprising that Ilana, their newest partner, is one of Joels’s former students, a former CEO backed by Joel, and someone who is equally passionate about sharing her success with the next generation of entrepreneurs.”
Illustration: Li-Anne Dias