A Convo with BBG Ventures Partner Nisha Dua on How to Navigate Unchartered Territory
Nisha Dua has spent the last decade working in media, tech, strategy and law. She is a General Partner at BBG Ventures, which she co-founded with Susan Lyne in 2014 to invest in consumer tech start-ups with at least one female founder. She was the General Manager of AOL’s millennial site, Cambio, which she re-launched as a site “for girls, #BUILTBYGIRLS” in partnership with Girls Who Code. She founded BUILT BY GIRLS, a software platform which connects girls and non-binary talent with professionals to prepare the next generation of leaders to step into careers powered by technology. We chatted with her about....
Tell us about yourself.
I’m a former lawyer and ex-management consultant who moved from Sydney, Australia to New York to work with Susan Lyne at AOL running Strategy & Operations for the AOL Brand Group in 2013. I fell backwards into venture capital because Susan and I kept hearing the same story from female founders we met in NYC: The men in the rooms that these founders were pitching just didn’t understand the companies they were building or the market they were going after.
As a result, we founded BBG Ventures. Our thesis was that female founders had an intuitive understanding of the dominant consumer and were going after large areas of the consumer economy, both of which could drive strong returns. Seven years later, we’ve seen over 8,000 companies and invested in 76.
Personally, I’m obsessed with wellness trends, I have a black belt in karate, and I'm a favorite aunt to five nieces who are way smarter than me. I currently reside in Brooklyn.
What inspired you to create Built By Girls?
While running Strategy & Operations at AOL, I took over their millennial entertainment site, Cambio, on the side. In the course of nine months, I we grew it over 4X to 9 million monthly unique visitors by rebuilding the brand and leveraging social publishing.
What we realized was that the core audience was 13-24 year-old girls, and their preferences were changing. I hired five 17-year-old girls (alumna of Girls Who Code) to help us redesign, reimagine, and rebuild the site. That was the start of the hashtag #BUILTBYGIRLS, and the experiment of what happens if you give a young woman exposure to the tech industry’s opportunities, practical skills, and network. The biggest question was how you provide those opportunities to not just five girls, but tens of thousands. That’s how we launched BUILT BY GIRLS Wave. Wave is a matching platform driven by an algorithm that connects girls and non-binary young talent across the country with professionals in tech to provide those opportunities at scale.
What are the three main things you look for when investing in an early-stage company?
The first thing is founder fit. The best founders are the perfect combination of big vision, ability to execute, high conviction, they're uniquely qualified to build this specific company. Some of the most successful founders have an authentic connection to the problem they're solving for, a deep understanding of the community they’re building for, and relevant experience in the arena. In addition, founders need a singular product focus, resilience, and the ability to do a lot with a little.
The second this is a large market and a must-have product. Is this team going after a market that is building for a must-solve problem for millions of consumers? Are there market dynamics that mean there’s never been a better time to introduce this product to market? Is the product better than anything else out there? This boils down to: Why this product? Why now? Why this team?
The final thing is thesis fit. BBGV is currently focused on founders addressing broken systems in the areas of health and wellness, climate-friendly commerce, the future of education and work, and overlooked consumers. We’re focused on pre-seed and seed stage specifically.
Since you started your entrepreneurial journey, what’s been your biggest mistake?
Early on, my mistake was being too shy to tell my story or promote the things I was building. Marketing, sales and storytelling are critical skills for any entrepreneur. People need to know what you’re working on, and it’s your job as a leader to be out there telling them about it. This is as important for your customers as it is for your partners and your investors.
What does a typical day in the life look like for you in this pandemic world?
I make time every morning to meditate, drink water, and work out. Having that time sets me up for the day and makes me feel superhuman. I try to block out time for work in the morning so I can get on top of emails, strategic projects, diligence, or support for our portfolio companies. I then jump into a team meeting to review companies we’re assessing or marketing we’re diving into. That is followed up by an afternoon of pitch meetings or networking sessions with other VCs or startup talent.
I break to make sure I can spend time exercising (if it didn’t happen to get it done in the morning) and eat a healthy meal, which is also an opportunity for quality time with my partner. Then I close out the day with a couple of hours wrapping up important tasks, especially if we have a deal closing. I like to turn off my devices about an hour before bed and squeeze in some reading before turning in.
What advice do you have for women who don’t have a ‘typical’ background when it comes to entering VC?
Try to get as much experience as you can in related areas. For example, I was able to exercise founder DNA when I started BUILT BY GIRLS.I already had a lot of legal and operational experience, and I learned how to assess market opportunities as a consultant which was a huge plus. It’s definitely possible to make the move into VC from an unrelated field, and may even work to your benefit as it did in my case. But I’d recommend finding your place in the startup or tech world in some way, whether that's working for an early-stage company or advising founders in an arena where you’re an expert (and being vocal about it). Having a thesis about an area will make you stand out. Twitter or Medium is a great place to put your opinions about where the world is going into the ecosystem.
What industry are you keeping your eye on right now and why?
At BBGV I’m particularly interested in two arenas right now: climate-friendly commerce and the future of education. Today, most of the focus around climate change is on getting to net-zero carbon emissions (rightly so), but we believe consumer behavior can play a crucial role in creating a groundswell of change. We predict consumers will become increasingly Climatarian, caring about their consumption footprint and wanting to consume responsibly. This drove our recent investment in Thousand Fell, the first full circle consumer brand and smart recycling management platform that facilitates recycling and collection for the footwear industry.
In the wake of COVID-19, we’re also focused on education. School closures that began over a year ago have exposed a deep at-home digital divide and exacerbated inequities in the US education system. We’ve seen unprecedented demand for direct-to-parent and direct-to-student content and platforms, accelerating the potential for hybrid learning models to improve student outcomes. We just invested in a company called Fiveable that combines online learning with a social network, providing dynamic test prep resources at a much more affordable price point than traditional solutions.
As you know, community is everything to us. How has yours helped you with your journey, personally or professionally?
Community powers everything I do. I got a taste of the power of community firsthand through BUILT BY GIRLS. The company has made over 20,000 matches to date by leveraging the power of the community for both growth and the utility of the platform. At BBG Ventures, the power of a strong founder community (for referrals or partnerships) and VC community (as co-investors or experts) is evident every time we make an investment. And some of our most exciting investments have had community at their core, including The Wing and Mighty Networks. Community is also the basis for my own operating system. The way I operate is to pick up the phone and get advice from someone who knows more than I do. I’ve made it a habit personally and professionally to do that any time I’m entering into uncharted waters. I credit most of what I know and what I’ve learned with that approach.
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