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Visionary VCs: Dama Sathianathan and Bethnal Green Ventures, measuring success in lives improved rather

Dama Sathianathan

Dama Sathianathan swapped improving the world through charity for improving the world through venture capital. Joining Bethnal Green Ventures in 2017, she became a partner in 2019 and is currently the community and networks manager. Her background perhaps made BGV an obvious choice; it measures its results not just financially, but also in the lives they have positively impacted through their investment. But although the match seems perfect, Sathianathan came to VC, and BGV, almost accidentally. TFN spoke with her during the Subak Climate Summit held in London recently to find out what drives her, and to discover her thoughts on venture capital.

An accidental VC

Sathianathan describes her journey to VC as an ‘accident’. Starting her career working for non-profits and NGOs, she moved to London in 2014 when she was working in global development and humanitarian assistance. “My life before VC had always been in social impact,” she says, “issues like climate justice and reducing inequalities.”

However, despite the passion behind her career, there were frustrations too, and her frustration at some of the practices in the charitable sector when it came to deploying tech to the frontline led her to start going to the Tech for Good meetups that Bethnal Green Ventures ran.

“I used to go along before I even knew what the tech ecosystem was about,” Sathianathan recalls. “It was such an open atmosphere. A huge mix of for-profits, non-profits, co-ops, and individuals who were interested in a better world with tech.”

When, in 2017, she discovered that BGV were hiring, her interest was piqued, and especially when she discovered that they used blind recruitment. “I was ‘OK, they’re not going to ditch my CV, they aren’t going to see my long last name, and they aren’t going to discredit my previous experience in a different sector!’”

When she found herself discussing career progression with the CEO before she’d even signed a contract, she was committed: “Five years later, I’m still super, super excited to work with really early-stage founders, to provide more access to capital for great ideas that move the needles and have positive outcomes for people.”

A commitment to solving problems

Sathianathan’s is proud that, through BGV, she continues to have an impact. “A pet peeve of mine is that in the midst of a global pandemic and feeling the effects of climate change, we should have been thinking about food security and better consumption, but the focus was on companies that could get you arrabbiata sauce in fifteen minutes.”

Instead, she notes that BGV focus on the impact their investments can have on the world. “We put in a lot of work as a team to think about the problems that we see and where we need some fresh ideas,” she told us. “In our investment thesis, we focus more on the outcomes we would like to see in the world.”

The only restriction BGV has is that they invest in UK-registered startups, although they can operate anywhere in the world. Sathianathan highlights one in Zambia, that provides students with the equipment to build generators, providing electricity, so they can study at home.

It also focuses on early-stage startups, although Sathianathan notes that term is very broad. “It covers everything from ideation to Series A, but we’re focused on really early stage, when people have a prototype or at least vigorous user research and insights,” she says.

A more diverse group of founders, and VCs

Sathianathan is also aware of the need to shift where investments are made. She uses the term ‘underrepresented global majority entrepreneurs’ to describe those that are often overlooked for funding, since it changes the frame of perception.

She notes that, thanks to BGV’s recruitment approach and the general nature of VC, she has not particularly felt that she is the odd-one-out, but does recognise there is still much more work to be done. Sathianathan says that some events, especially the big-ticket industry events, “can feel like an old boys’ club: pale, male, and stale.” She suggests, “there should be something providing better access to those types of events, because they are good for knowledge and great for networking.”

Sathianathan also points out that work still needs to be done to diversify investment, and welcomes new funds like Ada Ventures. UK investment remains focused on London, for example, and much depends on the background of the founders. “Warm introduction is still the norm,” she said. “First time entrepreneurs might have an in-depth understanding of the problems they are tackling, but because they haven’t worked at Google, or wherever, they aren’t being seen by the seed-stage investors.”

The hallmarks of a great investor

Sathianathan is quick to highlight that a high-level of self-awareness is necessary to be a great investor, citing the need to be able to acknowledge and rectify mistakes. But as well as grace and humility, she also feels great investors make the time — even when busy — for their founders.

Her summary is to the point: “I would say ‘don’t be an arsehole’ is a baseline of what constitutes a great investor!”

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