VC Firm Ulu Ventures Connects Diversity to Profitability

By James Peter Rubin

(Reprint from article in Karma Network June 10, 2019)

 

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VC firms may vow to support diversity, but the numbers don’t bear that out.

Only about 9% of venture capital flowed into companies that women entrepreneurs run; a minuscule 1% and 2%, respectively, to those of black and Hispanic founders, according to a study by RateMyInvestor and Venture VC. Almost 80% went to firms led by whites.

Ulu Ventures believes it’s found a system that enables it to pinpoint winners while supporting a higher percentage of diversity entrepreneurs. Notable wins include software powerhouse Palantir; data management platform Krux, which Salesforce acquired in 2016; and Blue River, whose artificial intelligence helps farmers reduce pesticide use by helping find and kill weeds and other unwanted plants.

The Palo Alto, California-based venture capital firm uses an objective scoring system to evaluate every potential investment, avoiding the biases about gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation that have lead other VC firms to miss opportunities, said Clint Korver, who co-founded Ulu Ventures with Miriam Rivera, a former Google executive. Korver and Rivera, who are married, established their firm in 2008 to support their belief that diversity is not only a just cause but also makes good business sense.

“I want to demonstrate that diversity is very profitable and that people are missing out when they exclude women and diverse founders from the teams they invest in,” Rivera told Karma. “I’m very public about wanting to have diverse teams in our portfolio. It’s an integral part of Ulu Ventures.

VC investors ignore women and minority-led firms at their peril as the economic clout of these groups grow. Women comprise nearly 51% of the U.S. population and the number of Hispanics, the country’s fastest-growing demographic group, has increased roughly sixfold over the past half century. Hispanics represented about $1.4 trillion in buying power in 2016, according to a report by the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia. Also, the report said the Hispanic, African-American and Asian markets are expanding more quickly than the market for whites.

“Minority buying power is growing at a faster pace than the white consumer market for a number of reasons, such as demographics, increases in educational attainment and entrepreneurial activity,” wrote Jeff Humphreys, director of the Selig Center.

Women founded almost two in five of Ulu Ventures’ investment companies, minorities almost the same percentage and immigrants are also about 20% in its portfolio.

Even so, most VC-backed early stage companies remain “overwhelmingly white, male, Ivy League-educated and based in Silicon Valley,” according to the report by RateMyInvestor, whose platform allows entrepreneurs to rate investors, and DiversityVC, which promotes diversity efforts. In a February interview with Crunchbase, RateMyInvestor’s Chief Growth Officer Anthony Zhang called many VC diversity efforts “lip service.”

Still, Rivera has seen hopeful signs. In its first funds, the make-up of management teams was rarely a topic of interest for Ulu investors. Now investors are asking about management diversity in Ulu Ventures’ next fund scheduled to begin next year. “We’re seeing people positively interested in the (diversity) thesis that we have,” Rivera said, adding that “in the last fund, it was more an appendix at the back of the deck.”

Investors aren’t necessarily doing this to make themselves feel good. It’s about strong returns. Ulu Ventures’ own success underscores the link between diversity and financial results. The company says it finished in the top quartile of Cambridge Associates’ regular surveys of venture capital performance Rivera says Ulu Ventures makes follow-up investments at a much higher rate than its competitors, proving it is committed to its investment philosophies.

History 

Rivera and Korver have deep roots in Silicon Valley. Both arrived in the 1980s to study at Stanford; Rivera as an undergrad (she also holds a law degree and MBA from the school) and Korver for a Ph.D. in engineering economic systems. By the time they started Ulu Ventures, both were fully immersed in Silicon Valley’s tech culture. Rivera served as deputy general counsel for Google, among other positions, while Korver taught at Stanford, started four companies (one with Rivera) and advised others.

Also, Rivera co-founded the Stanford Angels and Entrepreneurs, a group that provides financial support and other resources for Stanford-alumni-led companies, and was a member of the board of trustees for five years.

In her Google role, she helped build a diverse legal department, recruiting a number of women and minorities. Korver’s expertise in individual and organizational decision making has guided the company’s methods for choosing investments. He is responsible for the grading rubric that standardizes the criteria that Ulu uses to evaluate companies.

Portfolio and Social Consciousness 

Ulu Ventures focuses on providing seed money for start-ups — usually about $500,000 — although its portfolio has included some series A rounds totaling as much as $2 million.

Rivera and Korver funded their first investments with $3.4 million in Rivera’s Google stock. They invested in 64 companies before closing the fund in 2016. A second fund, which is still active, has 59 companies with a target of 70. Ulu Ventures plans a third fund for next year.

The firm invests in edtech, enterprise IT, fintech and smart data, weighing heavily toward companies that address social responsibility and environmental concerns.

Its investments include Landed, which helps teachers buy homes in metropolitan areas where the cost of living outstrips their salaries; Populus, which provides a platform for managing bike, scooter and other shared transportation programs; Zum, a ride and activities scheduling system for families with children.

Others include Beam, whose system serves as a broker for consumers to purchase goods from brands committed to social responsibility. The brands donate a portion of sales to non-profits and other worthy causes; tEQuitable, whose platform allows employees to report bias and discrimination incidents at work; and Viridis, which provides online job training and other resources targeting blue collar workers.

Methods 

The firm works largely with Stanford alumni and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. After initial talks with companies they may invest in, Rivera and Korver use what they call a “rubric,” rating companies in seven categories to determine if they want to continue. The categories include traditional areas of VC interest such as market potential, investment size, quality of the management team and their product. Of course, they’re also looking at diversity.

At follow-up meetings, Ulu Ventures considers the risk of an investment and conducts what it calls market mapping, sharing its initial findings to help companies size up the potential opportunity for products and services. Ulu Ventures then decides whether to invest.

San Francisco-based Landed found the market mapping particularly helpful when it met Rivera and Korver early in its four-year history. Landed CEO Jonathan Asmis said that Ulu Ventures looked at his company’s potential market with a level of detail beyond other VCs. That included looking at Landed’s diverse management team.

“It felt like a lot of early stage VCs were following patterns,” Asmis told Karma. “They were more structured in their decision making. What was interesting was their willingness to analyze the opportunity we had from the standpoint of how big the problem was and what we were doing to solve it,” he said. Ulu invested $500,000, which was the largest check that Landed had received at that point. The VC firm invested an additional $1.5 million over the ensuing 18 months and served as a sounding board for its subsequent investment strategy and on other issues. The company now has clients in four major markets and 30 employees, and is seeking Series B funding.

“They were always willing to be helpful and partner with us,” Asmis said. “They took a longer view of their investment.”


Ulu Ventures is a seed stage venture firm investing primarily in enterprise IT. Ulu focuses on the market opportunity created by the Stanford and Silicon Valley communities and uses data-driven portfolio construction, explicit measurement of risk, and principled, repeatable decision making. Decision analysis also reduces cognitive bias and has made Ulu’s portfolio quite diverse by industry standards. 33% of Ulu’s CEOs are women. This makes Ulu conventional in the world of institutional investors but contrarian as compared to other VCs.