In the 15 years since Joanna Rees founded Venture Strategy Partners, she’s taken the venture capital world by storm. She’s often the only woman in the boardroom, boasts numerous industry accolades and has firmly established herself as a powerhouse in the realm of venture capital. On top of that, she’s a mother, a Columbia Business School graduate, an entrepreneur and an education advocate.
But that isn’t enough for Rees. Next on her to do list? Running for mayor of San Francisco.
Rees got her first taste of politics at VSP. Through her leadership position at her venture capital firm, she was able to see firsthand how important it was to be involved in the policy agenda and to use entrepreneurship to impact the future. Rees’ experience in entrepreneurialism, venture capital and finance has made her an important contributor to the conversation.
“I know that I am an important voice in the dialogue because my dialogue has come from two years of listening in the community and my own background and experience that isn’t tied to any special interest or current system,” Rees said. “Therefore if I can influence the dialogue based on where I come from, I’m having an impact.”
This background is varied, and eclectic. Yet all Rees’ experiences brought certain lessons of their own.
“I met with 400 investors over three years and my husband always said I was good at hearing ‘no.’ But I took ‘no’ as ‘not yet.”
After graduating from Columbia, Rees moved back to her hometown in New Jersey to take over the family hotel business. She helped the business grow and then sold it. Then Rees was off to San Francisco, where she opened Eric Restaurant with her second husband. The restaurant closed two years later, but Rees wasn’t deterred. She switched gears, working for eight years as an investment banker with Vrolyk & Co and BA Securities.
But she wasn’t resting on her laurels – she was planning her next move. Rees took the leap into the world of venture capitalism in 1996 with the formation of VSP.
“The path was not a likely path for a number of reasons,” Rees said. “One, I didn’t have the venture capital experience, so the likelihood of me being successful wasn’t very high. The other was that I was a woman and the industry is still very male dominated.” In fact, this earned Rees a unique nickname.
“Forbes wrote about me and called me ‘alley cat’ because they said I bootstrapped my way into the old boys club of venture capital, by being as resourceful as the entrepreneurs I would back,” she said. This resourcefulness paid off, as VSP boasted a first fund of $25 million, followed by $190 million and $175 million thereafter.
“I had no venture capital experience,” Rees said. “But what attracted me to it is that so often technology based companies failed not because they didn’t build the technology they said they would, they failed because they didn’t understand their markets and their customers.”
Utilizing her marketing background, Rees decided her best chance of success would be to take a market-driven approach to technology investment. Her instincts were on point, although it would take effort to convince investors to trust a woman with no experience and no background in venture capital.
“The biggest challenge was gaining credibility,” Rees said. “It was being able to get money raised from quality investors so that I was taken seriously in the industry. I met with 400 investors over three years and my husband always said I was good at hearing ‘no.’ But I took ‘no’ as ‘not yet.’”
Turns out, she was right. Not only is VSP a successful venture capitalist firm, but Rees herself has gained mass acclaim for her business accrue – the World Economic Forum named her a Year 2000 Global Leader for Tomorrow; and that same year Rees was named the 2000 Entrepreneur of the Year Rising Star by The National Association of Women Business Owners. Keeping with her dedication to education, Rees is a professor at Santa Clara University and sits on multiple education boards including the board of the Bay Area Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, the San Francisco School Alliance and the NewSchools Venture Fund.
Rees was named an Henry Crown Fellow at the Aspen Institute in 2002, where she was given a mentor as part of a program. Her mentor, late Texas Governor Ann Richards, encouraged Rees to take on a public service role.
“[Richards] gave me two pieces of advice,” Rees said. “Make sure you achieve what you want to achieve professionally before you serve so it really is about service and not about building your resume.” Rees seems to have that part covered.
“The other piece of advice she gave me is [public service] will be easier when your kids are older because you serve on the public’s calendar and the public’s agenda and you don’t have a lot of flexibility over your schedule.” And it seems Rees also took this piece of advice to heart – her children are now older.
As for her other child, VSP, Rees is wrapping things up in anticipation of what’s to come.
“I have been winding down my business for a number of years, on purpose in preparation for this next stage,” Rees said. “I was hugely satisfied with my contribution in the venture industry.” And it’s no wonder, as Rees served on the board of the National Venture Capital Association, impacting first hand policy agenda in relation to venture capital and entrepreneurship broadly across our country. This policy work was, in a sense, Rees’ first foray into politics.
In preparation for the election and her campaign, Rees went on a two-year listening tour, visiting different neighborhoods in San Francisco, even riding buses with constituents.
“What I heard loud and clear from those two years of listening was we need a new approach to our long-term systemic challenges,” Rees said. “The same old same old isn’t getting us there. It’s about bringing in people with new ideas and new perspectives.” As an entrepreneur/venture capitalist, Rees seems to fit the bill.
“Entrepreneurs do more than anyone thinks is possible with less than anyone thinks is possible and being able to bring some of that entrepreneurial mindset, perspective and thinking into city government could have a significantly positive impact on the future,” she said.
But it was Rees’ dedication to affecting change in education that was the deciding factor for her candidacy.
“I would say my moment of obligation, when I knew I had to run, was when I became convinced the only way we would have a significant impact on public education is if the mayor makes it a high-level priority,” she said.
Although the mayor doesn’t actually have control over the public school system, Rees believes that the mayor should be an education advocate. Rees’ other two issues are transparency when it comes to voters’ money and digging San Francisco out of a decade-long cycle of budget deficits.
But first, she must win the election. Today, Rees’ days are packed with meetings, campaigning and fundraising. Despite the grueling schedule, Rees maintains that campaigning has the opposite effect on her.
“It’s actually inspiring, because it feels so purpose driven for me,” she said. “This is a real opportunity for me to give back to the community that provided me a great platform to create a great life for my family and me. I’m motivated by the process because it feels like I can make such a big impact.”