A Conversation with Ulu’s Miriam Rivera and Kauffman Fellows CEO Jeff Harbach as part of the podcast “The Arena”
Listen to the podcast here
Jeff: Welcome back to the Kauffman Fellows Podcast. We are so excited today to have Miriam Rivera with us. I’m going to give a quick background of Miriam, because she has such an incredible history and experience.
Miriam is the cofounder and managing director of Ulu Ventures, a top seed stage venture fund in Silicon Valley focused on information technology startups. She is dedicated to increasing diversity in entrepreneurial investment communities. Prior to Ulu Ventures, Miriam was vice president and deputy general counsel of Google, which she joined in 2001 as the first commercial attorney. There she helped build and lead an award-winning global legal department. Her work to redesign and simplify contracts helped Google scale from $85 million to $10 billion in revenues in five years.
Miriam is the cofounder, former copresident, and on the board of the Stanford Angels and Entrepreneurs, an open source network of Stanford alumni investors and entrepreneurs. She is on the board of the Kauffman Foundation, a national endowment dedicated to increasing opportunity for Americans through education and entrepreneurship, and of course the Kauffman Fellows namesake. Miriam is a Kauffman Fellow from Class 15. Miriam also serves on the investment committee of the Acumen Fund America, an impact investment fund serving the needs of low-income Americans.
My goodness, Miriam, that is a heck of a biography. You have done so much.
Miriam: As I said, when you get older you start accumulating things.
Jeff: I tell you what, you have an impressive background and I’m so excited to talk to you about it. Why don’t you first just give us an idea of what you’re doing today? Tell us a little bit about Ulu Ventures, what you’re excited about, and that journey there.
Miriam: Ulu Ventures is a seed stage firm based in Silicon Valley. Some of our special sauce is that we are a top performing firm and we have one of the most diverse portfolios of entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. I love that, because I think I’ve always been a person who breaks stereotypes. I want to do that for other people. I want to pull people up from behind me. I want more women, people of color, immigrants, and underrepresented minorities to be able to have the kind of opportunities that I have had, and for them to give back to the community and help bring up others.
Jeff: You certainly have broken the mold in so many of the things that you’ve done and really led the way. You’re a pioneer in many of the things that you’ve done. One of which being your partner is your husband, who also is a Kauffman Fellow.
Miriam: That’s right, Clint Korver, Class 14. Clint and I are an unusual couple in many ways. We’re different on so many dimensions. We’re different in terms of our race, linguistic background, ethnics, income levels, politics even. He’ll tell you the civil libertarian, which I never even knew what it was until I came here. I thought those are the people that just throw away their votes in every election. We’ve had a lot of fun together running Ulu Ventures, raising two girls, and really navigating difference in our relationship, professionally and personally.
Jeff: I bet. Tell me what some of those LP meetings were like when you walk in the room and you’re telling them, “Hey, we’re going to build a venture firm and it’s going to be my spouse and I.” What was that like?
Miriam: What we used to do was just send it out first, because then they might find reasons to not meet with us and we wouldn’t have to waste the time if they wouldn’t even consider. Then, secondly, when we went into the room, we always had disclosed in our materials beforehand. Some people would just literally say, “There’s no way we’d ever invest in a husband and wife team, period.” So, that was like show me the door, if you had told me that earlier. That’s kind of some of the response.
People who really took the time to get to know us, took the time to understand our story, we ended up with really tremendous LPs that include a university endowment, a college endowment, a sovereign wealth fund, several funds of funds. My sense is that those who go beneath the surface will benefit tremendously from the opportunity of investing in this particular husband and wife team.
Jeff: I think it’s an incredible story for you to share. As you think about Ulu, what are some of the trends, what are some of the things that you’re excited about? I’m certainly not asking you to tell us which of your investments is your favorite, because there are no favorites. They are all your favorites, right?
Miriam: It’s true. The things that I’m most excited about are that our companies are really succeeding. We’ve had a tremendous quarter. The first quarter we had about five companies raise over $230,000,000.
One thing I’m really proud to say is that every one of those companies had a founder who was either a woman, an immigrant, an underrepresented minority, or a minority. That is really tremendous. One of those teams included a first-generation college graduate who was also Latino, which I am really pleased and proud to say. They raised $40,000,000 on a $600,000,000 valuation.
Awesome news from our entrepreneurs and I want to applaud them for what they’re doing.
Jeff: That’s amazing work. We need more people focused exactly on this. I love that you and Ulu Ventures are leading the way in this. How did you end up in venture capital? What were some of the pivotal moments that made you go from where you were before to where you are today being an investor? I love that this quote that we got from you that says, “I’m an inner-city, Spanish-speaking, low-income, free lunch, first in her family to go to college girl.” How did that individual make her way into venture capital? What does that story look like?
Miriam: I have to say there’s a tremendous amount of hard work that went into that and also a tremendous amount of support from teachers, friends, and mentors over the years. I know women supposedly give too much credit away, so I won’t do that. You can’t get those kinds of results without putting in the work and the effort and the longevity over time.
The thing I will say is that I’ve been blessed with caring people in my life who have really sought to advance my education. Even from my elementary school days, I had teachers that were trying to help me get access to scholarships to go to high school, and I went to private high school. They helped me do the college applications and go to college. Those kinds of people were the foundation, if you will, of what I’ve been able to do.
Then along the way in my career I’ve been able to work with inspiring people who gave me the chance. I love how in Hamilton he says, “I’m going to take my shot.” I had all of the energy to try to take my shot and most of the time there were people who would allow me to do that. It hasn’t always been the case, but to that extent it has really made all the difference.
Jeff: During this journey you’ve had and all of the different things that you’ve done, now we transition a little bit more Kauffman-esque speak, so we’ll going to go a little bit deeper. Tell us about a time when you took a big risk, maybe to follow a conviction that you had, maybe to follow an investment, or maybe it was something at Google. It could be anywhere along your journey, but tell us about a big risk that you took where maybe others didn’t believe in you, and tell us how that worked out.
Miriam: I will say that my life has been one of taking considered risk always. An example, I left home at the age of 14. I’ve been providing for myself financially since that age. When I went to Stanford Law School and Business School, I left the comfort of big companies like Brobeck, Phleger, and Harrison, a major law firm here at the time, and also Accenture, to start a company. Clint and I were actually founders of a tech company in the late ‘90s together, and that was our first experience working together.
I took risks in personal ways, too. I actually had my first child at that startup. That risk was not rewarded in some ways. The board of directors decided the did not want a husband and wife team, and probably a woman who had a child, in the company. So, I left that. I took the risk of reaching out to a person that became a great mentor. He was the first general counsel I had ever met who was first-generation college and Latino. Over the course of lunch, he offered me a job and I took it. I didn’t know him from Adam, but I figured if he accomplished what he had that I wanted to learn everything I could from him.
Then when things went south in 2001, I had the foresight to understand that I might be part of the layoffs that were happening at my company at the time. We had four rounds of layoffs. I was looking for a potential job. The jobs that I received offers for were Seagull Systems and Google. I left enterprise software, which is what I had done, and I took the risk of joining a startup that might or might not succeed. That was another example of a life of considered risk.
Jeff: What was it about Google at that time in 2001 that made you say, “This is what I want to do.” Were there any one or two particular things?
Miriam: Yes. There were odd things and simple things. One thing was just that the internet had really changed software dramatically. I had grown up in the days when you had enterprise implementations and then you got to CD-ROMs and you were shipping CD-ROMs of software. Now it was moving onto this thing called the internet. I thought this is really the future of software and I’m going to take that chance.
The other thing that was interesting about it was how cheap the company was. When I was at Ariba beforehand, we had really lux equipment and posh facilities, and we got into trouble in a 2001 bust, and that was part of the reason we were laying off people. When I went to Google, we had sawhorse desks and yoga ball chairs, and cheap phones that didn’t even work that well. I figured, good, this company is really frugal and I want to work for a company that understands that you have to make money and you have to try to use the money to grow the company organically, as opposed to buying nice desks or furniture and that sort of thing.
Jeff: I love that. What an amazing perspective to have in the early days of Google. I’d love to double-click, you talked about some of the experiences you had and some of the risks that you took, which were many. One of them that didn’t work out for you, which was the board coming back, and however that worked out you moved on from that role.
What were some of the things that you went through, risks that worked out and maybe risks that didn’t work out, like that one? What I’m looking for is what did you learn from them that now applies to what you’re doing today with Ulu or what you’re doing as you mentor young entrepreneurs or young people that are in the same shoes that you were in however many years ago?
Miriam: One of the things is a certain level of self confidence and fortitude, if you will, that things are not always going to work your way and that you’re going to be able to recover, that you can take risks. Some of them will pay off, some of them won’t. If you’re doing something that you really care to do that is important to you, there is an intrinsic benefit in that activity that will sustain you regardless of the success or failure.
That’s really one of the things that I think is so important for entrepreneurs, because the reality is most of them are not going to succeed in a big way. Everybody is not going to make the next Google. I think that level of familiarity with the challenges that they have and the outcomes that they’re likely to experience is something that helps me walk the journey that they’re on with them.
Jeff: That was so well said. Thank you for sharing that, Miriam. What I’d love to do now is let’s go back in time even farther and help connect the dots. Those that know you and know you well, know that you are an incredibly grounded person with a very strong core and strong values. I think the easy narrative here is to say this is an individual that came from a tough background and she learned the things through tough experiences. But that’s too easy. The journey is much more intricate than that. I’d love for you to shed some light on your journey for us, especially for those individuals that are thinking about and maybe in positions exactly the same way that you were in. I’d love for them to benefit from your journey. Tell us a little bit about maybe where you were born, about your parents, and kind of the formative experiences of your childhood that gave you this incredible core at the center of these values.
Miriam: I’m going to actually be pretty real here, so excuse me. One of the things that I want to say to folks is I did not get here because I had a really stable and loving family without any issues. That unconditional love that you hear about is the foundation on which people typically think a life like mine is built.
I grew up in a family with a lot of issues, domestic violence, intergenerational history of abuse, sexual abuse. It was not an easy place to grow up. I grew up in inner-city Chicago. I grew up poor. I grew up with people having very low expectations of a person like myself, because of all of the things that you said, I was first-generation, I spoke Spanish at home, I went to HeadStart and had to speak English.
Statistically, I should not have amounted to what I have become. The thing that I think made the difference was both being able to hold onto the good in all of my life, including in my family. I recognize and have compassion for the lives my parents led. That has made me stronger, I think, because I recognize that anyone put into tremendous challenge may break. That’s just reality.
The other thing I credit is faith. That is something a lot of people in Silicon Valley, I get that story about the opiate of the people. Somehow, intelligent people shouldn’t be people of faith. But for me, I think the ability to connect with a spiritual foundation that said each of us has some element of worth, each of us has some element of godliness within us, that I think made all the difference.
Jeff: Amazing. You mentioned two things, holding onto the good and your faith. A question that I ask myself when I hear your story is, where do you find your strength? Where did you find as you were young and where do you find it today? I’m guessing it’s those two things, but I’d like to ask you in a fresh way where do you find your strength when things have been hard? All of us go through struggles, we go through challenges. Where do you find your strength?
Miriam: I would say I find my strength through faith, through friendship, through learning. I build a foundation of support for myself very consciously. For example, over the last 20+ years I’ve had a group of women friends that meets once a month for dinner. We have built that into our lives, despite children, marriage, divorces, work, starting businesses, starting Ulu, working at Google.
One is building support very consciously. Practices; I attend a church regularly, I try to do yoga, exercise, spend time outdoors. A lot of those things that you know are important to do, but really they give you the power and the energy to do the things that you need to do, including when you have hard times.
Jeff: That’s great. Thank you. What I’d love to get is a story from you around the journey up until this point of your career. Are there are formative experiences that kind of make you go, “Wow. That’s something that really changed the person that I am,” or that added to your learning? What were some of the formative experiences, maybe encapsulated in a story that you could share with us, that really tell the story and the journey of Miriam Rivera?
Miriam: I came out of college at a time when there really weren’t a lot of people like me. Frankly, it feels like I’m actually getting into places where there’s even fewer people like me. As I get into venture capital, I’ve never actually been in an industry that was more male dominated. I thought being an attorney and being a deal maker at the level that I had been at Google was pretty much as low as you could go. Then I found venture capital.
Something about me is drawn to experiences where I am intrigued by something. I’ve always pursued things that intrigue me, are interesting, are intellectually challenging. I’ve always found that there’s learning that you can do, regardless of whether people are like you or not, that is going to benefit you. Some of the most important learning is not the blocking and tackling of a profession, but often the how you live your life within a profession.
For example, I had an attorney that I worked with at Brobeck, Phleger, and Harrison, Tom Kellerman, he’s still an attorney here in Silicon Valley, he was in his 40s and developed pancreatic cancer while I was his associate. The guy would come to work and he would get just baskets and flowers. People in the community, from opposing counsels, within the firm, the associates, we were all doing things to try to help ease his situation. I remember making tapes of my favorite jazz music, which is include Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong music, and for him that was a real discovery.
What I learned from him was that you have to love what you’re doing. There has to be something that fuels you in the work that you do. Even when he was ill, and really potentially on the verge of death, he loved what he did enough to be there for us. For me to be able to learn not just securities law, corporate law, and business law, but how important it is to love the work you do and to behave towards people in a way that builds relationships, so that throughout the industry people who he had worked with were extending their care to him at a moment when he needed it most.
Jeff: You’re doing some incredible work with Ulu, but you’re also very passionate about lots of different things and wanting to make a positive dent in the universe. In Kauffman Fellows we talk about that our purpose here is to make a positive dent in the universe. How do you see yourself making a positive dent in the universe, what are some of the things that you’re really passionate about? This can include Ulu.
Miriam: In fact, I’ll focus on Ulu in this question, because I feel like I’ve talked more broadly. In terms of Ulu, how do I think I’m making a dent in the world? There are a couple of things.
One of which is I believe that using more objective measures in decision making actually helps create better results, more diversity, and more profitable companies. Foundationally, one of the things that we do at Ulu is we data to make decisions. That, I think, is making a difference in terms of who we fund, how successful the companies are that we fund, what our follow on rates are, what our companies achieve in terms of follow on investments, in terms of revenue generation, etcetera.
The other thing that I think will happen from the focus around data is that more diverse people will be part of teams and we will build more diverse companies. For me, that’s important, because I grew up in this industry – tech – often being “the only.” I’m probably the only Puerto Rican I know who is in venture capital. I’m the only Puerto Rican that I knew who was running a major U.S. legal department.
So, what I’m hoping is that we can create change, because there are so many talented people who have not been given their shot. To the extent that I can help others to be given a level playing field so that they can show what they’ve got, that’s how I want to make a dent.
Jeff: Amen. You’re a Kauffman Fellow, Class 15, can you tell us where does Kauffman Fellows fall in your narrative? How has it helped to shape you? Tell us a little bit about what Kauffman Fellows meant to you or means to you.
Miriam: Thank God for Kauffman Fellows. I had no idea that venture capital was going to be probably the hardest business where I’ve ever worked. The Fellows have given me a community that has shared values around entrepreneurship and what a difference it can make in the lives of people. Not just here, not just in Silicon Valley, but around the world. Not just for the mainstream, but for all people. That has really become one of my great missions. Apart from education, entrepreneurship as a way to unleash human potential is my mission.
Kauffman Fellows supports that mission, helps bring people into the work of entrepreneurship globally, and gives us a place where people who see it not just as about making money, which is awesome, I love making money and I love making money for our LPs who are great institutions, but it’s about creating a difference in the world and it’s about really unleashing human energy to create things that need to be created. That’s the community that I want to be a part of.
Jeff: Very well said. Miriam, two more questions for you. One is, as I hear your journey, just in this podcast, I’ve already known you but yet I’ve learned so much about you just in this time. If you were able to go back in time, what would you say to the younger Miriam?
Pick a point in time. It could be the 14-year-old Miriam when you left home. It could be the 20-whatever Miriam that went to school. What I want you to do is have a lens through this not only that you’re talking to the younger Miriam, but also that you’re talking to every one of the younger Miriams out there. What would you say to them?
Miriam: It’s so interesting. I would tell people they’re okay, that they’re going to be okay and not to stress so much. I think a lot of us spend so much striving and wondering if we’re going to ever achieve our goals. I think it’s really sometimes harmful.
When I think about the college scandal recently, parents basically telling kids, “You’re not enough,” you’re not enough unless you go to this school, or you achieve this, or you achieve that. It’s one of the saddest things that I can imagine a parent telling or demonstrating to their kid that they’re not enough. If anything, I’d go completely the opposite direction and say, “You’re enough.” It’s from that place of enough that you will be able to do great things.
Jeff: You’re reminding me why I love Kauffman Fellows and why I love these podcasts. Last question for you. If you had a genie in a bottle and you had just one wish, what would your one wish be? For humanity, for the world, for you, you get one wish. What would that wish be?
Miriam: Oh, God. I have no idea.
Jeff: You missed it. It’s supposed to be I would wish for more wishes. That’s what your wish is.
Miriam: That’s a smart one, I guess. It’s so funny, it’s like the world peace thing. This is a little harder for me. I’m sorry. Obviously, one of the things that I would want the most is a level of peace within myself and a level of peace in the world. I’d like to be more at peace with myself and easier to deal with. I feel like I’m still striving sometimes.
I don’t know. This one is not going to be a good question for me, because I feel like it’s a little too big for me.
Jeff: Miriam, you’re incredible in the work that you’ve done. You’ve given us so much to be grateful for and so much to be inspired by. It’s just an incredible opportunity to have you as a friend and have as a collaborator in the venture industry working with entrepreneurs. Thank you so much for taking the time with us today and also for the work that you’re doing with Ulu Ventures.