The Interview: Shelly Kapoor Collins Gets Real

By Janet Reilly

On an average busy day, Shelly Kapoor Collins, who lives in Danville with her husband Patrick and two children, can be seen in meetings with colleagues throughout the Bay Area. (Peter Prato)

For more than two decades, Shelly Kapoor Collins has entrenched herself in Silicon Valley. She spent a decade at Oracle before founding and running her own companies, creating innovative tech products and advocating for STEM education for women and girls around the world. Collins has also worked at the highest level of politics, giving tech advice to President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign and serving as vice chair of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Women in Public Service Project.

But all that experience was just a stepping-stone to the Shatter Fund — the venture capital firm she founded in 2017. The group invests exclusively in high-potential, female-led companies like Glamsquad (an app that brings hair and make-up services to your home) and UrbanSitter, which allows parents to search for, book, pay and review babysitters and nannies. Listening to Collins talk, you’ll know that Shatter Fund is more than a job, it’s a calling.

On a recent morning, I sat down with Collins — who was clad in head-to-toe black, and chic gold Chanel earrings — for a candid chat about raising money, making money and making an impact for women in tech.

You founded the Shatter Fund in 2017. Why was it necessary to form a VC firm that exclusively funds women? When I started Shatter, it was, literally, the culmination of my entire career. It was like, “What do I do with all this information?” But I’ll start off with an anecdote: I went to meet a top VC in the City, and I was pitching her on the fund. I said, “Look, I’m a first-time fund manager, but here’s why women need capital and access to markets and networks in rooms like this. Here’s why we need to scale companies and have a hand in influencing innovation.” We talked for a while, she loved what I was doing, and she asked one question: “Shelly, you could have probably gone to any VC firm in the Valley. Why did you start Shatter?”

And, what did you say? Fair question. When there are more women in the investment decision-making process, female entrepreneurs are two and a half times more likely to get that capital — that’s one piece of it. But then the other change I wanted to see was cultural, meaning more women at the table and more women founders. … The only way you can do that is to go into your own firm and start the cultural change, so it’s top-down, bottom-up. I think that was the biggest reason I started it.

I recently read that, in 2016, less than 3 percent of all the venture funds went to women. Is that your experience? Yes. I think it may have even gone down a little bit. Here’s what’s happening: There’s more visibility for the issue of women getting capital. There are 66 percent greater returns for female-led-and-founded companies than for an all-male company. The return on investment is greater, but the access is not there, and so that’s the key issue we’re look-ing to solve. While the dialogue is out there, the action hasn’t caught up.

“Success is finishing what you’ve started. Whatever your goal is. I have figured out that you have to have focus.”

— Shelly Kapoor Collins

Why then is it that other VCs are not clamoring to find and fund these women-led businesses? Economically, it doesn’t make sense.That is the biggest case I’m making at Shatter. I’m saying “Look, this is not a mission-driven fund.This is not a social impact plan. This is a returns-driven fund. Don’t you want to make more money?”… [A male VC told me],“There’s no difference between men and women. Everybody gets the same capital.” I said, “Then how do you explain the 2 percent of access to capital that women have?” I think people don’t believe it. I’ve had prominent people tell me, “I don’t care if it’s a manor a woman,” but we should care. We should care because the returns are greater and because we need that diverse point of view in designing solutions. It makes no sense that people are making products and solutions for us [women] when we don’t have a hand in building those solutions.

What do women-founded companies do differently from male-founded companies? Here’s one example: It’s not about a company, it’s more of a past experience that I had. I was at the Women in Public Service Project that Hillary Clinton started when she was at the State Department. I became a vice chair of it. One of the things we were looking to do was bring more women, globally, into public service. As a part of that, we went to India and found there was one woman who received [the] tools to [become] head of her council in her town…. Do you know the first action she took? She built toilets in schools, which had never been done, and you think, “OK, why does that matter? What’s the difference?” The difference is parents were scared to send their girls to schools because these are rural towns — and when the girls would go out to the fields to relieve themselves, they would be attacked. … So, girls could now go feel safe and go get an education. Those toilets were directly correlated to a higher education for those girls who were having to stay at home.Women see things differently. We see things how we want them to be.

What do you look for in an entrepreneur or in an idea when deciding whether or not to fund? Most of it is evidence-based objective funding. I have a thesis. My thesis involves some very strict criteria. I have fiduciary duty to my investors, and that is my number one goal. … You have to have a critical issue that you’re solving in a large market. That’s really important for us. Then, there is also a bit of a subjective gut check. What is the team like? Do I feel like they present well? Do they articulate well? Can they go to an investor and communicate their story and be believable? … You just can’t throw up a website and say you’re a tech company.

What are some of the companies you’ve invested in that other VCs may have passed on? I can tell you what I’ve invested in and I’m sure, somewhere along the way, someone has passed on: Hint Water, even though it’s my first nontech investment. I really believe in the founder and I believe in what she’s built. She’s San Francisco-based and I’ve seen her trajectory, and it was really easy for me to say I really want to be a part of this and I want to invest. UrbanSitter is another one just like that.

Why UrbanSitter? If you ask me what is the number one obstacle to innovation for women, it’s childcare. They solved that issue of being able to have trusted childcare [via friends’ recommendations]. By the way, when [the sitters] leave at night, I’m not searching for my wallet. I don’t have to stop for cash. It’s like Uber. I’m all done, and it’s on my credit card. Plus, I know the founder.

What did you see in Glamsquad? I saw that they are solving an everyday need. They are bringing efficiency to the lives of women like me. I’m a working mom. I have no time in the day, and they were giving me back my time. I didn’t have togo to the salon. I didn’t have to waste my time parking.

Are there common mistakes women make when making a pitch?Sometimes [women] speak too softly. I would love to hear them just kind of own their power. … Don’t be so eager — be eager, but be grounded and know that you’re here for this opportunity, but don’t give it away.

What do you mean by that? “I’ll give you the product for free or I’ll give you a discount.” I mean, I’m a big believer that women should know their own value and if you’re worth something, then you stick by that; if someone wants something for free, don’t do that. You get paid what you’re supposed to get paid for your product, for your time, for your service, and that goes for investing.

What business sectors are you particularly excited about? Health and wellness is very dear to my heart. I think anything in fashion and from the standpoint of scaling to large markets at the cheapest-cost mass production for millennials — that is really exciting to me. Anything to do with millennials really gets my interest.

And, what do millennials want? They want it now. They want it fast. The experience — they’re not so much about the trendy product. They’re not brand-driven. They want something for them. Something that is unique. That’s the only way I can put it.

What makes you unique as a female VC? Maybe that’s redundant because there aren’t that many of you … It’s my own hands-on experience. I invest in technology. I invest in areas that I know, fintech, healthtech, AI is very important for me. … I was a programmer, I developed products, I’ve been in the trenches — I mean, I’ve had my product stolen from me. I’ve lived the scenarios of female entrepreneurs. I didn’t just wake up one day and say, “Oh, I think I’ll try this female entrepreneur thing.” I’ve been doing the work for over 20 years and just decided to formalize it. I think the other thing is that I have a lot of empathy, and empathy does not mean that you just go invest in everyone. … But empathy does resonate with founders, and that’s important because then they want to work with you. The founders have choices. There’s a lot of cash floating around right now, especially at the early stage. They can pick who they want to work with. I also think women founders like to work with other women.

You’ve been working in Silicon Valley for a long time. Are you optimistic about the future of tech, in terms of gender equity? At the basis of tech is engineering. Tech is engineering, and it’s really a pipeline issue. How many girls go into engineering? If I work backwards, how many of those girls were in math or science? Starting at the age of — I think it’s the third grade — girls start to realize there’s a difference in [how math is taught to] girls and boys.

I’m observing my own daughter, and she’s 11 and a half. It starts at school and there’s only so much influence at home. I used to think that my daughter will be different … I’m a techie, she’ll be fine. But around the fourth grade, she started to say to me, “Math is not my subject.” I said, “Where are you getting that?” Then, one day her friend came home and I was like, “Did you guys do this [math] assignment together?” She said, “Oh no, math is not my subject.”

So they’re learning it from each other at school and I don’t know why that is and how we can change that. I think teachers probably need to be more cognizant. I think that we need to have more awareness and not just teach girls they’re both the same — which they are, but also say, “Hey, guys, this is for boys and girls.”

I am excited for my daughter’s generation. I think women are becoming more vocal about it, but even then it’s not enough. It’s really going to take men leading, well-known men to help drive the change. There is room for a male champion to come in and say, “This can’t be like this,” and to actually push that data forward, and only then will other men fall in line as well.

Any idea who that one guy could be? Do you want to give him a shout-out? I think it could be Richard Branson. I think he has the ability to drive that change.

You worked in the Obama administration, you’ve worked with Hillary Clinton when she was secretary of state. Have you ever thought about running for office? I have no desire to run for office. I’m not that person. I want to be the person behind the scenes, which is more comfortable for me. … I think anyone who is not giving back or involved in public service is just missing out. I can’t say enough about it. Whether it’s politics, whether it’s elected office or nonelected office, whatever it is, you have to give back. That’s what needs to trickle down to the next generation.

The Lightning Round

How do you define success? I would say success is finishing what you’ve started. Whatever your goal is. I have figured out that you have to have focus. It doesn’t happen without focus.

I’m happiest when … I’ve had my workout in the morning.

My biggest regret … Spending too much time, perhaps, worrying about what other people thought of me. As soon as I let go of that, I was able to do and become the things I wanted to be.

If I had a magic wand, I would … Close my eyes and be able to cut traffic and get to the next place.

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