A Force for Good in Silicon Valley

Robin Richards Donohoe on using her venture capital skills to empower nonprofits and break barriers with the help of a “lean-in boss.”

Story By Flora Tsapovsky | Photo by Anastasia Sierra

When your business partner calls you his favorite person in the world outside of his immediate family, you know you’re doing something right.

But with all respect to Bill Draper, who lavished such praise upon Robin Richards Donohoe, his colleague at the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation might top many people’s “favorite person” lists these days as she takes their self-titled “global venture philanthropy firm” to the next level.

Richards Donohoe joined Draper’s for-profit VC operation in 1994 after graduating from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Today she co-chairs the DRK Foundation, with Draper and Robert Kaplan, focusing on nonprofits, social enterprises and eco-friendly ventures, all geared to better the planet. With more than 100 brands under its belt, Draper Richards Kaplan has become an MVP on one of the hottest playgrounds of the moment: social venture capital.

Before pivoting to philanthropy in 2002, Draper and Richards Donohoe operated two venture funds, one international and one domestic. “We were able to have great success with companies like Skype and Hotmail, and in the meantime, personally, I got together with a classmate and now have four children,” says the Georgia native and current resident of San Francisco’s Seacliff neighborhood, emitting the slightest Southern accent.

It all sounds so casual, but Richards Donohoe doesn’t gloss over the fact that she got very lucky, making partner within a year of working with Draper. “My saving grace was that Bill was what you call a ‘lean-in boss,’” she says, referencing Sheryl Sandberg’s book. “I saw that he has two incredible daughters and a wife who are strong in the workforce, so I knew I should take the job with him. He put my name on the door pretty fast.”

Draper, one of America’s first venture capitalists, had recruited Richards Donohoe after witnessing the sophisticated way she led a meeting as a student at Stanford. “I had breakfast the next day and was blown away by her Southern charm and brilliant Phi Beta Kappa mind,” he says.

Despite her rapid ascent to the corner office, Richards Donohue still experienced sexism as an ambitious twentysomething woman in male-dominated Silicon Valley.

“Many times [I went] into a meeting and people thought I was getting the coffee order,” Richards Donohoe recalls. “And Bill would say, ‘This is my partner, she will present today, and you’ll be very impressed.’” This approach, she says, remains a rarity: “There are very few men in the Valley who are willing to do this—hire young female analysts, and let them prove themselves as they go up the ranks. Why not hire a male and female intern in the summer?”

These days, in addition to leading by example on gender equality, with more women than men on staff and two out of five highest-ranking positions occupied by women, the foundation is cornering a space many other venture capitalists have yet to fill.

“At some point Bill said, ‘We’ve made enough money—let’s do some good,’” says Richards Donohoe. “We wanted to find a way to give back to the world in a way that’s interesting and strategic—not just making money through software.” The solution: Take everything they’d learned in the for-profit world and redirect it into nonprofits such as Room to Read, which addresses girls’ education and children’s literacy in Asia and Africa, or Essie Justice Group, an organization targeting social injustice. The foundation’s portfolio features local stars like Kiva, a person-to-person lending marketplace helping impoverished communities, alongside global efforts like Nest, focused on artisan business development in South America, Asia and Africa.

“We came up with a model” to find “extraordinary entrepreneurs focusing on social issues and impact and get involved early on,” Richards Donohoe explains. “It’s really venture capital business applied to social issues.” The group, which includes eight managing directors who work with startups as board members and advisers, likes to invest in people “looking at very big problems and aiming to move the dial on topics like poverty, global warming, education.”

Richards Donohoe got bit by the philanthropy bug growing up the daughter of “very community-minded parents” who reinforced the values of contributing to society—taking meals to people who were new to town, helping the community hospital, supporting local journalism. “I’ve had great examples all around me and lessons of giving back,” she says, “so through my career I’ve been always on philanthropic boards alongside my day job.”

Key board positions include the Exploratorium, a public learning lab in San Francisco, and the UCSF Foundation’s Board of Overseers. Five years ago, she founded The Bluefield Project, a foundation dedicated to the research of frontotemporal dementia, a disease which runs in her family. (Her husband, Chris Donohoe, a singer-songwriter, sits on Bluefield’s Board of Directors.) At Draper Richards Kaplan, she says, “We feel great about the fact that we can be an agent for others to do social work,” noting, with sarcasm: “We’re not waiting on the government to solve problems, because we think we can wait a long time.”

Does she have a favorite cause? “It’s like having 120 children,” she laughs. “It’s hard to pick a favorite. I have story after story of extraordinary entrepreneurs with great ideas, who are using data and looking to help global issues in the most strategic fashion.”

Back to being a favorite.

“Robin is that unique person in the world who has the ‘trifecta’ of personal skills that make her see the possible in the impossible, see the best in everybody and help them believe in their ability to make a difference,” says Jim Bildner, CEO of Draper Richards Kaplan. “Sure, she’s super-smart, that’s a given. But what makes her unique is that she also has a heart the size of California and a kindness and personal grace that is all too rare these days,” he praises. “The combination of these personal attributes has led to all her many successes and the many yet to come.”

Last year, Bildner says, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where Richards Donohoe completed her undergraduate degree in international studies, honored her and “interviewed literally 50 people and asked them to describe her. The words that kept appearing were: super-smart, huge heart, kind and full of love and hope.” In other words, according to Bildner, “The world is a much better place with her in it.”

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