063: Boston Speaks Up with Jennifer Neundorfer of January Ventures
Updated: Jun 19, 2022
Jennifer Neundorfer is cofounder and managing partner at January Ventures, an investment firm that is trying to address the unique challenges and biases faced by entrepreneurs often under-represented in business, including women and people of color.
Neundorfer believes the next generation of startup investment returns will be driven by a much broader and more diverse set of founders, and she co-founded January Ventures to be the fund of choice for these traditionally underrepresented founders at the earliest stage.
An operator turned investor, Neundorfer has been investing in early-stage startups for the last decade. And as a Latina GP, she is also committed to making the venture career path accessible to a more diverse group of potential GPs.
Previously, Neundorfer was a Partner and Cofounder of Flashstarts, a startup accelerator and micro-VC fund focused on software startups in the Midwest. As an operator, she launched and scaled media and advertising businesses at 21st Century Fox and YouTube. She brings commercialization and business development expertise to her portfolio as she focuses on go to market strategy and tactics. She earned an MBA from Stanford and a BA from Harvard.
Enjoy an abridged written version of our interview with Neundorfer below.
Where did you grow up and how would you describe your childhood?
I’m great up in the Boston suburb of Wellesley, went to college in Boston, and boomeranged back in the summer of 2019. I am the oldest of three sisters, although I was five when my middle sister was born (and thirteen when my youngest sister was born), so my memories from early childhood include a lot of imaginary play and hanging out with adults.
I think a lot about my childhood these days because I have two young children, and my husband and I often reflect on how we were raised and how we want to raise our children. I remember having a lot of unstructured time and the freedom to explore my interests. In today’s world where children are so scheduled, often with prescriptive activities, I hope to create similar space for my kids.
How would you describe your relationship with your parents and/or the influence they’ve had on your life?
I’m very close with my parents, both figuratively and literally - they live down the street! Although my parents never pressured me to do anything or follow a specific path, their models of moving through life have really influenced me. When I was in college, my father started his own consultancy after working for 30 years at a larger company. His experience was a lesson in the power that comes from controlling your own destiny. At the same time, my mother, who is Cuban, went back to Cuba after 40 years of being away and decided to build a non-profit dedicated to humanitarian work in Cuba. Her experience taught me the fulfillment that comes from aligning work with passion. At a subconscious level, these themes continue to inspire me, particularly in my journey starting and running January Ventures.
What is the first job you ever had?
The first job I was ever paid to do was to dogsit, and I’ll never forget that feeling of earning money on my own (even if it was just a couple dollars to start). In high school, I had a lot of service-industry jobs - washing dishes at a bakery and working my way up to the cash register, folding towels and checking people in at the town pool, covering the front desk at Babson College’s executive education center. These jobs taught me the value of customer service, as well as just how to treat other people.
I was lucky that my first internship in college was with a venture capitalist - and a female venture capitalist at that. That experience opened my eyes to venture and showed me that it was possible for women to not only invest, but also to run their own funds.
What is the first career you remember wanting to pursue?
As a child, I wanted to be a doctor. I was fascinated by everything related to biology and medicine - in fact, in third grade, I was the kid who brought the sheep's eyeball home to continue the dissection. I started college as a pre-med student, but I was exposed to so much more that first semester in college and quickly realized that I was drawn to career paths that were more open ended.
What did your experience at 21st Century Fox and YouTube teach you?
When I was at YouTube, it was still very much a startup in its infancy. Yes, Google had just bought it, but everyone thought Google was crazy for paying $1.6B for something that had yet to make a single dollar. I spent my time launching the first ad products and getting the first advertisers comfortable with this new platform filled with user-generated content that they couldn’t necessarily control.
At 21st Century Fox, I was launching new digital businesses and partnering with and/or buying startups to build our digital footprint. It was all about reinventing our model for the future.
These experiences made me realize that I’m most excited about building companies at the earliest stage. The part I loved most was working with the founders to identify opportunities, develop an idea and begin turning that concept into reality. With this insight, I realized early stage venture was where I wanted to be.
Would you care to comment on either company’s diversity, equity and inclusion training? Did it exist? How did either company approach DEI, if at all?
I’m sure that each company had DEI training, but I don’t remember the substance of the material or how it was presented. Like so many training modules, I remember it feeling formulaic - something where you just had to check the box. In fact, it was this feeling that led me to invest in Ethena, one of my portfolio companies at January Ventures. Ethena is reinventing compliance training for the modern company and today’s employees. Ethena's trainings are grounded in current events, incorporated into employees daily workflows, and designed for real impact. I’m excited about how the workplace and world will change as Ethena raises the bar for this type of training.
Where did the idea for January Ventures come from?
My partner, Maren Bannon, and I believe the next generation of venture returns will be driven by a much more diverse set of founders, and we saw an opportunity to make January Ventures the fund of choice for these founders at the earliest stage.
I had been investing for 6 years before we started January Ventures. The irony about venture is that although the industry is rewarded for investing in innovation, there has been very little innovation in the venture model itself. Venture continues to be an exclusive industry that relies on warm intros and pattern matches based on what has worked in the past, versus what will create value in the future. As a result, women and people of color are systematically undercapitalized by venture, despite the fact that they are outperforming.
We started January to lean into this arbitrage opportunity, and we’ve built a fund grounded in transparency and access that proactively sources these founders, removes friction and opens doors for them, and fully capitalizes them from the start.
What are some recent or notable January Ventures investments we should know about?
It’s so hard to choose which ones to highlight, but here are a few that illustrate our main investment theses:
Embedded Fintech: Ntropy Network is an embedded fintech company based in London, UK. It was founded by two technologists who have built an API that turns raw banking data into clean, usable, categorized data. Over time as it pulls in more data sets, network effects make the product more powerful. Ntropy's vision is to create the richest source of truth on users' financial behavior.
Future of Work: Symba is a platform to onboard and manage remote employees. Symba’s launched pre-pandemic with a product for companies to manage remote interns. Based on overwhelming demand from their customers, they’ve now expanded the platform to manage any type of employee - including hybrid teams. Symba makes onboarding, management, evaluation, and community building seamless for both managers and employees, and is positioned to be an essential part of the work tech-stack in our post-pandemic world.
Digital Health: Elektra Health is a full stack clinic for menopause care, including virtual consultations/telemedicine, education and community that is smashing the taboos around menopause and menopause care. Elektra provides solutions for the full spectrum of menopause needs and covers a woman’s 15-20 year journey from perimenopause to menopause to post-menopause. There are 31M women in the US between ages 40-55 and every one of them will experience menopause, but over 70% of women who seek treatment do not receive proper care. Elektra is changing that and bringing much needed education, community and care to women everywhere.
You were on NPR’s How I Built This podcast with Guy Raz discussing democratizing venture capital during a pandemic. What does democratizing venture capital look like to you?
Venture capital works well for a very small subset of founders who have the right combination of network, pedigree, gender, race, ethnicity, and geography to access it. But the reality is that today, Silicon Valley is as much a mindset as a physical location, and the narrow aperture of traditional venture capital excludes many of the next great founders. Democratizing venture capital means getting capital to the best ideas with as little friction as possible. It also means educating potential founders about the role of venture capital so that they see it as a potential option. Finally, it means expanding the pool of investors (both VCs and LPs) who have access to venture as an asset class, so that venture style returns begin to build wealth for a broader group.
You love meeting people. How would you describe the challenge of not being able to meet in-person with people during the pandemic?
At January, my partner is based in London, and we’ve always been a distributed team. From the start, we invested in the infrastructure and processes to work remotely and meet/diligence startups virtually, so our operations and investment processes have stayed relatively consistent.
As an extrovert, I miss meeting people in person, although I’ve enjoyed some outdoor catch ups now that spring is here. More than anything though, I miss spontaneously meeting people and making connections. So much of life (and the venture business) is about serendipity, and I think we’re all at a disadvantage without them.
What’s the biggest silver lining you’ve found with regards to parenting and working from home during a pandemic?
I feel very fortunate to walk my kids to school every day - my husband and I are not traveling, we don’t have early breakfast meetings, we’re lucky to be able to work from home. It has become a ritual for the four of us - in the winter we even sledded to school. It has been a wonderful way to set the tone for the day and build community at school.
But I want to acknowledge the privilege of our position - we can work from home, our children have been at school in person, and we have childcare. For so many parents, the pandemic has been incredibly challenging and has presented impossible tradeoffs. As a result, a record number of women have been pushed out of the workforce, and it is going to be up to our larger society to figure out what needs to change and what support these women need to re-enter.
You recently started a podcast. What’s the name of it and its focus?
The podcast is called “Ready, Set!”. The series shares the stories of how founders got ready to set out and start their companies in hopes of inspiring the next generation of founders to start something themselves. Each episode focuses on the earliest stages of founding a company, particularly making the leap and the critical decisions founders make early on to set themselves up for success in the future. The series gets to the heart of where founders find inspiration, how they build conviction, and how it feels to make the leap and start something. "Ready, Set" aims to celebrate the founder journey and demystify the early stages of starting a company - my hope is that we will inspire a more diverse set of founders to dive in.
Are you heading back to the office any time soon? And how do you envision folks returning to offices in Boston this year? Is hybrid work the future?
I don’t currently have plans to be back in the office, but I am making plans to see people in safe ways - particularly our portfolio companies. Prior to the pandemic, I always preferred to go visit the founders I was meeting - it was more interesting to see them in action. We’re also exploring ways to get our founders together with each other - starting a company can be quite lonely and it’s valuable to have a community of other founders. Finally, we’re helping support our portfolio companies as they weigh if, when and how to return to the office.
I think we’re living through one of the greatest social and strategic experiments - what will happen to culture, productivity, morale, innovation when people are distributed? I’ve heard of some startups going back in person, others that will remain fully distributed, and then others that are looking at every hybrid strategy in between. We do believe some version of hybrid work is the future, which is why we invested in companies like Office Together and Gable, both of which are on the forefront of helping companies figure out the models of the future.