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How to enter the world of VC & startups with an arts background

The world of VC and startups has a notorious diversity problem. And while most of the attention around this issue rightly centres on the lack of gender and ethnic diversity among investors and founders, homogeneity exists across a range of other areas. This includes neurodiversity, disability, socio-economic backgrounds, and education. 

The majority of VCs and VC-backed founders were educated at so-called ‘elite’ universities. Within those ranks, a large swathe have degrees in subjects such as engineering, computer science, economics and management, or maths. These factors are seen by VC firms as indicators of success, both when hiring for their own teams and when making decisions on which founders to back. 

And whilst we want brilliant people from STEM backgrounds entering the VC and founder field, where does that leave people who chose an arts or humanities route for their further education, or who started their career outside of the traditional venture and tech ‘breeding grounds’ of consultancy, finance or graduate schemes?

Firstly, any preconceived notion that there’s a ‘perfect’ CV for VC or startup roles is wrong. There is a lot of research that shows people hire in their own likeness. This means subconscious prejudice is baked into hiring processes. The result? Non-diverse teams stay non-diverse. 

That’s why people from certain backgrounds who went to certain universities and studied particular subjects continue to attract the bulk of VC funding and represent the bulk of VCs. It’s not because people from overlooked and underestimated backgrounds, those with non-linear career journeys, or people with arts or humanities education don’t belong in those worlds. In short, “it’s not you, it’s them.

Far from it – some of the most talented, successful founders, investors and entrepreneurs have come from less ‘traditional’ backgrounds. And many of these came from arts or humanities backgrounds. 

Melanie Perkins, the CEO of billion-dollar company Canva, for example, studied communications and psychology at university before becoming one of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs. Emily Weiss, the founder of beauty behemoth Glossier, studied studio art. The same can be said for VCs. Dama Sathianathan, partner at Bethnal Green Ventures, studied liberal arts and began her career in communications. And Petra Moravcova, investor 3VC and Newton Venture Program alum started out her professional life as an architect. 

There are many more examples of people transitioning from non-economic or business management backgrounds into the tech and VC world. In my role as executive director of Newton Venture Program, a development and training initiative helping people unlock or advance careers in VC, I see people from all walks of life regularly making this move. They’ve included poets, doctors and marketers. It’s clear that these talented cohorts have the intelligence, tenacity, grit and curiosity to make brilliant investors.

However, there’s no doubt that less progressive VC firms and startups don’t look as favourably on these educational or professional backgrounds, despite the wealth of transferable skills they bring. There’s still a huge amount of work to be done to level the playing field. In the meantime, here are top tips for those with an arts background who are looking to break into the world of tech or investing:

1. Realise it’s possible: Success in any sphere is partly determined by your faith in your own abilities and your willingness to follow your instincts. So before taking practical steps to embark on a career in VC, the first rung on the ladder is to believe firmly that you can and know that there’s a place for you in it. The ‘Old Boys Club’ that once pervaded the VC space is slowly fading away, but breaking into VC will still require you to be proactive and to have faith in your own skills and abilities, even if they are typically underrepresented in the sector. 

2. Explore training or access schemes: There are a range of schemes and initiatives designed to help people crack into the world of VC, particularly for those who come from overlooked and under-represented backgrounds, or who have had a more diverse or unusual route into the space. Our Newton Fundamentals Program is designed to give people the context and understanding they need to get their VC career started. And others such as Future VC and Included VC are also designed to help people get their foot in the door. Universities often have venture societies which have links to grad schemes or training programmes. So make sure you explore what schemes might be open to you, to help hone those transferable skills and build the industry understanding you’ll need to get started. 

3. Value the experience you already have: When we obsess over the qualifications we don’t have, we do a disservice to the experience we do have. Think about your career or education history to date and pull out threads that complement what you want from your VC career. If you have an arts degree, your skills might include being well-trained in analysing reams of information, reading around a subject quickly but thoroughly, understanding societal trends, or having an eye for a brilliant brand. All of these abilities are highly sought after in ventures, as well as in lots of startup roles. There’s value in all experiences; make sure you’re thinking creatively about the transferability of yours and not under-selling yourself. 

4. Connect with the VCs leading the way: Not all VCs are created equal – some are truly blazing a trail when it comes to diversifying their talent pool. Get to know the VC market in your region and research the initiatives firms are taking. Which ones have more diverse teams? Which are sponsoring or backing initiatives to diversify their organisation and the sector at large? This will help you identify those to prioritise when it comes to career opportunities.

Once you’ve identified the trailblazers, don’t be afraid to make first contact. Informally reaching out to firms via their talent acquisition teams can be the best (and sometimes only) way to put yourself forward as a prospective hire. Likewise, get in touch with individual VCs. While traditionally closed networks still exist in fields like VC, the rise of LinkedIn and other mediums has democratised direct access to relevant people. Begin with a simple ask – like a 15-minute virtual coffee to help you understand more about the firm and what it takes to land a job there – and use those opportunities to build up your network. 

Eleanor Kaye
Eleanor Kaye
Guest Contributor Eleanor Kaye is the Executive Director at Newton Venture Program - a joint venture of LocalGlobe and London Business School. Newton trains aspiring and practising venture capital professionals with an explicit mission to diversify the VC Ecosystem. Previously, Eleanor worked at Palantir Technologies across multiple operational roles during Palantir’s period of hyper-growth before Direct Listing.

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