Create & Cultivate 100: STEM & Finance: Sarah Kunst

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A 2016 study revealed that black women head up only 4% of women-led startups and raise an average $36,000 in funding—or about .01% of the money pulled in by the average successful startup.

Sarah Kunst is in that 4% minority. “Here we are in a country that celebrates black women like Beyonce and Serena Williams—and startup founders who share their race and gender cannot land even 1% of all venture funding,” she wrote in Fortune Magazine after the study was published.

Against these statistical odds and institutional advantages of whiteness and maleness, Sarah has excelled. She is the managing director of Cleo Capital and an investor and entrepreneur who has worked at Apple, Red Bull, Chanel & Mohr Davidow Ventures, to namedrop a few. She was the founder of LA Dodgers-backed app ProDay, a subscription workout app that allows users to workout alongside professional athletes and fitness celebs. Oh, and she’s also a contributing editor at Marie Claire—as her hobby. If her resume isn’t evidence enough, Sarah is a force to be reckoned with and a role model for women trying to break into the boys’ club that is the world of venture capitalism. When she gives you advice, you write it down.

What are the characteristics you look for when investing in someone’s idea or business?

While the market and product have to fit and there has to be a compelling reason that the company could become a billion dollar company, the thing I look for most is a founder who I totally believe in and who won’t quit until they achieve their goal. Someone who is humble, hard working, and a deep thinker I can count on to make me money.

What is your advice for women who want to pitch their businesses to a VC firm?

Research, research, research! So much about getting investment dollars is understanding all of the subtle things about how investors think. Read about their firm, read their Linkedin and other social media, read or listen to interviews with them—the more you know about the people who are going to give you money, the more effectively you can pitch them. Learn a ton about your market as well. Know which companies are already in market, know the total market size, what’s driving growth...There are so many barriers to fundraising, especially for women, but no one reading this has the barrier of not being able to use the internet to research. Use that as your secret weapon. Look at pitch decks and pitch contests or demo days of companies your investor has funded. Be voracious about data gathering and use it to get your money!

As an advisor, can you tell us a little about what this role entails and the kind of work you do?

I help companies. It can be really basic block and tackle things—introducing them to a realtor for office space or someone to put product in their gift bags—or it can be huge things like investor intros, revenue planning, hires and fires. But I’m there to serve the company and be a sounding board to the founders.

You’re also a contributor for Marie Claire. With so many things on your plate, what lead you to take this on and why do you think it’s important for women to explore different avenues of creativity?

I’ve always had a toe in media and I love the team at Marie Claire so it was a no brainer. I also choose to fill my free time with hobbies like this instead of other things. It really energizes me and introduces me to new people and experiences. I think it’s totally fine to focus on your day job and reserve the rest of your time for leisure, but I love to have my hand in several things. Do what feeds you; if that’s doing a lot of stuff, don’t let the leisure lovers get you down!

What do you think your biggest hurdles are in your job, day-to-day and/or long-term?

The hardest part of investing is thinking both long term—when will a company exit, what is coming next for an industry or sector, what is the strategy of the next fund, etc.—while acting and living in the day-to-day.

What is one app you can’t live without and why?

Uber! The ability to get anywhere I need to be with the tap of a button is a life changer.

When you hit a bump or hurdle in your career, how do you find a new road + switch gears to find success?

I used to see every obstacle as a hurdle to jump. Now, I pause and see if they are instead a speed bump and a sign to slow down or go another direction. I think life sends signs and sometimes we’re too busy achieving to focus on if the direction we’re headed in is still the best fit for us. We don’t stop totally until we’re dead, but there’s no shame in pulling over, turning around or driving slowly sometimes. We are not Mario Andretti.

What are you most excited for in 2019?

Love! Loving my job, people and the experiences I have. If that’s the guiding light, everything else gets a lot easier.

What about your job makes you feel the most fulfilled?

Helping people build their dreams. It’s so amazing to be able to be a tiny part of someone’s destiny and mission in the world.

Nothing is easy, so stop trying to figure out easy and instead focus on enjoyable, fulfilling, meaningful.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

“You know what’s easy? Nothing.” Nothing is easy, so stop trying to figure out easy and instead focus on enjoyable, fulfilling, meaningful.

What’s been the biggest surprise or highlight of your career to date?

I never thought I’d be running my own venture fund at 32. It’s been a crazy ride with surreal highs and rock-bottom lows, but I’ve learned so much and met so many people who inspire me that I can’t imagine doing anything else.

What’s your superpower?

I tend to default to “yes.” Yes moves you forward. If it’s a new experience or someone you trust and your gut isn’t screaming “NO,” make time for things and see what happens.

Photography by Annie McElwain Photography

Photoshoot skincare provided by Dermalogica