Young Women Working: Interview with Sarah Marion, VC Analyst, iNovia Capital
BY: CELINE TARRANT
Sarah Marion is a Senior Analyst at iNovia Capital (a venture capital firm) based out of their Toronto/Waterloo office. Prior to joining iNovia, Sarah worked as a Senior Researcher for the Lazaridis Institute for the Management of Technology Enterprises at Wilfred Laurier University. She represented Canada at the 2017 World Bank/International Monetary Fund Spring Meetings as part of the Young Diplomats of Canada delegation. Sarah holds a Master of International Public Policy from the Balsillie School of International Affairs and a Bachelor of Commerce from Queen’s University.
C: You have a Bachelor of Commerce and an MIPP. It seems like you were sort of steering away from business, so how did you end up in VC? How different is what you’re doing now from what you thought you would be doing?
S: One of my favourite things about VC is how non-linear most people’s paths are into the industry. Given this dynamic, it’s incredibly hard to plan your way into the job, but it also means you’re very unlikely to close any doors or disqualify yourself along the way. I’ve always wanted to work in the private sector, but was tracking towards a career related to human security or global public health while pursuing my Masters. I ended up getting introduced to someone in my last semester who I knew I had to work for - he was incredibly smart, really thoughtful in his lens of the world, and was highly respected by all our mutual contacts. The catch was that he was hiring a senior researcher to focus on innovation policy, a topic I knew nothing about. I’ve always prioritized people over job description, so I took the leap and spent six months learning the ins and outs of the Canadian tech landscape. Through this project, I realized I was passionate about building technology startups, got introduced to the partners at my firm, and ended up working in venture capital.
C: What’s it like at your firm? What does a typical day look like for you?
S: We’re a highly entrepreneurial firm and there’s no handbook for success. I have almost full control over my schedule and am responsible for figuring out where I can add the most value. Like most great jobs (in my opinion), every day varies. Every Monday, we have a four hour “Partner Meeting” where we all speak to our dealflow, have a startup we’re evaluating present to the whole team, and cover off admin items. The one constant across my days is that I’m typically meeting a new startup and/or doing diligence on a company I’ve already met with. Immediately after quarter-end, I’m spending more time working with portfolio companies to understand their financial position and preparing our internal reporting to our LPs. I travel relatively frequently, and try to spend face time with the portfolio companies I support, as well as with other VCs with a similar investment thesis. I often get pulled into ad hoc projects as an extra hand for portfolio companies, helping with financial modelling, pay equity analyses, user experience, or recruiting. I try to dedicate a few hours a week to learning about new industries - understanding macro trends, gaps in the market, the competitive landscape, potential acquirers and their strategic priorities - and building out my investment thesis in specific industries.
C: Are there a lot of women at your firm? Female-founded companies you invest in?
S: The gender imbalance in VC specifically, and tech more broadly, is widely discussed. We have multiple women at my firm, although I’m the only woman on the investment team. Our portfolio reflects the broader industry’s imbalance, and making progress on that is something we’re highly focused on. I dedicate a lot of my time to female-focused accelerators, and I try to be vocal about the gender issues I see in the industry, so female founders see myself and my firm as one that’s aware of the disparity and working to correct it.
C: There are a lot of opinions out there on closing the funding gap for female founders. What’s your take?
S: It’s an enormous issue with huge systemic components. Individually, investors all need to confront the biases that are socialized into us impact our decisions. At a macro level, I’m a huge advocate for choosing one piece of the puzzle that you want to tackle, and doing so unrelentingly. It can feel really overwhelming to try and solve the entire funding gap; identifying the one portion where you’re going to focus your energy makes it a lot more manageable, and if we all do it, we can collectively multiply our impact.
C: Policy is still very much one of your passions though right? You were a delegate at the IMF/World Bank Spring Meetings in DC earlier this year! Tell me about that!
S: Yes, I still spend most of my personal time following and debating politics and policy, and I’m currently building out an investment thesis around GovTech. My experience in DC was incredible - there’s still a big disconnect between policy and tech, but that’s changing as the Canadian federal government invests in the “innovation economy”. At a multilateral level, it was fascinating to understand how other countries engage their tech sectors in policymaking.
C: How do you think your VC experience influenced what you were able to bring to the table at the conference?
S: The Spring Meetings were highly focused on the impact that AI is having on the global economy, inequality and the rising backlash against globalization and the liberal international order. I spend a big portion of my workday thinking about AI and evaluating startups that are using it to solve valuable problems. Having this domain expertise gives me insight into the positive opportunities that can stem from leveraging AI, and I was able to contribute a business perspective to how governments should shape policy. Technological advances are going to unlock enormous value, but government and multilateral organizations have a key role to play in ensuring that value is shared equitably within and across countries.
C: On top of your insane schedule, you’re also heavily involved in causes related to women and girls. Most recently, you were a Founding Mentor of a new mentorship platform, Girlz, FTW! Tell me a bit more about it.
S: I’ve been really passionate about championing opportunities for women and girls for most of my life - that passion is actually how I met you at Queen’s! Working in a male-dominated industry, this passion only became a more important outlet for me. Girlz, FTW fundamentally believes that the best mentorship occurs when we treat mentors like people, not idols. We’re trying to help high school and college aged girls build a tribe of badass women to teach, support, challenge, and encourage them in all aspects of their lives. Even more importantly to me, we’re trying to equip these women to turn around and mentor other girls who are a step or two behind.
C: So clearly you believe in the value of mentorship. Has mentorship played a role in your career?
S: It absolutely has. I actually reconnected with the woman who gave me a “warm intro” to my current firm at a mentorship brunch! I also credit all the opportunities I’ve gotten with the various mentors I’ve had at different points in my life. Mentorship is much more fluid and informal than most people think it is - anyone who’s gone to bat for you or taught you an important skill is a mentor in my mind, and I think we all have multiple mentors at any one point in time across multiple avenues of our life.
C: I love that! Mentorship is very fluid. I feel that in general, people have very outdated views of mentorship - that it needs to be regimented and consistent over long periods of time, and with someone very senior. In reality, most people don’t have time to keep those kinds of relationships up. Personally, I have had a lot of luck with “mentors” who are peers or friends! Have any peers/friends influenced you a lot?
S: I absolutely agree. One of the most exciting things about being a few years out of school in my mind is getting the opportunity to learn from and collaborate with my friends and former classmates. My job is really unique in that it’s highly valuable for me to have strong networks in a range of industries. Since we’re a generalist firm, I rely heavily on expert opinions to fill the gaps in my knowledge. Being able to learn from my peers who work in policy, marketing, the legal industry, etc is hugely helpful for me. Similarly, I’ve only ever worked for small firms, and my friends who took a more corporate path out of school are constantly teaching me about the nuances of large firms that I’ve never been exposed to.
C: Going back to your community involvement...tell me about your involvement with Planned Parenthood.
S: As you might have guessed already, I’m a feminist. I got involved with my local Planned Parenthood (rebranded as SHORE Centre) after watching women’s reproductive rights in the US get rolled back at an alarming rate. Sexual health and reproductive rights are still incredibly stigmatized, and we don’t equip either gender with sufficient education on those topics. Women and girls cannot realize their innate potential when they’re denied bodily autonomy. Canada has a different political climate than the US (very fortunately in my mind), but I still believe it’s important for civil society to remain engaged in the issues that drive us to prevent the erosion of those rights.
C: So, what’s next for you? Where do you hope to be in the next few years? Would you ever consider b-school?
S: I don’t like to rule anything out, but at this point, I would say it’s unlikely that I’ll pursue my MBA. I find my current work really satisfying, and the role is constantly evolving. For now I’m focused on continuing to build my VC skillset. That said, there’s always the chance that I’ll find a startup I love so much that I leave to join it!