Finding mentors and balancing hustle and mental health. Interview with Ana Wolsztajn, VC Investor and CMO at KAYA VC

It’s no secret that diversity in VC is not where it needs to be. There is a severe lack of representation across Europe in this space – in terms of gender, race, orientation and identity. Whilst there have been some efforts to improve the outlook, most firms are now reporting data related to gender equality but still more than a third of European VC firms do not have a female partner. Looking into other gaps of representation, the data is extremely limited. 

There’s one firm that’s aiming to make a change – Included VC. This is an organisation run by the VC community aiming to promote underrepresented profiles in this space through mentorship and hands-on support. This fully-funded nine-month Fellowship comprises masterclasses, mentoring, foundational learning, simulated investment committees, in-person retreats and career coaching. 

Ana Wolsztajn was involved in the Included VC initiative and is now VC Investor and CMO at KAYA VC, a Prague-based investment firm on the lookout for early-stage startups that want to create lasting change sustainably.

We chatted with Ana to find out more about her experiences in VC and how having the right mentor can really make your career flourish. Her story is a fascinating one and she has some wonderful gems of advice – so, grab a seat and enjoy.

You have just taken the lead as VC Investor and CMO at KAYA – firstly, congratulations on the role! It’s wonderful to see more inspiring women reaching these roles. Can you tell us a bit more about your background? What inspired you to enter VC?

Thank you, I am really excited about this opportunity. I keep having these moments when I look back and wonder how every experience that seemed unrelated before, fits nicely into my (still developing) skillset of the VC investor. 

I started my career as a Copywriter before the “Mad Men” TV show made it cool. I worked on top tier brands at DDB and McCann, then later left it for life as an entrepreneur. I saw the passion project come to life, faced challenges of the 2008 financial crisis as a business owner, and learned the hardships and joys of running a business.

This “founder episode” led to being headhunted to the international team taking part in the digital revolution at Adidas. There, I had the opportunity to experience being on the client side of things, leading remote teams and working with departments distributed across the world. Since then, I have collaborated with a number of tech venture builders, collab centers, accelerators and big event organizers in a variety of growth, product, marketing, and comms roles in mainland Europe, the UK, Asia, and Australia.

Being active in the startup ecosystem, I always enjoyed sharing my experience as a mentor and business strategy advisor. I kept acting as a connector between the wider startup community and the world of venture capital, and media as a freelance tech journalist first, and then during my fellowship with Included VC.

Until I joined the dark side 😉 First for a summer at Balderton Capital, and since October 2020 with my fantastic Included VC mentors at KAYA VC.

‍I now see how being – to a point – a jack of all trades and trying out many professional paths, really pays off when you work with startups at different stages of growth and from different cultures. But that’s more of an afterthought – what actually inspired me to enter the VC space was the deep understanding of a startup’s needs. Storytelling training, pitch deck reviews and media boost can only go so far. Oftentimes what the startup really needs to grow is money. As an active venture capital investor, I can help startups scale with the right story, but also with the much-needed resources and funding.

Included VC and KAYA are both about collaboration, support, and changing the status quo. Can you speak a bit more to the common vision of these two entities?

Ever since I became a fellow of the inaugural cohort of Included VC back in 2019, the fellowship’s mission to change the face of venture capital and to open up this world to more underrepresented communities spoke strongly to my personal beliefs. A VC job is more of a marathon than a sprint (I am sure I’ve heard this from more than one of my fantastic mentors!) so being aligned with the vision of your employer really matters. 

I am not surprised that KAYA was supportive of the Included fellowship from day one, because the two entities share a lot of values. Getting to know my current colleagues as my mentors first, assured me of their approachability and authenticity. I simply knew that joining the team was the right move because it felt right. 

We’re now at year three and the Included VC family of fellows and alumni is growing into the hundreds. With many fellows joining VC funds or even raising their own, this vision of changing the VC ecosystem from within becomes ever more realistic. Honestly, being able to share my learnings with new cohorts as I mentor alongside my colleagues and partners of KAYA, is the best outcome I could dream of after my transition to VC.

One thing facing many young people, that I would love to hear your thoughts on, is the feeling of an ‘endless hustle’. Working odd-jobs, lots of hours, and with little return. What would be your advice for young people in this situation?

Gosh, as much as I would like to take the older and wiser view on this, I must admit that without hustling, I wouldn’t be where I am now. It’s definitely a very subjective view but I believe that some of our ambitious goals may require a lot of time, energy and hard work. You should do whatever you can to realise your dreams and shouldn’t be shamed for trying harder. 

This is especially true for those trying to keep up with industry peers who may be in a more advantageous position due to their socioeconomic status or stronger representation in the industry. Nevertheless, I do acknowledge that this relentless approach to work could turn into a vicious cycle and seriously impact our physical and mental health, so it’s a delicate balance.

Ultimately, it’s a personal choice and whatever path we each choose, we have to live with the consequences. No matter how much of a passion your work is for you (I tend to choose paths that led me to work crazy hours doing things I love!), we do need a healthy balance in our lives. I’m still learning this, and far from being an expert here. But stillness and stopping the daily grind can reframe how you see things and bring a new perspective. 

For the sake of better results, your health and your personal life, I recommend not giving up on hobbies, skimping on sleep or friends/family interactions. And I cannot stress enough how crucial it is to avoid toxic conditions, and instead, seek out a nurturing environment.

Have you had any important mentors in your life that have helped you reach where you are today? If so, what’s the benefit of having such mentors?

I’ve been a nerdy bookworm since forever, so my first mentors were from the literary world. I can’t stress enough how much reading opened my view to the world and its countless possibilities. 

Real-life mentors came later. Especially in VC, I recognise how crucial it is to have someone guide you through this new career. There’s a wealth of experience to be shared around venture capital and finding people willing to impart their knowledge truly accelerated my growth. I absolutely have Included VC to thank for those rockstar mentors – Chris Tottman, Jamie Novoa, Itxaso Del Palacio, and last but not least, KAYA partners with their continuous support, insights and inspiration.

What do you see as major trends in the future of European VC? 

This is a really interesting question. I’m noticing more investors mentioning gender lens investing in their thesis. There’s a new wave of angel syndicates and scout programmes that focus on startups with diverse founders. Hopefully, more funds will understand that diversity can mean an unfair advantage in business and often an already resilient founding team.