What do we look for in an application?
It’s important to express yourself clearly. Be specific. Be succinct. Can a reader who knows nothing about your firm or your role at the firm read your application, then turn to someone else who also knows nothing about you, and describe you well enough to get that person excited about you? There have been past candidates who would have both benefited from and contributed to Kauffman Fellows, but did not convey how great they are. Their applications did not stand out among the many we receive, nor did they engage us at an emotional level. We were both the poorer for it.
We want to feel connected to you. Your willingness to share important experiences in your life—and convey why they have been meaningful, joyous, torturous, or pivotal—will draw us in and will make you stand out. Your hobby of handling (live) alligators, running a craft brewery, or doing stand-up comedy on the weekends are all legitimate topics if you can relate that activity to how it has shaped your character and defined who you are. Avoid rehashing the accomplishments we can read on your LinkedIn page and opt instead for something that will make us say, “Now there’s an interesting candidate.”
Kauffman Fellows is primarily a mastery program to help already-successful venture investors hone their skills in order to enhance entrepreneurs’ impact. As such, we give weight to your investing experiences as a venture capitalist, corporate venture investor, limited partner, private equity manager, family office manager, or angel investor.
The number of years as a full-time investor isn’t as important as the role you have played and your accomplishments—that number doesn’t tell the whole story. The number of deals you’ve led and the number of board seats you’ve held, however, gives us a general idea of your level of experience and the knowledge you can share with the class. If these numbers don’t paint the whole picture, we invite you to tell us more. We are most interested in the impact you have had on investment decisions.
We recognize that the innovation ecosystem is comprised of more than just investors.
We actively seek and have been enriched by exceptional Fellows who hold non-investing roles. Exceptional. What does that mean? People who have had or have the potential to create a big impact on their ecosystem; who have already accomplished impressive goals; who, though they may not be investors, have spent significant time understanding venture investing in the service of those they serve.
We have welcomed ecosystem-builders in emerging markets, policymakers, managing directors of accelerators, trade association executives, COOs at VC and LP firms, and a VC firm data scientist. These Fellows represent a small but essential part of our society (12% in Class 22), and bring diversity of thought to the conversation.
Although it isn’t the most critical element, we look at your venture firm. Is the firm investing its fourth fund or its first? The benefit of working at a firm that has raised four funds is, well, that they know how to raise funds and stay in business. We assume that the partners at the firm can share with you—either explicitly or via observation—best industry practices and that the firm has an excellent deal flow, has an excellent reputation among entrepreneurs, works with great co-investors, and so on. The firm’s track record is also considered. It consists of the number of portfolio companies they’ve invested in, capital efficiency (exits/capital invested), network centrality (connections to other firms), investment discipline (anecdotal), and most importantly, how honorably they do business. So we give some weight to your application if you work at a top VC firm, or a top accelerator, family office, corporate VC department, or other highly regarded organization.
On the other hand, if you are the founder or co-founder of a first or second fund, we recognize that that takes guts. You are not just an investor, but an entrepreneur. You know how to take a risk and put it all on the line. You started a fund to serve a certain sector—maybe an underserved one. So we give some weight to your investment thesis: why it is unique and why are you the one who will succeed in executing it.
Character of the Individual
Finally, we come to the most important element in the selection process: you, the complete person, the human being.
We are looking for honesty, self-awareness, and insights you have about yourself after past successes and failures, resilience to spring back from failure, and the optimism to imagine a different future. Unlike a typical job application, your honesty about your flaws is attractive to us. We are not looking for platitudes: “My biggest flaw is that I work too hard” or “I give 110% effort to every project.” Take a risk. Be open.
We are looking for people with intellectual curiosity and an openness to different points of view. People who have integrity, authenticity, vulnerability, empathy, gratitude, and humility. We have observed over the past 20+ years that Fellows with these traits relate to others in ways that can lead to deep levels of trust, fostering satisfying partnerships and lifelong friendships.
Summing It Up
We seek exceptional individuals to become Kauffman Fellows. Period. We don’t have rigid rules or requirements. Most candidates excel on some criteria, but are light on others.
Help us understand what is special about you. How can we help you achieve the impact you are trying to make, surmount the challenges you are facing, nurture the insights you can share?
We seek input from people who know you and can create a well-rounded view of your many facets. We seek involvement from your nominator, your recommenders, interviewers, and from the community when we conduct due diligence. And of course, we seek your own perspective via the application. From these sources, we assess your ability to gain value from the Kauffman Fellows experience for your own benefit, that of your firm, and as a global leader in innovation investing. We also consider how you will contribute to the Kauffman Fellows Network during the 2-year Program and afterward.