From Law to Venture Capital - How One Investor is Paving the Way for Startups Who Are Shaping the Future of Cities

May-Samali.png

May Samali is passionate about investing in people and ideas that can change the world.

From lawyer to investor, she is currently at the Urban Innovation Fund, a San Francisco-based venture capital firm that provides seed capital and policy support to entrepreneurs shaping the future of cities.

By the way, the firm is 100% female owned and operated, and has invested in diverse founders. In fact, 71% of portfolio companies have a woman or person of color on the founding team.

She believes leadership is the practice of mobilizing groups of people to tackle tough challenges and constantly pushes herself outside of her comfort zone.

WHAT KIND OF PROBLEM IS THE URBAN INNOVATION FUND SOLVING?

With 81% of Americans living in cities, and two-thirds of the world's population urbanizing by 2050, there are a growing number of challenges facing urban dwellers. This unprecedented urbanization is giving rise to startups transforming the lives of millions of city dwellers in sectors like transportation, real estate, and the future of work. The Urban Innovation Fund is a venture capital firm that provides seed capital and regulatory support to these entrepreneurs who are solving our toughest urban problems. We invest in high-growth, early stage startups shaping the way we live, work, learn, play, and commute in cities. Our $22.5 million fund has already invested in 14 startups and we had our first exit when portfolio startup Valor Water Analytics was acquired by publicly traded water company Xylem earlier this year. 

WHAT DID THOSE FIRST STEPS LOOK/FEEL LIKE? (FOR EXAMPLE: THE FIRST 6 MONTHS)

I joined the Urban Innovation Fund when the firm was first getting off the ground about 18 months ago. Julie and Clara, our Managing Partners, had just started fundraising for Fund I. My first six months at the Urban Innovation Fund were a super interesting and exciting time. As the first (and only) employee, I was actively involved in setting up our fund's processes - both in terms of how we select and vet companies, and how we work with our companies after we've invested. I had the pleasure of working on half a dozen or so new investments during that initial period. I sourced my first investment within two months of starting in my role. Building a startup fund has helped me empathize with our many founders who are also creating companies from the ground up. It's been a stimulating, challenging, and inspiring process. I'm also proud to be working at a firm that is 100% female owned and operated, and has invested in diverse founders (71% of our portfolio companies have a woman or person of color on the founding team).

WHAT HAS BEEN THE BIGGEST CONTRIBUTION TO THE SUCCESS YOU'VE HAD THUS FAR?

 Courage. Without the courage to try new experiences and challenge my own expectations of myself, I wouldn't have been able to pivot my career and land in a role that brings me so much joy and fulfillment. I grew up thinking I wanted to dedicate my entire career to law, so I spent a lot of time, energy and resources working towards this goal. I went to law school, worked with a Supreme Court judge in Australia, and slogged away at a corporate law firm for a few years before realizing the practice of law wasn't really for me. Instead, I craved working with mission-driven founders to help them bring their ideas to life and scale their business operations and impact. I eventually gave in to my intuition, even though it contradicted what I'd always imagined for my professional life. I resigned from my corporate law job, interned with startups in Sydney, applied to graduate school programs in the US, and reimagined the possibilities. I am very grateful to the many mentors, coaches, and confidants who pushed me to take this leap of faith. They gave me the confidence to enter the unknown at a time when I didn't know how things would pan out. Listening to their advice was the best thing I ever did. Upon reflection, I believe the biggest regrets we have in life are the chances we don't take and decisions we wait too long to make. Courage prevents us from these regrets..

DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE FAILURE? WHAT LESSONS DID YOU LEARN?

Realizing I didn't want to be a lawyer definitely felt like a "failure" at the time, given how much I'd invested in this particular path. However, I learnt some important lessons from this experience. I learned to follow my heart even if I wasn't 100% sure of what would come next, and to be open to change and uncertainty. 

HOW DO YOU DEFINE LEADERSHIP? OR, WHAT DOES BEING A LEADER MEAN TO YOU?

I believe leadership is about influencing change that builds and enables the capacity of individuals and organizations to thrive. Specifically, it is the practice of mobilizing groups of people to tackle tough challenges. My notions of leadership are heavily influenced by the adaptive leadership framework set out by Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky. I was first exposed to Heifetz' work at the Harvard Kennedy School, and it turned everything I thought I knew about leadership on its head. I have come to realize that leadership is a function, not a formal role. I believe it's a responsibility that we all must bear if we are to make our organizations and communities stronger, healthier and more productive. The genius of recasting leadership as a function, is that we can all lead. Indeed, we should all lead - when and where it’s needed.

DO YOU HAVE A MENTOR? HOW DID YOU GO ABOUT ACQUIRING ONE?

I have had many mentors throughout the years. Each mentor has played a different role at a different stage in my journey. It's hard to single out any one mentor, but someone who continues to push me and inspire me is Mehrdad Baghai, Founder and Chairman of Alchemy Growth. Mehrdad was a key person in my life who helped me in my transition from law to venture capital. I think there's a lot of pressure out there to find the right mentor. Similar to dating, it's become somewhat of a quest to find the perfect "one" (mentor). But I believe mentorship, like friendship, should not be exclusive to just one person. By surrounding yourself with a group of people who have a variety of experiences, insights, and perspectives on professional and personal success, you will create an inner circle of individuals who you can draw on at different decision points in your life and career.

WHAT SHOULD WOMEN BE DOING MORE OF TO FOSTER LEADERSHIP SKILLS?

We should create multiple mentoring relationships, and in both directions (serving as a mentee in some, and as a mentor in others). In addition, we should constantly push ourselves outside our comfort zone. If something scares us, it's probably good for us.

WHAT DO YOU DO WHEN YOU'RE FEELING "OVERWHELMED"?

When I'm feeling overwhelmed, I go back to the basics: deep breathing (Stop, Breathe & Think is great!), getting out in nature, and reaching out to family and friends. Nothing makes me feel more grounded than being reconnected to loved ones and the earth. 

WHAT IS ONE QUOTE YOU LIVE YOUR LIFE BY?

This quote from Rainer Maria Rilke really speaks to the way I view life: “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

WHAT ARE YOU READING RIGHT NOW?

I'm currently reading "Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In" by Roger Fisher and William Ury. I was recommended this fantastic book by my close friend, Alex Smith, who is a Strategic Negotiator at Google. It provides a universally applicable method for negotiating personal and professional disputes. I love the practicality of its advice and insights.

Have you ever felt imposter syndrome, and how did you combat it?

Absolutely. It's a feeling that often resurfaces. The way I overcome "imposter syndrome" it is to constantly remind myself that everyone feels it all the time. I'm not special. That realization, in and of itself, is liberating.

IF YOU HAD ONE TIP OR LIFE ADVICE, OR MANTRA TO SHARE, WHAT WOULD IT BE? 

Be open to change, and have the courage to continue to evolve!

ANY THING ELSE YOU'D LIKE TO INCLUDE?

You can follow May on Twitter @maysamali or reach her via LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/msamali/

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