There are not enough female VCs—that much is known. Unfortunately, there are even fewer Latina VCs.
A 2016 survey jointly conducted by Deloitte and the National Venture Capital Association found that just two percent of all partners in U.S. venture capital firms were Latinx. It also found that Latinx employees represent only four percent of the venture workforce.
Independent research in late 2017 done by two Latina VCs—Emerson Collective’s Jomayra Herrera and Unshackled Ventures’ Maria Salamanca—took that data a step further. The pair uncovered 32 Latinas working in venture capital in some capacity. Of those 32, eight hold partner or managing partner roles, according to Salamanca.
Maria Salamanca, a principal at Unshackled Ventures, got into venture capital right after college. At the time, she was working for FWD.us, Mark Zuckerberg’s immigration lobbying organization. It was in that role she got exposed to VCs and “fell in love with the way the VCs thought in their day-to-day roles.” Salamanca’s boss and mentor then introduced her to the partners at Unshackled.
“[Unshackled] was just getting started, so I ended up joining as the third hire in 2015,” she said.
The sector-agnostic firm is typically focused on pre-seed investments and companies with at least one immigrant founder. So far, Salamanca has made about 30 investments.
Colombian-born Salamanca came to the U.S. when she was seven years old, and grew up in Orlando before going to college at the University of California at Berkeley. When asked about challenges she faced on her road to becoming a VC, 26-year-old Salamanca cited a lack of access to mentors, networks, and resources.
“I think, more often, Latinas either tend to start their own funds or join new and up-and-coming micro-funds,” she told Crunchbase News. “It’s not like joining a firm with an established internal mentorship program. The funds we join are usually less structured and might not have very specific professional development tracks and mentoring. It makes it harder to reach out to partners at other funds, because we don’t have a relationship with them.”
Looking ahead, she believes general partners across all funds need to commit to investing in talented women and people of color.
“I think it’s also going to take more women of color becoming check writers,” Salamanca told Crunchbase News. “The successful deployment of capital and investing in really good fields is one of the biggest success metrics, regardless of mentorship and support. So we have to be able to compete and win deals and invest in them to earn respect, and that means being aggressive and proactive in investing.”
Vanessa Larco, a partner at NEA, said that becoming a venture capitalist has been “much more incredible” than she expected, but it was “never part of the plan.”
While the director of product management for web and mobile apps at Box, Larco connected with NEA General Partner Pete Sonsini. After several months of discussions, Larco joined NEA as an investment partner in October 2016 with a focus on productivity apps or, as she puts it, “apps that make people better at their job.”
“When I got the offer, it was surprising,” Larco, 33, recalled. “It took me a little while to shift what I saw myself doing long term.”
But that wasn’t because Larco was a stranger to entrepreneurship. She started a mobile gaming company for kids called Funloop in 2012, and the hands-on experience sparked her interest in helping other founders bring their products to life. And although Larco is based in San Francisco, her journey didn’t start at the epicenter of tech.
Her Colombian mother and Peruvian father came to the United States for college, and Larco was born in Miami, Florida.
“Miami really is the northernmost point of Latin America—very few people speak English there,” she told Crunchbase News. “I didn’t actually learn English until I was six. Plus, I went to a French school, so my spelling is terrible across all three languages.”
Once in high school, Larco found the college application process to be particularly stressful.
“When I was applying for universities, my parents didn’t know what an SAT was. I went to an inner-city public school, so I didn’t have a ton of guidance there either,” she recalled. “I still look back and can’t quite figure out how I got into Georgia Tech.”
Although her “traditional Latin” parents weren’t familiar with the process, they were more open-minded than most of her Latinx peers, according to Larco.
“My mom was a feminist and progressive, so she encouraged me,” she said.
Now that she’s firmly entrenched in the venture capital industry, Larco believes being a female in a male-dominated environment has posed more challenges than being Latinx. Larco’s most uncomfortable moments have been when founders from other countries have pitched and didn’t realize that she is, in fact, a partner at the firm.
“Some just aren’t familiar with norms or that women can write checks, so it’s awkward until they figure it out. But in some countries, that’s not the case, so they think I’m just a notetaker, and it can be uncomfortable when they realize they are actually pitching me,” Larco recalled. “In general, though, I’m seeing that founders are more thoughtful in how they build out their boards.”
Larco also believes that more diversity awareness that has “created opportunities for people that didn’t typically have them.”
“It’s so much easier to hire your buddy than go outside of your network,” Larco explained. “It does take a lot more effort in most cases to branch out, but hopefully, people are seeing the benefits of it. I look forward to the day when there’s no conversation to be had because there’s so much diversity in all areas, that it’s just a given. I think we can get there; I really do.”
Jomayra Herrera, a 25-year-old manager of edtech investments at Emerson Collective, began working in the venture world in 2016. She was previously working at a startup on the operating side when she “got really excited about the potential to deploy capital for the purpose of creating systemic change.”
Most of her time is spent on ventures related to the future of work, employment, HR, and education. Her firm, which was founded by Laurene Powell Jobs, typically focuses on Series A and B investing. Although Emerson Collective is “very active,” according to Herrera, 90 percent of its investments are done privately.
Both of Herrera’s parents were born in Puerto Rico. She was the first person born in the mainland U.S. She feels like she faces triple challenges as a young Latina VC.
“Most events I go to, I tend to be the only female, and I’m usually the only person of color. Sometimes I’m the youngest person in the room, too,” she told Crunchbase News. “But I will say that, in the past year, a lot has changed. We’re starting to see the rise of groups like All Raise working to bring together female investors in the same room and help build community.”
She also noted that the venture capital industry is not known for its high turnover.
“There’s not a lot of roles that open up frequently,” said Herrera, who received a master’s degree from Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education. “It’s not like firms are hiring all the time, but I’m optimistic that there’s change.” And for those firms that don’t have diverse teams, Herrera said they are “literally leaving money on the table.”
“The problem with a lack of diversity, especially in venture, is that, at the end of the day, you’re investing in a vision you have for the future,” she explained. “And that future will be incredibly diverse and very different from what was in the past. So, you have to have different perspectives.”
As for getting more Latinas into VC, Herrera noted that it is largely a matter of exposure, and many don’t realize it’s even a career path or something to aspire to.
“Earlier exposure can help with that,” she said. “Venture capital is one of those fields that a lot of folks from different backgrounds can succeed in if given the opportunity.”
Personally, I love seeing persons of diverse backgrounds becoming more active in VC. The U.S. population is increasingly diverse, and the industry should reflect that.
Disclosure: Despite my last name, I am not of Latinx origin.