Student Breaking Into VC World

At 19 years of age, Ernestine Fu is making ripples in a world that is usually dominated by men of many more years. As an associate at Alsop-Louie, a Silicon Valley based venture capital firm that specializes in early stage technology investments, Fu reviews pitches and helps identify those ideas that will receive venture capital from the firm.

Originally from Los Angeles, Fu ’13 now attends Stanford and majors in Civil and Environmental Engineering. Her part-time position as an associate at Alsop-Louie, landed after six grueling interviews, is a job many Stanford undergraduate and graduate students dream of having some day.

Fu first became interested in business and entrepreneurship at a young age. In high school, she started the non-profit Visual Arts and Music for Society (VAMS). Currently, she serves on State Farm Insurance’s service-learning initiative which distributes millions of dollars every year.

Yet what some find unusual is Fu’s ability to break into a traditionally male industry at such a young age. Professor Tom Kosnik, who works with Ernestine at Stanford, noted that usually women make up only 10-20% of the investment side of venture capital.

Kosnik recalled a conversation that he and Fu had with Myra Hart, an expert on female entrepreneurs. He said Hart called Fu’s position in Alsop-Louie a “miracle.” However, Hart did note that more women are finding places in the venture capital industry because of the changing nature of related fields. For many years, the semi-conductor and software fields, in which most of the Ph.D.s were men, received the majority of venture capital review and funding. But the emergence of clean-tech and life science start-ups has drawn more Ph.D.s from those two fields, experts who tend to have a higher proportion of females.

Fu’s experience in working in enterprise and related fields extends to Stanford as well. In 2010-2011, she served in the ASSU as the Executive Director of Stanford’s Student Services Division, a branch of the ASSU that provides services like the Airport Shuttle bus and the Green Store. She is also currently co-authoring a book on sustainable change with Dr. Tom Ehrlich, former Dean of Stanford Law School.

Through her activities and organizations in high school and college, Fu said she was able to interact with the business world and gain a sense of how to traverse it. Now she employees that experience in evaluating entrepreneurs that come to Alsop-Louie for venture capital.

Given Stanford’s increasing emphasis on entrepreneurship, many Stanford entrepreneurs hope to someday apply for venture capital. For them, Fu’s advice is especially relevant. “What [Alsop-Louie] focuses on is not necessarily the idea but really the team of people that are behind that,” she stated. “I look at how experienced they are, so it’s really crucial that the team has technical expertise.” But she emphasized the importance of teams having many skills, namely a technical skill set, good interpersonal abilities, and a requisite passion.

Kosnik expressed the same philosophy, saying, “The two things that [I] look for are talent and trust.” According to Kosnik and Ernestine, every good team should have a technology guru, a sales guru, and a design guru who must work together, understanding each others strengths and expectations. Fu also stressed the importance of personal team development, saying that it is about helping the teams “grow throughout the process.”

To Fu, the best start-up teams are the ones in which a team member almost fears the person sitting next to them because that person is so talented. This, she thinks, will compel people to meet higher expectations than would normally be expected.

Contemplating completing her degree early after only three years, Fu is not sure yet what she will do after graduation. But Kosnik has faith in her abilities, giving her a glowing recommendation: “Every once in a while you’ll see a pure talent that is amazing.”

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