The recent conversations around gender disparities in the workforce have focused on a variety of things: pay, mobility, respect. But woven through all of those things is culture. Cultural norms shape professional environments on visible and invisible levels, and shifting that narrative takes time, energy and resistance to the status quo. This is especially true in male- and white-dominated industries, where tradition and legacy still play a huge role in how companies grow and change.
In a four-part series with Olay, Man Repeller will speak with seven different women who work in primarily male-dominated fields to learn more about how that change is happening — and what it’s like to be in the middle of it. Below, meet Abyah Wynn, the vice president of business development at a venture capital firm called Trimantium. Men make up 89 percent of the venture capital industry (white men make up 76 percent). I spoke with Abyah about what it’s like to work in venture capital, especially as a woman of color.
On Stumbling Into a Career in Venture Capital
I was working at a small investment banking firm in L.A. when I got this random LinkedIn message from a man named Phillip. I wasn’t sure if he was hitting on me, because people are inappropriate on LinkedIn all the time — it’s very troubling. They’re all the same: “I would love to help you further your career.” I’m like, I’m sure you would.
At first, I didn’t give his message the time of day. Later, though, something in the back of my mind urged me to return to it. There was something unique about it. So I sent it over to my dad — who also has a finance background — and said, “Hey, can you suss these guys out for me?” He emailed me back and said, “Yeah, you want to respond to this message right away.”
Two weeks had lapsed by the time I finally replied, and he responded to me immediately with: “I’m on a 48-hour stint in L.A. Let’s meet for coffee tomorrow.” It was a crazy coincidence, because he lives in Australia, so for me to have caught him in this perfect window was unbelievable.
When we first sat down, I didn’t know what to expect. I soon found out we had a mutual contact who had recommended me and I wasn’t the only candidate he was speaking to. I could tell he was kind of just feeling me out, saying things like, “I don’t know if this is something you’re interested in or if you know someone who is interested, but let’s keep the conversation going.” I remember walking into the coffee shop thinking, Well, this is a big waste of time, and walking out thinking, Wow, I really want this job.
On Entering a New and Male-Dominated World
Before I got the job, I knew the surface definition of venture capital, but I wasn’t fully briefed on what this world entailed. My biggest misconception was that you had to have a finance background and an MBA to be able to succeed in it, but you don’t. My degree is in advertising and marketing. You do have to understand how the numbers work and the legalities of term sheets, etc — I’ve learned a lot and I continue to learn every day — but I would say it is a lot more art than science.
It’s about intuition, knowing how to read people, understanding how companies work and how they grow. I think that my background has helped me with that. I’m also a very intuitive person. Being able to sit down with a founder and see how he or she is able to execute their vision, get a feel for the founding team and understand whether or not everyone meshes well — it’s all part of the process. I frequently tell founders: “Don’t take money from just anyone,” and I would never give money to just anyone, either. It’s like a marriage — you have to make sure that it’s right for both of you.
Trimantium is based in Australia, but I work out of L.A. The most challenging part of my job is probably the isolation — being a one-woman show. Having to be a consistent self-starter, because no one is telling me, “You have to wake up at a certain time,” or, “You can only take an hour lunch.” I sometimes miss the support system of having colleagues to interact with daily, but I also really enjoy the freedom and flexibility that I have with my schedule. It’s really a trade-off.
When I am in my office in Australia, there’s maybe four women. The rest are male. At conferences and events, it tends to skew mostly male too. It’s kind of comes with the territory, so I’ve just learned to grin and bear it, but I hope I can be successful in raising others up and diversifying the industry in any way I can.
On the Importance of Representation in Venture Capital
A lot of people that are in the VC world either come from privilege, have been groomed for this position or are part of a network that has created opportunities for them. It’s rare to find someone who comes from “the wrong side of the tracks,” so to speak, and become a successful venture capitalist. You just don’t hear that story every day. If you’re not in the right circles, it can be very hard. A lot of VC jobs are not posted on job websites; people don’t shout them from the rooftops. You have to know someone who knows someone who knows someone to get in the door.
When I was in college, I took a venture initiation class. Although I loved it, when I looked at venture capitalists, none of them looked like me. So I didn’t really know it was a path for me. Now, when I go to certain conferences and events and I look around the room, I still don’t see anyone that looks like me. Part of why I’m passionate about being successful in this industry is because I think it’s important for little girls, and especially little brown girls, to be able to look at me or Arlan Hamilton or Kirsten Green or any other minority or female VC and know that it can be a path for them. There are people that look like them who are killing it, and they can kill it as well.
In that sense, representation is really important. Up until recently, I’d say maybe in the past five or so years, a lot of HBCUs didn’t even have classes that focused on entrepreneurship or venture capital, and so the path really wasn’t paved for people who weren’t already a part of this homogenous network. I’ve thought a lot about teaching and being a guest lecturer for that reason. It’s something I’d like to explore at some point. If black women had been teaching me about venture capital in college, it would have been a completely different presentation than the one by my white male professor. There’s nothing wrong with either, but I think that being able to see myself would have been kind of cool. Even though I’m terrified of public speaking, it’s something that I’d like to do more of.
On Carving a Path for Women Like Her
The men in my professional circle are very respectful. They’re funny and charming and awesome — and, as far as I know, the ones that I’ve interacted with are not actively trying to keep women or people of color out. It’s just a matter of their networks. I think that it takes people like myself to bring attention to the lack of diversity and try to raise others up.
At Trimantium, I’m launching the Twenty65 Fund because I believe that a lot of other VCs are leaving money on the table by not investing in more female and minority founders. The fund is solely focused on investing in female and minority founders. People tend to discount how much buying power females and minorities have, and how these founders may have identified products and solutions for problems that are unique to their demographics. If we’re only investing in tech companies founded by white men, we are overlooking a lot of other solutions for other segments of the population.
I do feel a responsibility, but in the best sense of the word. I don’t think that it’s a burden or a pressure. It’s just something that I feel very strongly about. I’ve had a very non-linear path to venture capital, but I wouldn’t want to do anything else in the world. I absolutely love my job and I feel very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to be in this industry. I’m deeply passionate about what I do, and because of that, it doesn’t feel like work.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.