March 18, 2021
Diversity KauffmanWomen women

KauffmanWomen: Q&A with KFP Board Chair Susan Mason

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Happy International Women’s Month! We are thrilled to celebrate the social, economic and cultural achievements of women not only today, but everyday — through the launch of KauffmanWomen

KauffmanWomen is a new blog series featuring women leaders within the Kauffman Fellows network. The series is published in the Kauffman Fellows Journal, as well as in the Kauffman Newsletter.

Our first guest is Kauffman Fellows board chair Susan Mason (Class 2). Susan shares with us how much she values transparency in working with founders, incremental shifts in board diversity that she has observed over her career, and her belief in the Golden Rule. 

Susan is the co-founder and managing partner of Aligned Partners, a venture capital firm with $125 million in capital across three funds since 2011. Prior to that, she spent 15 years with ONSET Ventures, an early stage venture capital firm with $1 billion under management. Susan has specialized in investing in the information technology sector, specifically communications and security. 

Outside of investing, Susan is a founding board member of the Center for Venture Education, which operates the Kauffman Fellows Program. Susan is also chairman of the Finance and Investment Committee for the town of Los Altos Hills in California.

 

What is the most meaningful way you support your founders, beyond capital?

We view our role in venture capital to be one of partnership with our entrepreneurs. We believe this is one of the reasons why we have been honored to have so many returning entrepreneurs, entrepreneurs we’ve backed previously, as founders in our portfolio of companies. We focus our energies on building and maintaining trust with the team through our interactions with them. Transparency in our approach to working with them to build companies in a capital efficient manner is key to our success with them. 

We always try to explain the trade-offs in the various decision making aspects of building a company so that all of us around the table feel like we’re making informed decisions. We talk about examples in our investing past where things worked out but also where things didn’t work out and our analysis of why they did or didn’t work out. We’re not afraid to spend time talking about bad decisions and the thought process we used when executing those decisions in order to refine our approach. And of course we provide models of success and look for those patterns to amplify that activity when we see the trendline accelerating. 

 

In the last few years, what changes have we seen with regards to diversity and representation in the venture capital and startup community? 

I’ve seen an amazing shift in the diversity across my companies as well as the enterprises my companies interact with. For the first time in my 20+years career, I have been on multiple company boards where 90% of the people around the boardroom are women (entrepreneurs, CEOs, VCs). This is very unique in my career. I came up through the ranks of engineering and general operations where there were very few women anywhere in the organizations.  When I started in venture it was very similar, there were just no other women on company boards or even founders/CEOs of companies.  It’s really been since we founded Aligned Partners in 2011 that we saw a blossoming of women entrepreneurs, CEOs, VCs and board executives. It’s been a wonderful transition and one that happened without us being focused on that activity. 

I think women feel more comfortable working with female GPs and so we end up with great deal flow of female founders and CEOs. In fact we were surprised with our third annual LP meeting when almost all the company presenters were women – a fact we had not even noticed until we saw the dry run. That’s actually the best of all worlds where you have great executives and talent leading your companies without even being aware of their gender. My disappointment is that we do not see enough LatinX or Black founders/executives. That is something that we are working on by consciously expanding our networks beyond our normal individuals. This takes conscious work on our part. I’m happy to say that I believe this quarter we’ll be funding our first Black entrepreneur/CEO and we’re thrilled about him choosing to partner with us to build his next company. But that’s only the first and we still have a lot more work to do to be fully inclusive.

 

What’s one change you would like to create in the world?  

I’m a big believer in the golden rule, “treat others as you would like to be treated”. I think this one rule has the potential to make everything be so much better for all human beings on the planet, and for our planet itself. I try to practice it daily and encourage others to do so by my own actions.

 

What woman leader inspires you the most? 

I am super impressed with Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand.  She has so many leadership qualities that I find super impressive: empathy with her people, ability to consider global considerations but balance with local needs, she provides a new way of viewing power and what that means to a country.

 

KauffmanWomen features insights from women investors, entrepreneurs, and executives within the Kauffman Fellows network. The series is edited by Ernestine Fu (Class 17) and Jessica Straus (Class 22), co-chairs of the Kauffman Women’s Group. 

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