I have spent the better part of my adult life seeking an avenue for impact. I have tried my hand at affecting social, economic, and humanitarian change through a number of different platforms—from journalism to diplomacy to big tech. This drive is deeply personal; galvanized by events that predate my own birth, propelled by the serendipity of my upbringing and the very real possibility of where I might have ended up if not for hard work and some luck. It is an unusual and nonlinear path to venture, but each foray has only strengthened my conviction not only in technology for impact, but also in the transformational—and too often overlooked—power of intersectional entrepreneurs.
Growing up in the Bay Area may have contributed to my passion for technology and entrepreneurship, but it was less about my geography and more about the journeys of my forebears. My parents fled the violence and autocracy of Iraq to craft new lives and livelihoods, starting with a higher education. My father, a physician, came for his residency in psychiatry at Stanford; my mother, a dentist, joined him shortly thereafter. The qualities that contributed to my parents’ success are the grit, resilience, and drive of all immigrants. This is not just my bildungsroman; it’s the immigrant story of America.
As an investor, I find myself seeking out founders who embody the characteristics I admire so much in immigrants and their children. Propelled by the imitable work ethic of an underrepresented, underinvested underdog, these intersectional founders are the future of our economy; here’s why I’m betting on them to build the future.
They are mission-driven and gritty
While my goal as a venture capitalist is ultimately to invest in breakout businesses that will generate meaningful returns to our LPs—many of whom represent endowments, educational institutions, hospitals, and other philanthropic organizations—I believe a mission-driven entrepreneur is the type of founder who will do just that. The deep goal-orientation supports strong work ethic, recruiting skills, storytelling, and financing, among so many other entrepreneurial qualities.
For some, the mission can come from deeply personal experience. Amira Yahyaoui, the founder of Mos, started a civic tech company in San Francisco as a result of her experience as a human rights activist in Tunisia, exiled and stateless at the age of 17. Although she never had the chance to attend college herself, she has built a transformative company enabling access to financial aid for students across the country, seeking to “tear down all financial barriers to opportunity.”
Similarly, Reshma Saujani was motivated by her family’s experience as refugees from Uganda; she quit her career in finance and sought impact via a run for Congress. Ultimately, she went on to found the leading organization supporting another group of extremely under-represented, under-resourced underdogs: Girls Who Code. “As the daughter of refugees, I am committed to investing in diverse founders who have been counted out, who have had to build something from nothing through grit and bravery,” Saujani said to me. That determination, bravery, and tenacity represent the types of characteristics I value in founders and CEOs.
They embrace science and innovation
Immigrants are historically over-indexed in another category that represents an attractive trait in startup leaders: the breakthrough inventor. In fact, today, immigrants represent about 30% of patents filed in America—obtaining them at double the rate of homegrown Americans—and account for more than half of the founders of venture-backed unicorns.
Hungarian biochemist Katalin Karikó’s story comes to mind. She was at the forefront of mRNA vaccine breakthroughs in 1995, but failed to receive capital from VCs or through grants and was demoted in her role at the University of Pennsylvania. In 2021, her astounding impact is clear. Without Karikó’s research, the Covid vaccine produced by Pfizer and BioNTech would not exist.
And speaking of the Pfizer vaccine, the story of the Turkish-German husband-and-wife duo is also a good reminder of the work ethic and focus on science that has ultimately resulted in the leading vaccination that may be at least partially responsible for helping us all emerge from this devastating pandemic. As shared with the Washington Post, the couple are “the sort of people who don’t own a car and who took the morning off for their wedding day in 2002 before returning to the lab. Half a day was ‘sufficient.’”
Just as immigrant founders have been foundational to scientific breakthroughs in America, I believe the next generation of intersectional founders will continue to innovate and invent our future.
They know how to build bridges
Intersectional founders, by definition, know what it’s like to navigate between different cultures and languages; these skills in communication and adaptability are very helpful in the context of entrepreneurship. A CEO of a deep tech company, for example, needs to be able to effectively manage a team of highly technical engineers, pitch the business to financial investors, sell the product to commercial stakeholders, and more—all of which have different cultures, and require different vocabularies.
Intersectional founders are particularly well-positioned to traverse sectors. Dr. Rajaie Batniji, cofounder and Chief Health Officer of Collective Health, says his identity as a Palestinian-American, physician, political scientist and entrepreneur has been benefiicial in his role leading a health tech company. “I am often moving between very different contexts,” he says. “One moment, I’m a physician caring for a patient. Next, I’m working with our product teams, and then I’m speaking with the C-suite of major companies. It is similar to how I’ve been switching between—or better yet, combining cultures and approaches—my whole life, ever since I was an immigrant kid with more than one identity and language.” Dr. Batniji says he enjoys moving between, and bringing together, these different contexts.
Diversity is Good for Business
As a “Third Culture Kid” myself, who appreciates the nuance and influence of identity, I could opine about the sociological and philosophical reasons for investing in diverse founders. But it is actually the business case that informs my investment decisions. A recent proliferation of data has made a strong case for better ROIs when investing in women-founded startups. And increasingly, more studies are also uncovering the economic case for investing in ethnically and racially diverse teams, as well.
Kauffman Fellows recently published a study specifically comparing the venture financings of all-white versus diverse founding teams. While diverse teams still receive less funding than non-diverse teams on the whole, the research shows that diverse teams who do receive venture funds tend to outperform and out-raise across all rounds. They have also proven to return 30% more cash to investors. This data supports a Boston Consulting Group (BCG) report that unveiled higher revenue trends for diverse teams, and a McKinsey analysis of Boards of Directors, noting that companies with diverse boards are 43% more likely to experience greater profit.
I don’t exclusively seek out founders of a certain ethnicity, race, gender, or nationality. But I have found these entrepreneurial characteristics to be prominent among diverse founding teams and intersectional founders in particular, as well as the executives who seek out diversity on boards and cap tables. Ultimately, the case for investing in these types of founders is not an imperative grounded in charitable or noble motivations —it is good business. I am so confident that the next generation of breakthrough startups will look very different from this generation before—driven by mission, grounded in science, and symbolic of the intersectional and immigrant innovation that has historically powered America’s economy.
Deena Shakir is a Partner at Lux Capital, which she joined in 2019. Before that, she was a Partner at GV (formerly Google Ventures), a BD executive at Google leading new product development, and a Presidential Management Fellow at the U.S. Department of State. She invests in transformative technologies streamlining analog industries and improving lives and is particularly excited by contrarian entrepreneurs enabling human and population health, access, and equity.