If you find your way to a meet-and-greet with BoxGroup, the seed-stage venture capital firm started by NYC-based accelerator TechStars co-founder David Tisch, you’ve likely been approached by a friendly young man who’s as eager to discuss the latest startup companies as he is in getting your feedback on the event that’s happening around you.
Heston Berkman, a 24-year-old investor at BoxGroup, is always open to meeting new people and exploring – two traits that helped him start a career in VC at a young age. As a graduate from the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied Science, Technology and Society, Heston has been plugged into the VC world early on – both as an intern to seed-stage fund First Round Capital, and as the Managing Partner at its university-focused arm, Dorm Room Fund.
Below, Heston shares his insight on what it takes to break into VC as a college graduate with Breaking Hoops.
BH: How did you get interested in VC, and how did you break into the space?
Heston: In a way, my path into VC was the result of my exploring many curiosities that compounded into opportunities.
I knew from a young age that I could learn more from outside the classroom, so I jump started my career with several part time jobs. I wanted to get into media at first, and interned with Comcast before eventually exploring other opportunities in the field with IMAX and Vevo.
After Vevo, I was connected to someone who just sold their E-commerce business to Ebay where I learned a little bit about marketplaces and e-commerce. Shortly after that experience, Ihad the opportunity to join First Round Capital in their Philly and New York offices, which was my first step into VC. Eventually I expanded my role to Managing Partner of Dorm Room Fund (First Round Capital subsidiary) for another 9 months, before starting my current job at BoxGroup.
BH: Why go into VC as a college graduate?
Heston: Even before I went to Penn, I knew that I had no interest in banking and consulting. I liked the idea of having a pretty much undefined career trajectory in tech and venture capital, as opposed to the defined path of popular corporate jobs. I wanted to create an impact, and wasn’t too fond of the idea of sitting behind a desk churning out spreadsheets.
BH: As a college student with no founding experience, how could I show VC firms that I can provide value?
Heston: VCs are contrarians for a living, so they rely on hearing about new ideas and new innovations.
At the end of the day, no two paths to VC are alike. To develop insight that’s valuable, you need to first have a passion about a topic or a niche. Then you can capitalize on local resources to build out something that aligns with your passion, and college is a great place to do that. For instance, if you come up with an idea, campus VC funds like Dorm Room Fund are great resources to test them out.
BH: Along the same lines, anyone can read a VC blog and sound intelligent just by repeating something someone else has said. So what are some traits that will set you aside when applying to VC firms?
Heston: Here at Box Group, when evaluating companies, we really believe in asking ourselves 3 things: why this market, why is product, and why is this the right team to do it. To answer those questions, there are two things that you need to show that you’re good at: listening, and showing empathy.
At the end of the day, you don’t need to be the forefront expert on all topics. A huge part of this business is about diversifying your network. You need to build your own contrarian view, and that takes time. You’re right in that you can’t just read an article and be an expert. The only way to know if you’ll make a good VC is to bet on ideas you believe will succeed and see if they actually do, then constantly refine your way.
BH: And joining a VC fund like Dorm Room Fund or Rough Draft Ventures while still in college could be a good way to get started on that early on.
BH: I understand there’s no set path to VC, just as there’s no formula for success in entrepreneurship. But of your peers in VC, do you see a common profile?
Heston: It’s dependent on the stage of the fund. In earlier stage funds (like First Round Capital and BoxGroup), VCs will be looking for people who are self-starters in niches they are passionate about. Knowledge in finance is less important than compared to a later growth stage fund. In those later stage funds, it helps to have a background in finance and private equity.
BH: Finally, what motivates you about your work, and what are the biggest misconceptions that you had before going into VC?
VC takes time. You need to have patience. The press makes everything seem like a rocketship, but the truth is, if you make an investment today, especially at an earlier stage, you won’t know whether it’s a breakout company for years to come. Lots of companies you thought had a good shot will fail in the process. Your motivation and confidence will need to come from constant reassurance from making more successful investments, and that takes a lot of time over years.
BH: Any closing advice to young college students trying to get a head start in breaking into VC after they graduate?
Get involved in things that you didn’t think you would get involved with, because a lot of opportunities come from unexpected relationships. I’m just 2 years in and still learning, so I’m always happy to try to make time to meet with everybody and learn new things.
College is the best breeding ground to discovering new things about yourself, and the level of access to resources like faculty or capital is unparalleled. Develop a strong passion in something, and build something.