If anyone’s surprised that a philosophy degree could lead to a career in venture capital, it’s Mary Iafelice ’11.
“When I graduated from Holy Cross with my degree in philosophy, I thought I was going to stay in academia,” Iafelice confesses, “but then shortly after graduation, I eloped. Suddenly, I found myself living in North Carolina with my new husband — a Marine — and no job.”
It took Iafelice seven months to find part-time employment, a development that reset her expectations.
“It was a frustrating and humbling experience,” she says.
Things have changed considerably since then. Today, Iafelice is the co-founder of humble ventures, a venture capital firm that helps economically underserved entrepreneurs — women, minorities and military veterans — leverage internal and external partnerships to get their ideas to market. Since launching in July 2016, the company has helped 25 startups raise more than $4 million in venture capital funding and achieve almost $1 million in revenue. In early January, Iafelice was recognized as one of the 2018 Forbes ’30 Under 30′ in the Social Entrepreneurship category.
“Receiving that award was a shock,” she says, “but I’m so grateful. Being recognized for my work, into which I pour my heart and soul, was of course amazing, but the recognition has also opened up incredible opportunities for me and for the people I work with, which is the most important thing.
“My journey to this spot was a bit of a circuitous route,” Iafelice continues with a soft laugh. “I loved studying philosophy at Holy Cross — the faculty is incredible. Professor Lawrence and Professor Manoussakis were especially influential; they taught me how to think and gave me a true appreciation of the insights that deep analysis can provide. When you can spend three hours discussing one sentence, you realize it’s more about how you’re learning than what you’re learning.”
Iafelice says her stint as director of Student Programs for Urban Development (SPUD) also provided insights that inform her work to this day: “I saw that many of the problems plaguing underserved communities are the result of lack of economic opportunities.”
And when Iafelice entered the workforce, she realized much could be done. Her time as operations manager and then managing director with Bunker Labs — a national nonprofit committed to educating transitioning service members and veterans as they seek to launch their entrepreneurial ventures — cemented her resolve. Realizing that opportunities to “do well while doing good” were legion, Iafelice joined forces with Ajit Verghese, Harry Alford and Ray Crowell to form the venture capital firm humble ventures. “We realized that there were opportunities to take the programs we had created to a much bigger audience,” she says.
The firm’s aim is simple: to support entrepreneurs who are working to solve problems within their communities. “There are many leaders within local communities who have great ideas, but they’re often ignored by venture capitalists,” she says.
The humble ventures team is empathetic to their struggles, Iafelice continues, but that doesn’t mean they’re a soft touch. “We are looking for entrepreneurs who have the ability to be coachable — we don’t want big egos,” she notes. “We ask three tough questions of every startup: ‘Are you solving a problem that can be solved? Is the problem worth solving? Can your solution be monetized?'”
Humble ventures is one of a growing number of venture capital firms investing in underserved populations, Iafelice acknowledges, yet she maintains much work remains to be done. “Last year, 2 percent of all venture capital went to women and less than 1 percent went to founders of color,” she notes.
Iafelice remains committed to doing her part to move the needle. In January, she returned to Holy Cross to give a presentation at the Non-Profit Careers Conference, speaking on the “Business Side of Non-Profits.”
“I’m grateful to Professor Chu for inviting me to speak and share what I’ve learned,” Iafelice says. “I view my time at Holy Cross as one of the Top 5 achievements of my life, not only in what I learned, but also in the mindset that I shaped there. I’m very grateful for the opportunity to give back.”
What’s the most important quality for an entrepreneur to possess?
Resilience. There are lots of ups and downs in the entrepreneurial journey, and usually more downs. It’s important to stay calm and maintain a steady mindset, even when the wheels are coming off the bus.
What’s the most common mistake you see entrepreneurs make?
They focus too much on their solution, rather than on the problem at hand. One of the biggest dangers for an entrepreneur is building a product that no one wants or needs. You’ve got to keep the end user in mind at all times.
How would you describe your approach to investing in philosophical terms?
I always ask myself two questions: Is this problem worth solving? Is this the right time and the right team to take the solution to market?
You’ve stated that you enjoy employing empathy to help underserved entrepreneurs. How would you respond to those who say that empathy and venture capitalism are antithetical?
I’d tell them they’re wrong. Empathy is at the core of my success. Without empathy — for entrepreneurs and for the populations they’re serving — I could easily become sidetracked by the challenges we encounter and the problems we’re working to solve.
What’s the most surprising startup idea you’ve seen?
One of our entrepreneurs is a woman in her 60s from Savannah, Georgia, so right away you see she’s not your typical entrepreneur — she’s a woman, she’s not a millennial and she’s not from a hot area of the country for startups. But she came up with a great idea for a business. It’s a telehealth company called Corstrata, and it provides wound care management to patients who can’t easily access wound care specialists. It’s a terrific idea, and it’s meeting a vital community need.
Written by Lori Ferguson for the Spring 2018 issue of Holy Cross Magazine.
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