Penn Grad to Lead Two New Social Venture Funds
Chestnut Street Ventures Managing Partner, Gail Ball, discusses her transition to two new Alumni Ventures Group funds
After a long career at financial institutions, Gail Gilbert Ball transitioned to venture capital as the Founding Managing Partner at Chestnut Street Ventures. For the last two years, she has been leading the charge at growing a powerful community of Penn alums who have invested in over 45 companies, including Domo (IPO), Unity Bio (IPO), relayr (acquired), and all with Penn leadership connections.
Have there been any stand-out similarities or differences between your previous position in finance and your current VC role?
Overall, I find the two remarkably similar. I started in banking at a time when two technology-driven transformations were playing out: (1) skyrocketing demand for and consumption of transaction data and (2) the disruptive and rapid adoption of the PCs and local applications for data analysis.
My first role, as a Product Manager, was to build a business based on information as a product which we did through listening to customers, and both designing solutions in-house and buying them through the acquisition of private companies (we’d call it “aquihire” today). Shortly afterwards, I moved into Corporate Development, scaling up the M&A (and sometimes divestiture) work to accelerate the impact these types of businesses had on changing banks from interest-sensitive earnings to fee-based businesses.
After a few years of this in-house, VC-like work, I got the bug to be an operator. I spent nearly twenty years running tech and operations teams at some of the most leading-edge financial institutions there are including Capital One and JPM Chase and others. It was a natural step to VC when I joined Alumni Ventures Group.
What do you love about being in venture capital?
I worried about one thing when I came to VC: would I miss the people part of being an operations leader? What I found was that the sense of personal connectedness is the same — or even better. I’ve found unending pleasure in starting a phone call with an investor or a founder as a stranger and then, when the call concludes thirty minutes later, having a trusted colleague.
One thing that has exceeded my expectations is the learning I experience every day. I get to speak to people who are doing things I had little to no direct knowledge about before I came to hear their story. I’m an endlessly curious person and this aspect of being in VC is a daily gift.
What would you love to change about the industry?
Our industry has fallen short in our own workplaces and in the marketplace with its ongoing lack of diversity. Ageism, sexism, racism…you name it, it’s present to an unacceptable degree, whether it’s intended or unintentional.
AVG has shown itself to be different from the norm in terms of our professional staff composition, particularly in our Venture Fellows Program, yet we, too, took some serious time to look at diversity and inclusion. We have a body of ongoing work to assure we are walking the talk every day. With this move to running our Women’s Fund and our Social Impact Fund, I’m escalating the pursuit of change.
As a person who has been pitched many, many times, what wows you?
Some origin stories are incredibly moving and powerful. Not a requirement for every pitch, but it’s a fabulous start.
In every case, it’s all about the founder’s ability to tell a story. I am wowed when I hear a founder clearly connect the present to the future. To do that effectively, a founder will nail the basics of their current state (financials, market adoption, competition) and paint a clear picture of what is ahead when for them and what they think it will take to get there and, in so doing, demonstrating that they will know they are on track or not.
A pitch structured this way lays the groundwork to ask tough, but supportive questions. When a founder can’t answer those questions simply and straightforwardly, that gives me pause.
Tell us about your new role — or should we say roles — and what you’re looking forward to.
Our AVG Women’s Fund and our AVG Social Impact Fund are what we refer to as Partner Funds. Without their own deal teams, they are piggybacking on the for-profit deal scoring and deal decision making of the 16 alumni funds by co-investing systemically in all deals that are in scope. It’s a super efficient way to drive added capital to these important innovators/founders who are doing great for us as investors and doing good for our shared sustainable development goals.
While I will be focused on capital raising, the role of the Senior Partner is to build communities around these funds which will give me many more opportunities to speak out and speak up in our virtual communications (blog posts, podcasts, and more), and to show up where others are also pursuing the same ideals.
In that respect, it is a much more public role than being the MP of Chestnut Street Ventures. Public discourse and idea sharing means change is afoot…and that is pretty darn exciting.