Celebrating a Decade Together, Passing the Baton
Last week, we shared the exciting news that Fernando Fabre (KF 14) will step in as the new Kauffman Fellows CEO. Kauffman Fellows has chosen an exceptional leader to pick up the baton from the remarkable Jeff Harbach, who after ten years with the organization and 7.5 years as CEO, announced his last day as CEO via LinkedIn. In today’s KFJ, we interview the outgoing Kauffman Fellows CEO as we reflect on his impactful tenure at the organization, marked by constant inflection points and growth. Jeff shares some of his proudest moments and the legacy he hopes to leave, as well as some words of wisdom for his successor. Kauffman Fellows is tremendously grateful to Jeff for his dedication and contributions to our organization – and we can’t wait to see what this next chapter has in store for him!
If you had to summarize your Kauffman Fellows CEO journey in 5 words, what would they be?
Constant inflection points and growth.
Can you highlight a particularly impactful initiative or program implemented during your time as CEO that you're proud of?
Gosh, it’s nearly impossible to narrow this list down, but I’ll try. Here are five overall areas of growth that the organization achieved under my tenure as CEO that I’m particularly proud of:
- Financial sustainability: I’m proud of the business model changes we’ve made as a non-profit to ensure financial sustainability, including the launch of Kauffman Fellows Fund I. Kauffman Fellows is a fiscally sound organization and is in a secure financial position for the future.
- Global brand: Thanks to the high quality of our Fellows and the great work that they do, we are globally recognized as the largest and strongest network of venture capitalists in the world. Our global brand strength has never been stronger.
- Network growth: 536 of the 882 Fellows in our network were added over the last 10 years. That’s 60% of our global network!
- Global expansion: 23 of the 58 countries represented in our network were added over the last 10 years. That’s 39% of the countries in our network!
- Diversity: I’m proud of the quality and diversity of our Fellows, especially those who were selected during my tenure as CEO. Of the 536 Fellows added over the last 10 years, 198 (37%) are female investors, and 78 (15%) are from under-represented backgrounds.
But for the purpose of this question, I would say that I’m most proud of the focus we put on the two-year program. We engaged countless learning design experts, both as full-time team members and consultants, to help us constantly innovate to where we are today. I’m particularly proud of the changes we have made to Module 1 because it has become a truly foundational, and transformational, experience for each Fellow.
What legacy or mark do you hope to have left on Kauffman Fellows?
My authentic leadership style is one of full-body presence, deep listening, authentic conversations that matter, and trust. And I strived to show up this way in every interaction I had during my tenure as CEO.
This started with the team. I was intent on creating an environment for open, safe, and brave conversations. Committing to this can be messy and difficult at times, and we don’t always get it right. But if we get off alignment, we pause, assess, and recommit. And I believe that has created a positive culture within the team.
I extended this approach to every interaction I had with the Fellows, both in group settings and in 1:1s. This has led to what I would consider to be some beautifully raw and open group discussions where individuals were provided a safe space to explore thoughts and emotions. For most of us, it is unique to have this safe and brave space, as there are very few (if any) other circumstances in life that provide it.
What have been your most fulfilling or rewarding moments during your tenure as CEO?
Honestly, too many to count. That is what made my time at Kauffman Fellows so special. One of my primary goals as CEO was to help each Fellow become the best version of themselves because I believe better people make better investors. But how does someone actually become the best version of themselves? Often, it can be a rather difficult process. We have to learn how to recognize when we are not at our best and develop tools for understanding our triggers. We have to mess up. We have to be willing to allow our blind spots to be revealed to us and be willing to see them.
With that context, some of my favorite moments were being with Fellows while they were going through their own personal and professional inflection points. Closing their first deal, realizing their first exit, successfully raising their first fund, or building a lasting franchise and legacy were all incredible accomplishments to be a small part of.
Equally as rewarding were the opportunities to be there for critical life events: weddings, the grief of having miscarriages, the joy of having children, mourning the loss of loved ones, personal health tragedies and triumphs, and everything in between. Watching these incredible humans learn from these important inflection points and lean into the growth that can come from them has left an indelible impact on me.
One particularly rewarding moment that I will never forget was when I was working with the team to organize the forums during the design of a particular KF Class. One of the forums was constructed as follows: a woman from Israel, a woman from Greece, a man from Saudi Arabia, a man from the UAE, a man from Germany, and a man from Russia. We looked at this forum and thought: “Wow, this could be either really difficult or really special.” On the first day of the module, there was instant camaraderie because the woman from Israel so openly embraced the man from Saudi Arabia. I was in awe at her openness, and her vulnerability, and her willingness to cast aside stereotypes and embrace the best parts of humanity. At the end of the four days together for the first module, this forum shared a special closeness and a bond that inspired everyone in the class.
Can you share a personal inflection point during your tenure that significantly shaped your leadership style or approach?
My most impactful personal inflection points came when someone (usually a team member or Fellow) was brave enough to help me recognize a blind spot. We are all a product of our lived experiences, which shape our way of seeing the world. But the power of a diverse team and diverse network is that you bring together many different people with many different lived experiences. Without sharing a specific situation out of respect for the individuals involved, I will simply say that my personal growth during my time as CEO is a direct result of wonderful humans who are different from me, being willing to speak up, challenge my assumptions, and reveal my own biases.
What valuable insight or knowledge do you wish you could have shared with yourself at the start of your KF CEO journey?
If I were to share valuable insights with myself at the start of my KF CEO journey or at the start of any significant leadership role, these would be the key pieces of advice:
- Embrace the Learning Curve: Accept that you don't have all the answers and that making mistakes is a crucial part of the learning process. Be open to continuous learning and actively seek feedback and advice from mentors, peers, and team members.
- Cultivate Relationships: Building strong, genuine relationships is vital. Invest time in getting to know your team, board members, and stakeholders. Understand their perspectives, motivations, and concerns. Strong relationships are the foundation of effective leadership and collaboration.
- Prioritize Self-Care and Resilience: Leadership roles are demanding. Prioritize your physical and mental well-being to maintain resilience. Work-life balance is essential, not just for personal health but also for maintaining effective leadership.
- Empower and Trust Your Team: Delegate effectively and trust your team with responsibilities. Empowering others not only fosters growth and development but also builds a more robust and capable team.
- Effective Communication is Key: Be clear, transparent, and consistent in your communication. Whether it's sharing the vision, setting expectations, or providing feedback, effective communication is essential in leading any organization, particularly this organization (in my opinion).
- Be Prepared for Tough Decisions: Leadership involves making difficult decisions that may not please everyone. Be prepared to make these decisions guided by the organization's best interests, ethics, and integrity.
- Reflect and Evolve: Regularly take time to reflect on your progress, the lessons learned, and areas for improvement. Personal and professional growth is a continuous journey.
How do you envision Kauffman Fellows evolving or growing in the years to come, and what opportunities do you foresee for the organization?
My vision and hope for the future of Kauffman Fellows is for this organization to continue to be the best in the world in three areas:
- Accelerate: Be the best in the world at accelerating the learning and growth of diverse venture capital investors and innovation leaders.
- Connect: Be the most important network for our Fellows that focuses on continued learning, acceleration, and growth.
- Capitalize: Amplify the brands of our Fellows so that LPs recognize that this is the most important group of VCs in the world.
I believe that under Fernando’s leadership, Kauffman Fellows will pursue goals that will contribute to realizing our full potential in these areas.
As you pass the baton over to the next Kauffman Fellows CEO, what advice would you offer to your successor?
The Kauffman Fellows Network comprises intelligent, articulate, passionate individuals who spend the majority of their time evaluating businesses and CEO performance. As such, they will often not hold back when they have opinions about issues relating to the VC industry or Kauffman Fellows's role in it. My advice is first to listen with the intent to learn. Really listen to people and develop a deep understanding of different perspectives. As a leader, I believe it is very important to develop your own beliefs and convictions as a result of what you learn while maintaining a growth mindset and a willingness to evolve and enhance your perspectives. And…have fun! We’re all behind you Fernando Fabre! Onward Kauffman Fellows!