Today in our Women in Tech series, we sit down with Claire Bristow, an Investment Associate at Skalata Ventures. From her unique journey transitioning from Public Health academia to venture capital, Claire discusses the value of her research-driven critical analysis in identifying real-world problems and assessing investment opportunities.
Claire’s experience as a founder with startup accelerator program Her Society has shaped her empathetic approach as an investor, grounding her in the realities faced by founders. In the male-dominated VC realm, she confronts challenges as one of the few women in many conversations but remains committed to fostering change. At Skalata Ventures, she emphasises evidence-backed validation and champions founders with strong convictions yet adaptable strategies.
For women looking to transition into tech or venture capital, Claire stresses resilience amidst rejection, leveraging unique backgrounds, and due diligence in understanding the industry’s intricacies. As the landscape of VC evolves, she foresees more initiatives promoting diversity, but recognises the need to address deeper systemic issues to create a balanced ecosystem.
Hey Claire, welcome back to Balance the Grind! Your transition from academia to venture capital seems like a non-traditional path, especially with your background in Public Health. Can you share some of the transferrable skills you’ve found to be valuable in your current role as an Investment Associate at Skalata Ventures?
A great observation and probably the question I get asked most. My background as a Lecturer in Public Health is indeed very non-traditional – I don’t think I know anyone else with a PhD in Eating Disorders who has jumped over to VC, but I do think we are starting to see folks from more diverse backgrounds enter the industry which is fantastic.
Regarding transferable skills, by far the biggest one for me is the necessity to question everything and get to the bottom of a problem. As a researcher, you are constantly asking ‘why’? and testing multiple hypotheses to get to the answer. The same is true for VC. Why is this a problem? Who for? Why is this the team to do it? It’s the tendency not to take anything at face value and critically analyse the problem in front of you.
Secondly, the ability to get across complex concepts quickly through years of synthesising evidence and literature comes in handy when you’re analysing an industry for the first time. You learn how to cut through the noise and get to the valuable resources, which when constantly context switching under time restraints is a valuable tool to have.
In our last interview you mentioned that you went through a start-up accelerator program with your own company, Her Society, a few years ago. How has that experience shaped your perspective as an investor, and what lessons from your entrepreneurial journey do you apply when working with founders?
This experience was undoubtedly the reason why I’ve ended up here and opened my mind to the world of opportunity outside Academia. The main way it has shaped my perspective as an investor is largely to do with empathy. It’s very difficult to truly understand the founder’s journey and just how challenging it can be unless you’ve been in that position yourself.
It also enabled me to sift through the noise that we are all so often deafened by in this space. When I was first exposed to VC and start-ups, I was definitely viewing with rose coloured glasses. I am much more realistic – and grounded – about and in this world now and I try to pass that onto founders.
As part of a Women in Tech series, it’s important to address the challenges and opportunities for women in the industry. Based on your experience both in academia and venture capital, have you noticed any unique challenges or opportunities for women in these fields, and how have you navigated them?
In my experience, Academia and VC are worlds apart. I went from being in the majority and surrounded by women to the very stark reality of being a minority in VC and there’s likely decades of transformation needed before they look remotely similar.
A caveat to this is that I came from health fields, which are more heavily dominated by females, so I can’t speak to other Academic industries, but even at the executive level, the University I was a part of had a lot of senior female representation. Now, I frequently find myself in rooms and conversations where I am the only one.
VC is tough not just from a female founder perspective, but from an investor perspective, too. I’m constantly on calls where all-male teams will direct the conversation entirely to my male colleagues. I’ve also experienced online trolling as a result of not dropping everything I was doing to make myself immediately available to a male founder. I try to take it in my stride but it’s something I am acutely aware of and actively trying to address.
You mentioned that you oversee the Investment Committee (IC) process at Skalata Ventures. Can you give us some insight into the key factors you look for in a start-up when deciding whether to invest, and how your background in public health might influence your evaluation?
Absolutely. To clarify, I’m not the final decision maker, but I make sure the investment team gets everything they need for a company to be presented to IC.
At Skalata, we look for many of the same things other VCs do; a real problem that customers are willing to pay for, a significant market opportunity, and a team that has the potential to execute. Some things that are unique to us is that we require a certain level of innovation in the companies we invest in, i.e., they have the potential to move the needle and not just marginal improvements. We also emphasise capital efficiency and require companies to be market ready (we don’t invest in pre-product/ideation).
My background means I am usually quite critical of the data/evidence companies are using to validate the problem/product or measure traction. For example, a generic survey where you asked 20 of your mates’ mates if they’d use your product is not customer discovery nor validation.
As an Investment Associate, you work closely with founders throughout their journey. What qualities do you believe make a successful founder, and how do you support their growth and development through your role at Skalata Ventures?
“Strong opinions loosely held.” Strong founders have conviction in their mission and are hell bent on solving the problem, but open on how to get there. I’m not looking for a founder to agree with everything I say or to constantly change the pitch to what they think an investor wants to hear.
If they can convince me they’ve identified a real problem and that they have a competitive advantage to solve it, but are constantly testing their assumptions along the way, they’ve got my buy-in. In addition, being able to sell to me gives me confidence that you’ll be able to go out and sell to the market.
At Skalata, we’re heavy on post-investment support, and have a large investment team committed to helping our companies navigate the journey from seed funding to their next round (or profitability…). Whether it’s go-to-market, sales, strategy, or hiring, we work hands on with our companies and connect them into our own network of founders, advisors, and investors to make sure they’ve got the best possible chance at success.
With your experience in academia and your involvement in start-ups, what advice would you give to women considering a career transition into the tech or venture capital space? Are there any resources or strategies you found particularly helpful during your own transition?
I’ve written a bit about this here (shameless plug) as it is something I get asked a lot. The advice I have isn’t pretty, but it’s honest…
Be prepared for rejection – a lot of people won’t understand how and why you’re a fit in this world. It’s up to you to help them see that. I’ve written about some of the transferable skills that were valuable for me, but take the time to really hone in on your own.
Embrace your uniqueness – I’m one of the only VCs I know that didn’t come from a background in law, consulting, or banking/finance. It took me a while to see this, but this is an advantage. Embrace yours.
Do your due diligence – VC and tech may seem glittery from the outside but this space isn’t for everyone and the reality is there are a lot of downsides to being a woman in this industry. Try to do your diligence by speaking to other women in the space, ex/current employees, and anyone else in your network who can give you insight. It’s a lot easier when you know what you’re walking into and you’ve accepted that.
Lastly, looking into the future, how do you envision the landscape of venture capital and start-ups evolving, particularly in terms of diversity and inclusion? What role do you see yourself playing in fostering a more inclusive and diverse ecosystem within the industry?
Encouragingly, there are a lot of fantastic folks currently implementing initiatives to help put more funding in the hands of female founders and encourage more female investors in the industry. However, I’m of the view that we still have a long way to go when it comes to the more upstream systemic issues the industry faces, and those that stem far further down the pipeline.
For example, if you look at the fields of education in which a person ‘typically’ enters tech or investing, they are heavily dominated by men (think business, accounting/finance, computer science, engineering etc.). Of course this is an issue in and of itself, but naturally this means the pipeline of talent will be skewed heavily.