Joanne Chen has just become the second general partner in the history of the 26-year-old Silicon Valley venture firm Foundation Capital.
If she were still alive, the foundation's founder, Kathryn Gould, would undoubtedly cheer the development.
Known for her great personality, Gould met Chen while she was an MBA student at the University of Chicago. Gould was recovering from a battle with cancer, and after introducing her to Chen by one of Chen's professors, she initially advised Chen not to start a business. As Gould found out early on, doors open more easily for men in the venture world, which is why she started her own company in the first place.
But like Gould, Chen was more motivated to allow himself to be dissuaded. While starting her engineering career at Cisco, she had a long interest in finance, moving to a banking analyst at Jeffries and then working as an associate at the capital advisory firm Probitas before co-founding a mobile gaming company which she would later liquidate.
In fact, the Chicago graduate school – and meeting Gould – only reaffirmed Chen how much she wanted to become VC. After working at Formation 8 and Hyde Park Angels, she joined Foundation in 2014. (Unfortunately Gould passed away in 2015.)
Chen has certainly opened up a new perspective for a company with a total of 10 investors, the remaining men.
As well as being the only woman in the group, Chen has a strong point of view, for example, on the entrepreneurial potential of U.C. students. Berkeley, where she studied as a student. Although the university is nowhere near as well organized as Stanford when it comes to mint founders, it believes it has just as much talent and is therefore a network into which it invests a great deal of time and energy as an investor.
Born in China and great in Montreal, Chen also spends a lot of time thinking about AI, both as an investor and simply as a person in the world. Her father, who received her PhD from the University of Montreal, worked as a researcher at Bell Labs, and her mother is a computer programmer and “DevOps person”, with whom Chen routinely speaks about software tools. However, their background is not that simple.
Like many immigrants, their parents fled China during the Cultural Revolution. Because her grandfather helped build a large telecommunications company in China, he was persecuted by the Communist Party, stripped of his responsibility and title, and imprisoned as an "intellectual," says Chen. Meanwhile, his son (her father) was not allowed to start college until he was 21, and just because he was a good student he was invited abroad for his master's degree.
Today, her family's experience of China's use of artificial intelligence – including the persecution of the Muslim minority – is of paramount importance to Chen in ways that may not be of paramount importance to someone less aware of how far authoritarian regimes will go and how they can act quickly.
Because of this, most of the work in Chen focuses on understanding how AI evolves, how machines evolve from organizing activities to replacing people (which will definitely happen, Chen says). how to detect and combat malicious uses of AI using AI (e.g. through recruiting software that filters out names and gender to remove human bias); and how else to ensure that AI is used to improve human life, she suggests.
Of course, Chen is not entirely alone in her interest in AI. Almost every startup today includes – or says so – AI in its offering, from credit companies to startups that help remote teams work more effectively. And investors, including at Foundation, have funded many of them.
When asked how she deals with the competition for many of these deals, Chen says she moves just as quickly when a decision needs to be made. She works with vice presidents of engineers and technical founders who share ideas across Slack communities and elsewhere. She also notes that the foundation provides capital to around 30 operators who write angel checks and help draw the company's attention to interesting deals.
Most of the time, Chen suggests, she focuses on anything that doesn't land in her inbox – a lesson that was in part learned from Gould years ago.
It's easy to believe As Gould once told this editor of the advice she gives to other VCs, “It's not the calls that you take. It's the calls that you make. Everyone is calling you with stupid startup ideas, and you can be very busy sorting out that crap. Instead, my advice is to find out who the 10-20 smartest people you know and give them a call. One of them always starts a company. "