“I’m a 17-year-old girl at heart,” says 36-year-old Armidale-born Nisha Dua, co-founder of BBG Ventures, a New York-based seed stage venture capital fund that invests in women-led consumer tech startups. “I’ve always been obsessed with the “new new” – the latest brands, products and technology. I’m that person who needs to get their hands on the newest thing.” Incidentally, she wields a mean roundhouse kick (she has a black belt in Karate) and has a penchant for singing. Dua who has always loved to lead and have a seat at the table recently returned home to share her knowledge with Australia’s future VC’s as a guest lecturer at VC Catalyst. “I’ve always wanted to be in the room where it happened. Like in the Hamilton song,” she says warmly. “But it took me a long time to realise that my personal passions could – and would – be the catalyst to get me into those rooms.”
Dua started BBG Ventures in 2014 with her former boss at AOL Susan Lyne to capitalize on the new wave of female founders and female consumers emerging as transformational agents in the world, both politically and socially. Women make or influence 85 per cent of consumer purchases and women are also the power users of most major mobile, social and other online platforms, according to Dua. Twenty per cent more women than men use Facebook and WhatsApp; 30 per cent more are on Instagram; 35 per cent more are on Snapchat. Women also spend 31 per cent more minutes on their mobile phone a day, 28 per cent more time mobile shopping, and 31 per cent more time in mobile gaming apps. “Despite these figures, female-founded startups in the US received 2.2 per cent of venture dollars in 2018 and mixed gender teams just 12 per cent,” says Dua. “We want to change that.”
BBG Ventures only invests in teams with at least one female founder. Since 2014 they have deployed over US$20 million into 63 companies across two funds, including two of the top five female-led deals of 2018 in the US – the wedding registry and planning tool Zola (founded by another Australian, Shan-Lyn Ma, their $100 million Series D raise was led by NBCU/Comcast) and the women-only co-working and community space The Wing (Sequoia led their $74 million Series C raise at the end of 2018).
“Women second guess their core skills just because they haven’t had experience to prove themselves.”
The Wing is a prime example of the right product at the right time, says Dua. The sleek, beautifully designed space launched right before the 2016 election when women needed a place to gather, share insights and worries, more than ever. “And crucially everything The Wing stands for, a linking-of-arms vision of feminism that lifts all tides, is supported by the authenticity of its founders Audrey Gelman and Lauren Kassan that translates across every single touch point of the brand.”
At BBG Ventures, Dua and Lyne look for companies with potential like The Wing, primed for exponential growth in a large market. For example, The Wing now has over 7000 members at five locations across the US, with 20,000 women on the approved waitlist. By the end of 2019 it will have further outposts in London, Paris and Toronto. “That’s really the business of venture capital,” explains Dua. “You’re asking, ‘Is the solution that you’re providing the right one for the market? Is it exponentially better than what’s already out there – is it differentiated or does it have some sort of new technology that requires capital to grow? And, can you get a 20x return on your investment?’ That’s what differentiates it from your typical small business – that it requires capital so it can grow fast in order to take advantage of a huge market opportunity.”
Dua and Lyne are among the nine per cent of women investing partners across all US VC funds. A pitifully small number despite the fact that on average, according to Harvard Business Review, funds which have female investing partners outperform those that do not. Furthermore, VC firms with one female partner are more than two times as likely to invest in startups with a woman on the management team when compared to firms without a female partner. VC firms with a female partner are also more than three times as likely to invest in startups with a female CEO when compared to firms without a female partner.
Making The Leap
Dua’s passion for discovering and nurturing new talent is palpable when we chat, yet she’s quick to mention that finding her own path has been anything but linear. She experienced what many young academic women in Australia do when they’ve blitzed the HSC and feel that they are expected to pick medicine or law. “The Practice and Law & Order convinced me that I would love to be a lawyer. I saw myself in a suit more than in scrubs, so a lawyer it was,” laughs Dua, who practiced public and private M&A and securities law at Blake Dawson after university. “You’re a great lawyer if you’ve done thirty of the same deals and observed the nuances in one area,” says Dua. “I was more fascinated by the business dynamics of the deals I was working on.”
Dua knew she’d like to run a business eventually so her next step into management consulting seemed like a logical new direction for an overachiever still unsure of what she wanted to do. “I hadn’t wanted to step out of the workforce for business school so working at Bain & Company was a good fit at the time. Management consulting is a great place for smart people to get a tool kit that helps them be thoughtful and deliberate problem solvers. I think of it as my mini MBA,” says Dua, who credits her time at Bain to becoming a structured thinker.
Looking back, Dua wishes she’d been encouraged to reflect on what gave her energy at work earlier. “In our twenties we don’t get an opportunity to do the self-work that we do in our thirties in terms of understanding what motivates us and gives us energy. Had I known to notice these things, I might have created a different path for myself sooner.” Her gift with people and understanding what drives them, was a skill she didn’t value early on. “Women often second guess their core skills just because they haven’t had experience to prove themselves,” says Dua, having learned from personal experience. “We prefer to be perfect before we leap and we sometimes place value in what others think is best for us instead of listening to our instincts about what interests us. People often told me that healthcare was the industry I should focus on because it was high growth, the hot new industry, all while my personal interest was stoked by media, content, brands and technology.”
No longer wanting to be a cog in the wheel at Bain & Company, Dua set her sights on tech start-ups and blue chip Silicon Valley companies but when an opportunity surfaced to work for entrepreneurial legend Susan Lyne, CEO of The AOL brand group, as her Chief of Staff, Dua felt her pulse quicken. “When one Googles Susan Lyne one of the many articles that pops up is ‘The Many Lives of Susan Lyne’ in Fortune Magazine,” says Dua. “Read that article and tell me you wouldn’t do anything to work for her.”
Capitalising On Chemistry
Lyne’s vast and varied experience ranges from leading The Village Voice as Managing Editor toward a Pulitzer Prize for feature reporting in 1981, overseeing the development of shows like Grey’s Anatomy, Lost and Desperate Housewives when she was President of ABC Entertainment, to returning Martha Stewart’s namesake company back to profitability, a CEO role she assumed when Ms. Stewart was convicted and jailed on obstruction of justice charges. But wait, there’s more. In 2008 Lyne joined the Gilt Groupe as CEO where she pioneered “flash sales” in the US. Her next post was heading-up AOL’s brand group, overseeing platforms such as TechCrunch, Mapquest, AOL.com and Moviefone.
“We had a strong foundation of chemistry from day one and from our first interview,” says Dua, whose role involved working very closely with the executive team at AOL, as well as running strategy and operations for the brand group with 1300 staff across 40 websites, which was consolidated into 13. At AOL, Dua took on a side hustle reinvigorating Cambio, a teen entertainment site originally started by The Jonas Brothers. Along with her day job, she managed another staff of three and a tiny budget. The audience of Cambio was girls aged between 13 and 24-years-old, so Dua hired five 17-year-old girls to help rebuild the site in partnership with Girls Who Code. That is how the #BUILTBYGIRLS tagline evolved and became the genesis of the brand’s new identity – it’s now spun off into an entirely new platform: one that matches young women interested in tech with professionals in tech for the largest advisory network of young tech talent in America. It’s also the inspiration behind the name of BBG Ventures. “Now we all understand the concept of the multifaceted millennial but then I was noticing that the young female consumer was demanding to be heard in a different way,” says Dua. “Running Cambio was also a founder or re-founder experience for me and I think that experience gave me a unique empathy for understanding what some of our founders go through.”
“We think women are a transformational force for growth and change. And we want to invest in companies that announce her ambitions, make her life more delightful, and improve her health and well being.”
Lyne had also followed the female consumer her entire career and had mentored the first wave of female founders of Rent the Runway, The Skimm, Paperless Post and Birchbox. “She’d seen first hand the challenges that those female founders had raising money and traditional VCs were still largely ignoring the female founder. We had an idea of starting our own fund, but when we shared this with AOL they said, ‘don’t leave’. They funded our first two US$10 million rounds of investment. Now though, BBGV is an independent fund.”
BBG Ventures now invests in five categories: new commerce, the future of work, connected communities, personalized health and wellness, and the emerging consumer. “We think women are a transformational force for growth and change. And we want to invest in companies that advance her ambitions, simplify her life, make it more delightful, improve her health and well being,” says Dua, who is very excited about companies using behavioural data sets to improve health outcomes. Something Dua has spent more time thinking about in the last decade.
“I have Multiple Sclerosis so my well-being is super important,” shares Dua who finds getting up early to create a calm space in the morning – so as not to barrel into the day – is important. A couple of times a week she journals about how she’s been feeling and what’s been challenging. “I follow the work of mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn. I meditate when I can and I do affirmations.” The endorphins from exercise are also really important for her mental and physical health, as is retreating to natural world to rejuvenate.
On any given weekend in Fort Greene Park, near where Dua lives in Brooklyn, she can be seen practicing Karate with her martial arts teacher. “I’m the one doing kicking drills up near the monument,” says Dua. Who has been kicking high her whole life. Now, though, she’s kicking goals in the right direction – scoring, leading and inspiring whole teams of women entrepreneurs all along the way.
What Nisha Dua Looks for in a Founder
- We look for founders solving a very specific problem. We see that with female founders – they are seeking to solve a problem that they themselves have experienced or someone close has experienced.
- They have unique insight into the end user because they are the end user. That’s unique to our founder set. And it’s central to our thesis.
- Can this founder build a good brand? We believe they have brand DNA. I don’t think you have to have been in marketing to know what that looks like. But knowing what a good brand looks like is really critical. You can see that from The Wing. Audrey [Gelman] is a self-confessed brand nerd and while they’ve collaborated with external and now internal teams, that brand has come from her since day one. She did the Instragram and developed that voice and we see that across a lot of our companies. Lola is another example. To have a tampon brand that women are Instagramming says something about the way you’ve communicated with the consumer.
- They are resilient, self-aware and build great teams around them to compliment their own weaknesses.
- Lastly they are customer obsessed, nimble and flexible so they can pivot and learn from customers feedback.
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