Capital ideas: Williams uses entrepreneurial experience to help startups backed by Newark Venture Partners

By Tom Bergeron
Newark | Aug 5, 2019 at 1:39 pm
From our print edition

Allison Williams never dreamed of working for a venture capital organization.

A serial entrepreneur, she had founded and sold a startup and worked as part of the executive team on many others in the 10 years following her graduation from the University of Pennsylvania.

Two years ago, during a conversation with Newark Venture Partners Principal Joanne Lin, the idea of joining the team as director of NVP Labs came up.

Williams was initially skeptical, but she soon became intrigued. Shortly thereafter, she accepted the role, starting in March 2018.

“I always keep my options open, and this just came up,” she said. “What attracted me to NVP is that we don’t do things by the book. We do things completely in our own way. We make our own rules.

“Being in Newark is not the norm for (VC firms), but that sets the tone for us to think independently.”

Williams said the role has been more fulfilling than she could have ever imagined.

“I have the best job, because I get to empower and fund founders and give them the runway to make their dreams a reality,” she said. “It’s an incredible feeling.”

Allison Williams on stage at Demo Day with her team from Newark Venture Partners.

ROI-NJ caught up with Williams at NVP’s recent Demo Day, an event where the lab’s latest cohort — this time, nine companies — pitched and presented their companies to investors.

Here’s some of the conversation, edited for space.

ROI-NJ: There are a lot of VC groups. What makes NVP unique?

Allison Williams: I think we’re offering something here at NVP that is not being offered in Manhattan or Silicon Valley. We’re a program that has incredible hands-on execution support. We have experts who have worked with companies at this stage many times over, so they understand how to scale small businesses and help them ramp up quickly, growing faster and smarter.

ROI: And you do it in Newark, a city that does not have a history of being a startup hub. How does the Newark address impact the organization?

AW: Newark is an incredible city for an entrepreneur for so many reasons. It is only 18 minutes from New York City, and the cost of living is much lower than New York. There’s also so much talent here. And there are incredible corporations, too. Many people don’t realize that.

All of the companies in our latest cohort have seen incredible growth just in the last 12 weeks. Each of them is about to close an institutional seed round. The only place they can get that level of support right now is in Newark.

We’re exposing these founders, who we’ve brought in from all over the country, to Newark. Most of them now realize how awesome this city is and many will stay. We’ve invested in 65 companies; 31 have a presence in Newark because we’ve exposed them to that by building a program that offers incredible and unique value.

ROI: Speaking of value add, how does your extensive background in startups impact your role as director of NVP Labs?

AW: I could not do this role if I were not a former entrepreneur myself. I’ve been in their shoes; I know how hard it is. I know what adding value looks like. That’s why we focus so much on execution support. Don’t put me in a classroom to talk about some generic topic; it’s just going to waste my time. I know that as a former founder. We don’t do any of that. It’s all one-on-one customized support according to our founders’ needs.

I know, as a former founder, that there are so many things you don’t know, so many questions you don’t have the answers to. Some of the mistakes that I made and some of the things that I had to teach myself I can now apply to these founders and increase their chances of success.

ROI: Let’s talk about your founders. Your most recent cohort looked a lot like the previous ones — that is, it cannot be easily described. NVP had entrepreneurs from numerous countries and underserved communities as well as a great number of women. How do you get such diversity?

AW: Most VCs, and this is the unfortunate truth, are getting investment leads from their friends. That perpetuates the cycle where people who are on the outside can’t get in. So, in our sourcing strategy, we believe deeply that we can’t rely on just our immediate community. 

We hustle hard to get in front of as many entrepreneurs as possible. We are constantly searching and sourcing. We attend 250 events a year, and we’re constantly reaching out. We have numerous databases we scrape weekly. Joanne and I even started a new series, “5 Minutes on the 5th,” where literally any founder can call and get 5 minutes of our time on the 5th of each month and get honest VC feedback. Best-case scenario: We get a new lead. But even if we don’t, it’s a chance to stretch our network. 

What does all that mean? It means we get more leads. We see better companies because we’re just looking at more. It also means we have a more diverse pool because we just have a higher volume.

The crowd at NVP’s recent Demo Day in Newark.

ROI: Let’s talk specifically about female founders. All studies show that male entrepreneurs are better-supported than females — and that there are more of them. NVP always seem to have a share of females; how has that happened? And is it a priority?

AW: We actually think it’s important that we do not slice and dice what we can look at. What makes our diversity so organic is that, by casting such a wide net, we are turning up candidates that may not have otherwise sought out VC funds. By virtue of our sourcing strategy, we see more female founders that may not have gotten their foot in that first door yet — but we help them kick it open.

When someone says, ‘You can’t find female founders,’ or, ‘You have to have a fund just for females,’ we say, ‘That’s not true.’ There are incredible female founders out there. Smart, brilliant, top entrepreneurs. You have to work a little harder to find them.

So, we’re not branding ourselves ‘only something,’ we’re just working really hard to talk to as many entrepreneurs as we can. And when we look at everyone, when the chips fall, we have a very well-rounded group. I think there’s something fantastic in that.

ROI: You certainly appear to be doing just that. Let’s talk about your volume. You picked nine companies in the latest cohort from more than 2,100 applications. What does that say about NVP’s spot in the VC world?

AW: That’s something that we’re really proud of and we think that it’s thanks to Newark for setting the tone of being different. There are amazing entrepreneurs in every nook and cranny of this country. Some of them don’t even know that VCs are an option for them. We’re letting them know that they are. We are going to get in front of them. We’re going to explain what we do and then help them support them along their journey.

ROI: Let’s talk more about your connection to Newark. Putting the city in the name of the organization made a statement. How important is it for you to be connected to the city?

AW: It means a lot to us. NVP does have a double-bottom-line mission: to be the best venture capital seed fund in the country, and to help recast Newark as a global tech hub. It starts by making successful investments in companies that will grow. As they grow, two things happen: They start hiring — often here in Newark, and they take our name with them as an NVP company. Both scenarios lead to Newark attracting new young talent, and innovative founders who want the NVP experience, and who believe this city can help them get to that next milestone. 

ROI: It certainly attracted you. And since you studied in Philadelphia (Penn) and New York City (Columbia), some would say it’s unusual that you would return to New Jersey. You personally go against the outmigration trend. How meaningful is it to you to be able to be in your home state?

AW: I’m a Jersey girl from Monmouth County. I have a lot of pride in the state and in Newark. To be able to do this here is incredibly gratifying.

How to get in front of NVP

Newark Venture Partners is sourcing now for its next cohort, Allison Williams told ROI-NJ. 

“Applications are open. We’ll be having over 350 conversations with qualified leads in the next two months and we’ll be solidifying on our class of eight to 10 by Sept. 15. Whoever is interested should either apply on our website or directly to me: allison@newark.vc. 

“We look at every company that reaches out to us, whether it’s by email or application. We look at every single company. Every founder gets a look.”