Diversity Seed funding Venture

Exclusive: Refugee Maria Salamanca Makes Partner At Unshackled Ventures, A Firm Investing In Immigrant Founders

Maria Salamanca, a former refugee who came to the U.S. from Colombia at 6 years old, has been promoted to partner at Unshackled Ventures, a firm that invests exclusively in immigrant founders coming to the U.S. She joins a very small group of Latinx female partners at U.S.-based venture firms.

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Unshackled Ventures invests at the earliest stages, often in companies that have not yet incorporated, and supports founders navigating the immigration process.

Salamanca was at the firm for five years before being promoted to partner. On her experience working with founders she said, “I don’t think VCs are fully responsible for any portfolio success, but there are tipping points where a good VC can make a big difference for founders.”

While she originally intended to study law, Salamanca became interested in venture as an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley. Through volunteering with FWD.us, the initiative that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg launched with other tech entrepreneurs to fix immigration, Salamanca met the founders of Unshackled Ventures, Manan Mehta and Nitin Pachisia, at an event. This quickly led to an associate role at the firm in July 2015.

Delay and uncertainty

Salamanca notes that the firm has filed around 150 petitions for founders and has been successful with each. It did not experience impacted approval ratings for founder petitions during the Trump administration compared to the Obama administration, but Salamanca notes “we did see delay, we did see a lot more uncertainty.”

Unshackled works with an immigration team at Serotte Law that partners with each founder on their immigration strategy. The team also hosts an “ask me anything” forum three times a year with Michael Serotte for the broader immigrant community.

Immigration rules have changed significantly in the last four years. “We felt the need from our founders even more so, because navigating the news cycle, and specifically the immigration cycle, something would change every week, every month,” Salamanca said.

Founders want to focus on building their companies, she said. The Unshackled team and its immigration team’s job is to help founders navigate changes. For some countries, the immigration process to the United States became more difficult, and the firm’s partners did see some immigrant founders realize the advantage of spending time in Canada, a country that, in their view, has done well attracting entrepreneurs.

Founders in Unshackled’s current portfolio of 50 companies come from 27 countries.

Reputation is everything

Salamanca was promoted after five years of working on the investment team at Unshackled. The process of getting from associate to partner is not straightforward in venture, as the time frame from an investment to exit can take more than a decade. 

Being helpful to founders through the good and the bad is where you can differentiate yourself as an associate, Salamanca said. She cites Career Karma as an investment she fought for, and when the company grew very quickly with a Series A led by Initialized she was promoted to senior associate.

Working at a small fund with two founding partners has allowed her to learn everything at the firm, she said, from seeing the initial pitch, learning how to analyze a company, understanding what the firm looks for in a founder, how to structure the firm’s pipeline review, the legal process, and how to incorporate feedback for the partners at the firm. 

Given that the team invests at pre-seed, I asked Salamanca how the firm selects the companies it invests in. 

“I care a lot less how you will use money and a lot more how you will use time,” she said, emphasizing the importance of a founder “getting to understand the customer and the customer’s willingness to pay.”

Unshackled Ventures Fund II was announced in January 2019 with $20 million to invest. Its first fund, raised in 2014, was much smaller at $4.5 million. Its limited partners include Laurene Powell Jobs from the Emerson Collective, Bloomberg Beta and Jerry Yang

The firm currently invests in 18-20 companies — typically pre-incorporation, pre-product, and pre-revenue — per annum with an average check size of $250,000, and looks to own 6 percent to 10 percent of the company. The firm uses the YC Safe note, an innovation in seed launched in late 2013, and does not take board seats given how early it invests. 

Of its portfolio, 40 percent have a female founder and 14 percent have a Black or Latinx founder. 

The firm expanded in 2020, hiring other junior team members including Sarah Holmes and Faye Maidment, as well as summer fellow E’mani Davis.

On Dispo

The firm was an investor in social photo-sharing app Dispo in October 2020 in advance of all the attention the app is now attracting. 

When I asked Salamanca how that investment came together, she said their newest team member, Holmes, focuses on enterprise and introduced Dispo to Maidment and Salamanca. Dispo co-founder David Dobrik is a well-known YouTube star and is also a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals immigrant from Slovakia. 

As an investor in the consumer space, Salamanca sees a generational demographic shift for Gen Z. Having grown up with social media, the generation is much more aware of mental health issues related to their online lives, she said. 

Daniel Liss, the CEO at Dispo says the new wave of social “will be defined by intimacy, not broadcasting.” Instead of spending time at a party taking pictures and editing for 30 minutes, for instance, the app allows you to take snaps as you would with a disposable camera. The next morning you can see your pictures, with no editing, and decide to publish or not. That way you can enjoy the actual experience and relive it the next day. 

For Salamanca, the future of consumer social will be “authentic, collaborative and gamified.” 

Other pre-seed investments

Another investment that Salamanca focused on is Aavia, an app for the Gen Z generation that focuses on women’s hormonal cycles. 

The investments that Salamanca has led in pre-seed before other firms also include edtech company Inspirit Learning, beauty company Prismpop, men’s hormones company Maximus, collaborative design platform The Landing, and beauty and hair company Hairtelligence. Salamana is also active in Out in Tech, LatinxVC and co-leads one of All Raise’s committees.

Photo of Maria Salamanca courtesy of Unshackled Ventures.

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