A former top lawyer at Google reveals how she pivoted from law to venture capital and launched a fund that's invested in Palantir and SoFi

  • Miriam Rivera left her prestigious jobs as associate at a large law firm and deputy general counsel of Google to launch the San Francisco-based venture fund, Ulu Ventures.
  • A driving factor behind her decision was the lack of diversity she found as both a woman and an ethnic minority — an obstacle she also found in the initial stages of starting her own VC fund.
  • "I don't know if people told the Sequoia guys, 'Oh my God, $10 million or $100 million dollars is just too much for you,' you know?" she told Business Insider.
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Miriam Rivera hadn't entertained the idea of becoming a lawyer until the sixth grade, when her teacher told her she should go to law school.

To Rivera, whose mother grew up on a subsistence farm in Puerto Rico and grew coffee beans, the prospect of even going to college — let alone grad school — was something that hadn't been in the picture.

"It was a real boost at a time when I grew up in an environment where I was more likely to be told that I'd be 16, pregnant, and on food stamps, than to be told I should go to law school," said Rivera. She'd grown up in Chicago in a predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood, where gangs, drugs, and prostitution were embedded into daily life.

Now, Rivera is the managing partner of Ulu Ventures, an early seed-stage venture fund that she co-founded in 2008. Its portfolio includes companies like data startup Palantir, legal tech company Ravel Law, and fintech SoFi.

The VC investor ended up getting not just a law degree, but one in business, too. After completing her undergraduate degree at Stanford, Rivera wrangled 50 students and law practitioners for informational chats, and learned that both law and business were key facets of any job.

Her dual degree enabled her to be versatile in her career path. Upon graduating from Stanford University with her JD-MBA in 1995, Rivera followed a string of jobs as an associate at a law firm, a strategy consultant at Accenture, and in-house counsel at a couple of startups — one of which she co-founded.

"I always say, 'don't do this at home,'" she said of her career jumps during what she described as the "Silicon Valley boom."

"It would've been risky if it hadn't been for the time that I was living in, where there were so many opportunities in Silicon Valley where I could switch positions quickly."

"Facetime activity" and diversity issues Rivera found at law firms

When she was an associate at Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison, a large San Francisco-based firm that ultimately folded in 2003, Rivera encountered instances that made her "think twice" about remaining at a law firm.

For one, Rivera was working with a partner on an IPO, and had completed her work in anticipation of her family visiting from out of state. She said the partner, however, ended up asking everyone to work over the weekend, merely as "facetime activity."

Read more: How to land a general counsel job at a buzzy fintech, from 7 top lawyers at companies like Lemonade, Dosh, and Stash

Another time, Rivera went out to lunch with another partner, who, like most others at the firm, was male and white, and another associate, also a white male. At the end of it, the partner had invited the associate to go golfing and skeet shooting. Rivera had not, despite vocally expressing interest.

"I realized that without that kind of social aspect, my career would be very different than this young man's career would be," she said.

Just one year later, Rivera left the world of law firms for good.

Joining, and leaving, Google to eventually start her own VC fund

Rivera was connected to executive members of Google in 2001 by a former colleague, and was offered the position of senior corporate counsel shortly after.

As just the second attorney at Google, which at the time had only around 160 people, Rivera had her hands full. Over five years, she built and led its legal teams, supported its IPO in 2004, and was promoted to deputy general counsel and vice president.

Rivera left Google in 2006, in part because she felt that the work environment became "less fun" as more people began to "believe in their own PR, that they were the titans of the industry."

She also felt that it was difficult for women leaders, especially when you had a "reputation for being a bit of a girl scout," as she did.

Rivera ultimately founded Ulu Ventures in 2008 out of a desire to create opportunities for others, particularly women and minorities in Silicon Valley.

"I didn't think these opportunities were happening sufficiently, given the structure of venture firms or tech companies at the time," she explained.

Surely enough, Rivera herself faced challenges in the early stages of Ulu, which was shooting for a $15 million fund target. She described how others in the VC space voiced doubts about her ability to handle that much money — despite her track record of running Google, which had grown to a $10 billion company by the time she left.

"People just have such a sense of smallness of what a VC firm might be, and maybe particularly if you are a woman or a person of color," she said. "Like, I don't know if people told the Sequoia guys, 'Oh my God, $10 million or $100 million dollars is just too much for you,' you know?"

Read more: Meet 9 legal tech startups that top VCs say are poised to take off as law firms look to cut costs and boost productivity

Just as the 50 informational interviews she did before pursuing her JD-MBA taught her, Rivera's legal and business knowledge came to use at the VC fund — from conducting due diligence, executing contracts, and negotiating terms of financing.

Ulu Ventures, now a team of 13, has invested $62.35 million to date, with a total market value of $139 million. It has a roster of prominent companies in its portfolio, 20 of which have exited. Its portfolio includes Palantir Technologies, which is set to go public later this fall, and personal finance company SoFi. 

Rivera only plans on further growth, leveraging Ulu's decision-making technology and its "ability to source and make investments in diverse teams of the highest caliber."

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