An Interview With Jilea Hemmings
Product that meets consumer/customer needs in a unique way, with high growth potential & strong slate of potential buyers. The ultimate goal of Angel investing is to make money! A great example of this path to success is Tomboy X, a lifestyle clothing brand. The women’s undergarment market is vast and saturated with small and big players. However, there was still a gap when it came to undergarments that anybody could feel comfortable in, regardless of where they fell on the size or gender spectrum. They presented a business case for consumer demand, online and brick & mortar distribution, as well as an impressive list of potential buyers.
As a part of our series about “Social Impact Investors”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Aviva Ajmera.
Aviva is the CEO and Co-Founder of SoLVE KC, a Kansas-City Based consulting firm.
After almost 30 years of leading strategy creation and implementation, new product development, brand management, consumer marketing and organization re-design, there’s no marketing problem Aviva has not SoLVEd.
Aviva has a BA in Economics and Policy Studies from Rice University; MBA in Marketing, Management & Strategy and Non-profit Management from Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University.
Aviva is an accredited Angel Investor and the former Board Chair with the Women’s Capital Connection, Kansas City’s only female Angel Investing group.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what made you decide to become an angel or VC?
After being a senior leader at Hallmark Cards, running $500M P&Ls, creating and building organizations & capabilities, and then returning to consulting to help blue chip companies across North America, I had collected a vast array of experiences. I realized I had a unique opportunity to help female entrepreneurs beyond simply mentoring them. I was now in a financial position to be able to truly “invest in them.”
What you are doing is not very common. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were going to focus on social impact investing in particular? Can you share the story with us?
Being an economics major, I like data. The statistics on the success of women entrepreneurs is impressive. But the biggest hurdle they face is getting funding. Being a part of an all-women angel investing group felt empowering. Women’s Capital Connection is a collective force of successful women, investing in other women. When we do this, we lift up communities and eventually, economies.
It’s a tremendous feeling of helping … it’s not just the actual money we invest, but we also check-in quarterly to ask them, “What do you need help with?” and “What’s keeping you up at night?” Sometimes they are looking for a particular skillset to hire, sometimes it’s access to retailers, other times it may be connections for production or anything else required to run and grow a company. Amongst our almost 50 investors, there is always someone who can help. When one of our portfolio companies exits big, we are so proud of our female entrepreneurs and we celebrate their success!
Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?
Admittedly, I am by nature, a bit risk-adverse. However, when I finally started to take risks — stepping WAY out of my comfort zone to take on big assignments and cross-train in my experiences, I began to see exponential success. These cross-training experiences allowed me to connect dots differently than my peers who’s career paths were in a singular division. I was always great at following the rules and over-achieving in being prepared and thorough in any project I was given, in my zone. Once I started to “face my fears” and take on work that I knew would be a BIG stretch, I started to see more success more quickly. It was extremely uncomfortable knowing I would not have the answers at the onset and that I would even sometimes need to ask for help. I had to get comfortable with making some mistakes and not seeing the mistakes as “failures” but rather “learning” so I could grow. Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable was a pivotal change in my career trajectory.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person or mentor to whom you are grateful who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I have always felt extremely blessed to have many amazing mentors. Both men and women, they all taught me different things. My first boss after graduate school taught me EQ. I was a “hard charging” MBA grad (so I was told by others!) determined to achieve and succeed. In my first assignment I predominantly worked with creatives, and I was, as they called me, “a suit”. She taught me to not start a conversation with all the tasks that needed to be completed. Rather, ask questions and express how genuinely impressed I was with their craft and talent before diving into all my business goals and objectives. I learned that by slowing down and taking the time to learn from them, I was actually able to partner with my creative counterparts for a better outcome. Together, we made magic. And yes, we blew away all revenue goals too!
Another mentor taught me to never feel guilty about being a working mom. She told me that if I needed to come in at a certain time to accommodate day-care drop off, just do it. If I needed to leave by a certain time to pick up my daughter, just do it. There was no need to explain or defend my choices to everyone — as long as my boss supports me and I get my work done, do what I needed to do — No apologies!
One of my most influential mentors gave me professional courage. He always pushed me to “face my fears,” giving me assignments, that frankly, at times, I didn’t even know where to begin. But I always figured it out. Rather than letting me swirl in all the things that could wrong or think about how I wouldn’t be good at it, he would ask me, “What is everything that could go right?” and “What’s the worst that could happen?” (The worst was never that bad and he assured me he would support me and he wouldn’t fire me — so I could just “go for it!”)
You have been blessed with great success in a career path that many have attempted, but eventually gave up on. Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path but are afraid of the prospect of failure?
I think the biggest success I have had was actually not about status, position, size of team or size of P&L. It was having the courage to be an entrepreneur and start SoLVE KC! My advice is to be prepared for everything it takes to be an entrepreneur. It’s not as easy as working in a company where someone else write the checks. YOU are writing the checks, paying the bills and running the payroll. YOU are making all the hard decisions. YOU are wearing all the hats — at least in the beginning — you don’t have a team to delegate things to. You will be the CEO, the CFO, the CTO, the CMO! It’s a thrill to have all the control and flexibility, but running your own business, no matter how big, can also be all- consuming.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main part of our discussion. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share a few things that need to be done on a broader societal level to expand VC opportunities for women, minorities, and people of color?
Awareness. There are so many successful women, minorities, and people of color. Not everyone can be an accredited angel investor, but many can pool funds to invest in companies needing funding. There are wide ranges of investing from higher investment VCs to smaller investing via angel groups or funds or even angel investing platforms.
You are a VC who is focused on investments that are making a positive social impact. Can you share with us a bit about the projects and companies you have focused on, and look to focus on in the future?
Our angel investing group, Women’s Capital Connection, is an all-women group who invests primarily in women led companies. We invest in companies across all industries, across the US, at various stages. I am also a member of our partner Angel investing group in Kansas City which is co-ed. We often syndicate with other angel investing groups within the Midwest region and across the US to have optimal access to great investment opportunities.
In general, which business sectors excite you most and which sectors do you look to invest in?
Initially, I was most comfortable investing in industries I had professional experience in, such as consumer product goods. However, one of the greatest benefits of being in an angel group is that we learn from one another. The strongest portfolio has a mix of businesses.
We have developed an intensive Due Diligence process, that vets all companies requesting funding, and makes a recommendation to the group. At any point, any of us can ask questions or chat 1:1 with other members that are experts in a particular industry.
In the past several years, to build my portfolio, I have added many different industries. Healthcare and Tech are industries that excite me the most. Tech crosses many industries, like financial, education, animal health, human health, services, etc.
Can you share a story with us about your most successful Angel or VC investment? Or an investment that you are most proud of? What was its lesson?
One of my first investments was in a company called Tomboy X. I was attracted to it for many reasons … two dynamic women founders, focused on the female market, committed to great quality and fit, strong group of experienced advisors from the industry, who were “graduates” from an incubator, etc.
I was a new angel investor so I volunteered to be on the Due Diligence team so I could learn more about the process to vet a company. Tomboy X is a lifestyle brand that recognized a big gap in a big market. Driven by consumer insights, the two women founders had created an impressive market. I made 4 rounds of investments, visited their headquarters in Seattle, spent a day with their team, and was even asked to be a Board Member for the series A round. 3 years after my first investment, a VC came in to clean up their cap table, thus our first 3 rounds were “paid out” at approximate 300% ARR!
This was a great example of investing in something I knew about. I invested my time to get to know the founders and stayed in touch with them. I met their entire team, learned how they planned product, increased distribution and improved manufacturing. I wasn’t just going off “the numbers,” I had personal knowledge of the operations of the company. I praise the owners for letting me in, and for being so gracious to open their doors to me.
Can you share a story of an Angel or VC funding failure of yours? What was its lesson?
My very first investment was in a healthy snack alternative company. I was enamored by the product, the founder and her story. I had professional experience in the space, so I felt confident I could assess the market, competition, avenues to growth, etc. I led the Due Diligence on this company, and I was hooked. I made 3 rounds of investments, as did many of my fellow women angel group investors and investors in our co-ed partner angel group.
While the company made steady progress in sales & distribution the first few years, landing huge accounts like Whole Foods and Dean & Deluca, eventually the accounts payable got ahead of the accounts receivable. The food industry is tough! As the business got more complex, the founder turned the day-to-day running of the business over to an experienced CEO. This was a good call, but sadly neither sufficient nor timely enough to save the company.
The “failure” was not a product or market issue, it was an accounting issue. Honestly, I am not sure how as an angel investor, I would have seen this. There was no blame, just heartbreak. The company had to liquidate, and my money was lost. A hard lesson for my first Angel investment.
Is there a company that you turned down, but now regret? Can you share the story? What lesson did you learn from that story?
Yes! EyeVerify! I was in year 2 of my angel investing journey. I was fascinated by the new-to-the-world technology, but I did not know much about the founder. I should have done my research and asked more questions within our Angel group.
I did not invest, because he presented later in that calendar year, and I had already invested in 3 companies that year so my angel investing budget was “tapped out.” However, had I done my research and asked different questions, I would have made the investment. The founder was a successful serial Entrepreneur, our group had already invested 3 rounds with him. EyeVerify was purchased by Alibaba and gave our investors a 5x-10x return in less than 5 years. I totally missed out, all due to my naiveté!
Super. Here is the main question of this interview. What are your “5 things I need to see before making a VC investment” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- Product that meets consumer/customer needs in a unique way, with high growth potential & strong slate of potential buyers. The ultimate goal of Angel investing is to make money! A great example of this path to success is Tomboy X, a lifestyle clothing brand. The women’s undergarment market is vast and saturated with small and big players. However, there was still a gap when it came to undergarments that anybody could feel comfortable in, regardless of where they fell on the size or gender spectrum. They presented a business case for consumer demand, online and brick & mortar distribution, as well as an impressive list of potential buyers.
- Business minded entrepreneur who has a desire to EXIT. Ideally, previous experience with entrepreneurship and exits. EyeVerify meets this criteria. It is a bio metric security technology. The founder is a successful, serial entrepreneur. Our Angel group had invested in his previous companies as well.
- Expected time to exit. Any strong Angel investment portfolio should have a balance of companies with various times to exit. It is well known that medical biotech companies are expected to have a longer time to exit. I am ok with this timeline from Elias Animal Health because I have other companies in my mix that I expect to exit sooner.
- Board of Advisors/ Leadership team with proven track record and subject matter expertise that rounds out the Founder’s skill set/ experience. Joylux, is a Global Femtech company. The CEO founded the company based on a personal need. She then partnered with an MD to create their products and further hired the rest of her leadership team and assembled her impressive slate of advisors to provide deep subject matter expertise.
- Valuation. Sometimes all the above are good, but the valuation is simply too big. (This happened with a few companies I have passed on)
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Ensuring all kids have access to a safe, quality education. I am on the Board of Directors for Children International, a global humanitarian non-profit organization, that addresses this issue in the US and abroad. I have also Angel invested in Elevate K-12 to bring high quality on-line education to schools who have gaps in their teaching staff.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
The best way to make a difference in this world is to “give back,” in whatever way applies based on your age, experience and financial position. It could be as simple as volunteering your time, to providing in-kind or monetary donations, to making angel investments.
We are very blessed that a lot of amazing founders and social impact organizations read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you’d like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this. 🙂
1. Because she a super successful badass Indian Woman with a huge heart!
2. Because she uses her celebrity status and financial success to invest in entrepreneurs and bring people together.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Follow me in on my company website: www.solvekc.com
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!
About the Interviewer: Jilea Hemmings is a staunch believer in the power of entrepreneurship. A successful career revamping Fortune 500 companies was not enough for her entrepreneurial spirit, so Jilea began focusing her passion in startups. She has successfully built 6 startups to date. Her passion for entrepreneurship continues to ﬂourish with the development of Stretchy Hair Care, focusing on relieving the pain associated with detangling and styling natural black hair. For far too long, people with tender heads have suffered in pain. Until now.