Keren Duque is a recent graduate from UC Berkeley, where she studied Data Science. She was an Investor at Rough Draft Ventures (RDV) from November 2021 to December 2022. I talked with Keren about what RDV looks for before investing, how they support student founders, and how students can join the internal team.
- RDV’s value-add to student founders includes help with hiring, access to the General Catalyst team and network, and resources like AWS credits and discounts on software products.
- RDV looks for student founders with grit, passion, and a demonstrated ability to execute.
- Student investors at RDV need to drive a majority consensus from their peers for an investment to get done. General Catalyst will only block an investment if it’s competitive with an existing portfolio company.
Kieran: Thanks, Keren, for joining me today. To kick us off, do you want to introduce yourself?
Keren: My name is Keren. I graduated recently from UC Berkeley with a degree in Data Science. My journey throughout college has been quite non-linear. I started as a chemical engineering major but didn’t know what to do post-college. I could see many of my friends working toward the industry or pre-doctoral tracks, the pathway most chemical engineers take during college. My college (experiences) have defined my long-term career interests. One of (them) was joining an entrepreneurship club on campus called Sigma Eta Pi. I was exposed to entrepreneurship and startups through my (involvement in the) club. From that, I got introduced to some people in the space and network. (Afterward), I managed to join RDV, which is (the) student arm of General Catalyst. We invest up to $150K in college founders throughout the country. I don’t know if that check size has increased. I’m now working full-time at Google.
Kieran: You were at Rough Draft Ventures from November 2021 to December 2022. Is that correct?
Keren: Yes, I was there for a little over a year, and I’m still in touch with a few fellows from my cohort. It’s an excellent opportunity to meet people in the startup space.
Kieran: How did you first hear about Rough Draft Ventures on campus?
Keren: I can trace that back to my first summer internship in college, where I lived with many people in a hacker house called Edyfi. Edyfi eventually got acquired by Contrary Capital. I met many people who were partners at other student funds like Dorm Room Fund. That’s how I got acquainted with the student VC space. With RDV, I happened to apply. I didn’t know anyone in the fund (at the time). One tip for people interested in joining is to make sure you have a clear why and also try to network through LinkedIn or Twitter. Having a Twitter presence really helps. I didn’t know anyone in (RDV), but I knew people in other funds, and that’s how it happened.
Kieran: Can you give an overview of the application process?
Keren: Yeah, I remember they had a few behavioral questions, such as why are you interested in the student startup space? How would you provide value to founders? Do you have a friend you want to invest in, and what are they working on? They (try) to gauge your commitment to the entrepreneurship scene on campus. Following that, I had a couple of chats with Jeremy, who leads RDV from the General Catalyst side, and with a couple of their other investors and principals. I would say it’s a little informal. It will be a series of 3-4 chats, sometimes with a current RDV Fellow or someone from the General Catalyst side. It was enlightening for me, and it shouldn’t be too complicated. It’s just very competitive, which is unfortunate.
Kieran: You mentioned earlier that your tip for students was understanding your why. What was your “why” when applying to (Rough Draft Ventures)?
Keren: Well, I co-founded a company with one of my friends. So, I knew the pain of being a student founder trying to find funding sources. Cal is (different from other schools) because we have so many support systems on campus. There are Cal-specific funds, the CITRIS Institute, etc. But I assume it isn’t easy to tap into that ecosystem if you come from a university with fewer resources. The second is that I wanted to engage myself in the entrepreneurship ecosystem more deeply and establish connections with other people nationwide. If you go to Cal, you get that specific mindset of being in the Bay Area, but I wanted to expose myself to other ideas and perspectives from people across the country. That was one special part of RDV. There were 15 people, I don’t know the size of the cohort now, from across the country, some of them international, a lot of them have fresh perspectives.
Kieran: Once you got into Rough Draft Ventures, what happens next? Is there some onboarding or training process?
Keren: We have a kickoff off-site for 1-2 days in Boston. We bring together the entire cohort and establish our standard operating procedures. What do we look for in founders? We establish how to formulate our own investment theses, hypotheses, and philosophies. It varies from person to person. No two investors invest in the same manner. But, it’s more so how you articulate why you’re investing, why this company, etc. We talked about some previous investments that succeeded for RDV. What worked, how they sourced the deal, and how they carried that onto pitching the founder to the rest of the cohort. There is a side of formal training; as the cohort progresses, you can source investments and present them to the investment committee.
Kieran: You mentioned no two investors are looking for the same thing. But, I imagine there are some shared commonalities of qualities or traits they are looking for in founders or companies. Can you share what Rough Draft Ventures looks for in student founders?
Keren: I think it’s a combination of things. Sometimes, it’s the founder, the idea, or the market. I think we always try to be founder first. We look for founders who demonstrate grit, a passion for the space they are working in, and the why is incredibly important. To draw from my experience, I sourced and led an investment in EdVisorly. They are a platform that connects people in community colleges to four-year universities. You can tell when someone demonstrates passion because they’ve been working on this problem for years, like Manny, the Founder of EdVisorly. It’s not just a semester (project) where they start this company for fun. Sometimes, we get that, but does it demonstrate (passion in) how they talk about (what they are working on) and (how they) spend their time outside (of) school and work? That’s a critical point we try to discern when we invest in founders – the why and why this problem.
Kieran: What’s the investment process? What needs to happen for a deal to get done?
Keren: We have geographic pods. Nationwide, we have Boston, California, or the West Coast. I’m not 100% sure, but we try to keep pods to a team of 3-4 people. We discuss deals before bringing them on to the nationwide committee. For example, suppose I source a company from Berkeley. In that case, I might want someone to get a second opinion, so we try to progressively filter whether this company is mature enough to bring to the committee. After that initial process, we have them speak in front of all 15-20 of us and vote. We had to drive majority consensus, but I’m unsure if that’s the same now. I think it’s people in the pod vote on it and then bring it to General Catalyst. Whatever we approve, General Catalyst invests unless the company is competing with an internal portfolio company.
Kieran: What stage are the startups that you’re working with? Do they have a product or some traction? Where along the spectrum are they?
Keren: At least an MVP. That’s important cause it shows us they can execute as a founder. Sometimes, we do get more mature companies that come our way with double-digit ARR. I would say it varies, sometimes we invest early if we have strong conviction in the founder or later when the company has demonstrated success.
Kieran: What would you say is Rough Draft Ventures’ value add for startups in its portfolio?
Keren: First and foremost, we help a lot with hiring, especially with interns. We have referrals to potential employees within our network. We have an external Slack platform with all of the founders and former RDV Fellows. If a job opportunity comes the network’s way, we’ll share it with others who might be a good fit or are interested. Another clear value add is the access to General Catalyst investors and people who have talked to and worked with founders who have demonstrated repeated success. I think that’s rare. We sometimes (can provide connections to) VC follow-on investment opportunities for RDV companies with later-stage success. We also have an internal platform that provides AWS credit and discounts from other SaaS companies in the General Catalyst portfolio. We try to provide tangible value adds apart from the SAFEs to our founders.
Kieran: You talked a little bit about your collaboration with other student partners at different campuses. You guys work closely together on specific deals. I’m curious about the General Catalyst side. You mentioned Jeremy is running point on Rough Draft Ventures. Do you interface with him or how do you work with the broader General Catalyst team?
Keren: Yeah, sometimes we will host events like hackathons or pitch competitions. Then, we have some of the General Catalyst folks come in and evaluate the deals. We have successfully invested checks from RDV and from one of General Catalyst’s funds into these companies. I’m not entirely sure if that’s the case still. Anytime we have a strong deal to pass on to General Catalyst, we’ll try to tap in other people as well. We try to get expertise from people who understand the gaming industry better, or crypto, or healthcare which is one of General Catalyst’s strengths. We often interface with them and get 3rd or 4th opinions on a deal.
Kieran: What advice would you give to student founders applying for investment from Rough Draft Ventures? How do they stand out?
Keren: Earnestness is underrated. That’s what I look for, how earnest, how serious this problem is to you. I don’t think we filter too much on prior success, like an impressive internship on their resume. It’s more, do we believe they can execute? Have they shown a repeated history of execution and success in smaller projects or companies they’ve started? Being a repeat entrepreneur is underrated, but we love seeing that in the investment committee. How you (can) stand out encompasses many things. I think every founder truly has something special that they bring to the table. I remember a lot of the conversations that I had with every founder. They’ve stood out to me in some way because I gleaned something from what they were saying, and they could convey that. Storytelling is incredibly important.
Kieran: Is there anything I didn’t ask about that is important to know for someone considering being an investor at Rough Draft Ventures or student founders applying for funding?
Keren: RDV is one player in the ecosystem. I would say that if you’re interested in entrepreneurship and startups, you don’t have to really look. You’ll find yourself in these places naturally. I would say for people who don’t have as much access to it based on who they are or where they go to school; it is unfortunate that there are hidden ways to go about the startup ecosystem. Try putting yourself out there as much as possible. Don’t be afraid to send that LinkedIn connection. Your sincerity and excitement will really show. I think that’s one thing that will set you apart from many people. I felt like I didn’t have a traditional background coming in. I wasn’t a CS major. I didn’t grow up in the States. If you do your research and diligence, it will show.