In the world of business in 2020, new and innovative ideas are generated at a blazing pace. They come from all corners of the world and every pocket of the Internet. Some look to improve on existing models; others look to generate change through an entirely new approach. From the way we communicate to artificial intelligence, from augmented reality to how we get our meals, to how students are transported to and from school, there’s an idea for just about everything.
Yet, as in life, sometimes an idea needs a little help to go from dream to reality. And that’s exactly what venture capitalists do—they step in to assist individuals and groups with incredible ideas with the tools and guidance to realize the potential embedded in their leading edge concepts. In many ways, venture capitalists have a bird’s-eye view of the next big thing.
Further, venture capitalists constantly draw upon the fundamental literacies—critical and analytical thinking, expressing ideas powerfully in writing, using mathematics to understand real-world problems—XQ has outlined as key to developing students who are prepared for all the future has to offer.
Maisha Leek is a Network Partner at Human Ventures. An organizational strategist, fundraiser, and connector, Maisha is passionate about philanthropy and social entrepreneurship. Equipped with her human-centered, problem-solving superpowers, she’s committed to generating change on a real and substantive level. We recently took a few minutes to chat about how she found her passion for venture capitalism, her relentless curiosity, and why it’s so important to find your place among the big boats.
Tell us a little about yourself. Your name. What you do. What you’re working on.
My name is Maisha C. Leek. I get to help decide who builds our future. In the day-to-day, I am a venture capitalist and advisor to Fortune 100 innovation teams. Currently, I do that through my firm, Human Ventures, here in New York. We work with really stellar founders that are super-capable of anticipating disruption and effecting or building great products in companies that surprise and delight consumers. We’re like matchmakers: we’re connecting people with money and no time with folks who have time and ideas but no money. I really love this work and I’m really excited about all the great founders that I get to meet with and all of the interesting, innovative, and crazy ways that they seek to change the world for all of us.
How did you learn about this career?
Growing up, I definitely didn’t know anything about venture. I definitely didn’t know this was a job that people did. To make a very long, windy career short, I’ll call out that before I got into venture, I spent some time working as a chief of staff as a member of Congress. In that role, I worked as an appropriator and helped manage $54 billion dollars of science and technology investments on behalf of the US government… and even then, with that experience, I did not know that I was well-suited for venture capital.
The truth of the matter is, my interests into venture capital didn’t happen until after I left Washington. I got a job at a fast-growing startup. I used my skills—my social skills and my soft skills—to build a team to problem-solve and that got the notice of some really interesting people who know that those problem solving skills are at the core of building any great technology business. Somebody suggested to me that I should think about venture capital because, if you could do that well at a single startup, you could probably do that for many, many, many startups.
What kind of human-centered skills do you need to be successful in this field?
I spent last year meeting with 167 founders of different companies. So, it’s 167 different ideas, 167 different teams. And as a part of that work, when I meet someone, I’m not just interested in their business because the idea, while important, is not the only thing. I’m very interested in understanding more about their team. The best to describe it is I’m interviewing them, right? And so the skills of public presentation, the skill of active listening, the ability to express empathy and ask follow-up questions are all the core rudimentary skills that make me capable of my job.
The core elements of my job start with the ability to combine the understanding of what differentiates good sources of information from those that aren’t—with how to call, sort and leverage the information that you’ve researched, then combining them with the fundamental ability to connect with another human being in a manner that is equally confident, capable and inquisitive.
What about digital skills?
I think true digital literacy is established in the same way that traditional literacy is established. It starts with curiosity. LEGO has a kit that allows you to build cars and program things that you develop. It’s a kit that was available to me in high school that really sparked my imagination around coding. I learned C++ when I was in high school, I was in an engineering high school and then, when I transferred, and went to a traditional high school out in the suburbs of Philadelphia.
I was the only girl, the only Black person in my programming class. And the thing that unified me with my classmates was that active curiosity about, “What are we going to build today? How fast could I race the car that I built against yours? How much cool stuff could I program it to do?”
The benefit of being in 2020, as opposed to years ago, is that these kits can be purchased online. Amazon has a kit, LEGO still offers the kits and, if you’re not interested in that, google.org has great programming tools and videos online to teach you your first coding language. There’s a lot available, either free or at a low price, that you could use to push your mind to consider what it takes to program something anew.
The key that I’m trying to stress is that it’s less about the language that we know today and it’s less about us trying to take our crystal ball and say, “What will be relevant in five years?” And more about the core competency that makes you capable of teaching yourself, learning and building irrespective of what the future holds.
If a young person were interested in developing their skills in this field, what resources would you recommend?
My work is interdisciplinary and I use lots of references that are nontechnical in order to make decisions. So, if someone was aspiring to be Maisha, I would think, “Don’t: be better.”
If I were in tech school today, mapping my path, I would push work that has me reading Shakespeare. Has me focused on math, calculus in particular, or I think a course in philosophy, which is logic-based. And then I would be taking a class in a coding language just to spark my curiosity.
So, Shakespeare, how does that relate to venture capital? Well, the core of being able to do my job is incredibly compelling storytelling. All great stories have the same key components and you only know them if you’ve read them, right? So that’s why that’s included.
Philosophy is super-important because, as I mentioned before, coding and problem solving is a logic-based exercise. Going through a philosophy course where you’re asked to consider really abstract problems gives you the confidence to do that well and trains your brain to unpack a problem.
Coding is a foundational skillset. It goes back to the questions of, “How can I apply core theories? How can I make them logical? How can I make them apply to the problem I want to solve?”
So, that’s the coursework, but it’s not all done in the classroom. If I were designing my high school experience right now, I would have both courses this year and I would totally spend time being involved in a club with classmates that don’t take those courses. Because the thing I’m trying to teach myself is, even when I think I don’t have something in common with someone, how can I make a personal connection?
Lastly, I think civics is important. So I’ll add that to the mix because you’ve got to have a sense of the environment that you’re working in. Too often we separate and isolate our future from our current system of government and the two couldn’t be more connected.
How can young people get past thinking that what you do is too hard?
All of the things that I’m describing, I’m not the best at. It’s okay for some parts to be hard. Perfection is not the goal. It’s really about pushing yourself to grasp as much as you can. And to try to understand the fundamentals. The goal is persistence. For some folks, the difficulty is overwhelming. That probably has more to do with how they’re being taught than their own actual capabilities. But if that’s the case, I would argue, any problem you’re facing, don’t allow yourself to be intimidated. You’ll recognize what you’re good at and play to your strengths. Don’t rule out exploring a subject because it’s challenging. There are no perfect people out here in any industry and perfection is not the goal. If you’re struggling in one subject as opposed to another, that’s completely fine. What are you exceptional at? Having an awareness of where your challenges are and that awareness is invaluable.
What excites you about living in the second decade of the second millenium?
What excites me right now the most about being on this side of the technology space is that today in 2020, more people are qualified to design, imagine, and code and build prototypes of what the future could be like. They’re more capable. More people today are capable of teaching themselves online, through YouTube videos, through open-source coursework that universities offer—how to prototype and build products or marketplaces or software that take the friction out of their current lives every day.
Whereas 20 years ago or even 30 years ago, in order to be qualified to solve those problems, you had to be in an academic community of researchers. You had to be at the right university in order to take on those challenges and feel competent to do so. I’m super-excited about the future because that means that the problem solvers are going to be more reflective of the demography that global trends is demonstrating. They can be Browner, clearer, more fem people not from the coast folks online whose rural communities are coming more and more alive, as 5G expands. All of those things create an opportunity for new interests in space.
For me, I fall in that former category, right? I’m a Brown girl from Philadelphia. My father was in the military. My mother is the daughter of immigrants, so I’m second-gen. Her parents are from Panama and Cuba. Growing up, my mother, she fashioned herself as a scientist and engineer. She was really good at science and math but didn’t have the community and support to take that on seriously and it showed up in my life. I had the same inspiration and interest. I went to all the afterschool programs that one could hope for in math and science.
STUDENTS FROM SUMMIT SHASTA
What do teachers need to know to help their students consider the future of work realistically as well as to prepare for it?
My observation is that the future work is a bias from independence: working from anywhere and leveraging technology to keep people connected. The great thing about that is that it creates more opportunities for people who are not growing up in big cities, which helps generate even more new ideas.
The downside of distributed work, distributed teams, as an example, is that it sets us up for isolation. Teachers can create math projects that emphasize how groups can hold each other accountable while being distributed. Doing so may provide real-world, real-time examples of what their work life will be like in the future.
That distributed team also changes the responsibility for young people entering the workforce to be really competent communicators. I think a future distributed workforce will require people to step up their writing abilities and their abilities to present at a distance. Lots of founders I meet are pitching me for their business and not necessarily with the benefit of visual aids. It’s like a ten second, “Can I be compelling?”
I think that it will require teachers and educators to get more comfortable with new collaborative tools that are available to the market that empower these distributive workplaces. I think that projects and workflow in high school that allow people to get experience managing projects via Slack could be really compelling and interesting in ways that are fair for how they might be navigated going forward. When you’re trying to hold people accountable at a distance, that’s something that you students can practice in the classroom.
This may seem like a no-brainer, but why is it so important to put humans first?
The humans-first methodology is super important because all ideas and dreams are denied if they are not in the hands of really capable people. And the way that people become capable is through a series of experiences. How they demonstrate that they’re capable is by their ability to tell compelling stories and leverage their network to build their team. The Andreessen quote goes, “Software will eat the world, humans will make it do so in the most humane, thoughtful way possible.”
Students thinking about the future should be excited about the roles that they’ll play as leaders that are enabled, that are empowered by technology. Technology is not going to supplant the power of human networks. The power of the individual determines the companies that they’re building.
Who’s inspired you along the way?
A lot of my role models as I was in school were my own teachers. I find that now that I’m older, I try to learn from everyone that crosses my path. I think that started with great teachers teaching me to value everything that people have to offer.
I admire great writers because I love people who are really good with language. I admire great scientists. Dr. Mae Jemison is probably one of my favorite people. She’s the first Black woman to be an astronaut for NASA. She’s got hundreds of patents under her belt and despite being actually a historical figure, people honor her during every Black History Month, she’s still exploring and learning and pushing at the edges of what the technology is capable of. What I admire most is her lifelong commitment to learning.
What’s the best advice you’ve received?
I grew up in pretty tough circumstances and while I’m grateful for that, it’s made me resilient, there is something that shows up in the lives of people who grew up in tough circumstances. The best advice I got is to go out to where the big boats are. You can’t stay in safe harbor. I think that the social entrepreneurs who are redesigning our academic experiences have to create space for failure. If they do, young people—despite their backgrounds and circumstances—will have the confidence to go out where the big boats are and find their place among them. That’s the best advice that I received and it has stayed with me.
If you think that there’s more advancement for this world to undertake, then you’ve got to be a part of it. That requires you to take on risks. That requires a community that encourages you as early as possible to entertain the concept of failure as an experience on the pathway to success. That’s all it is. I’m saying this to the audience and I’m saying this to myself because I always have to be reminded of it. You don’t arrive at a place where you’re like, “Oh now I’m confident.” It’s an evolution of steps and you go through this journey of re-upping the confidence over and over and over again.
What advice do you have for young people out there?
The poet June Jordan wrote, “We are the people we’ve been waiting for.” Just no one else, period. And it extends to young people. In fact, every revolution, every wave of change has been built by young people and we have to stand on that legacy and acknowledge it.
It’s always the young people. And I think that the advice I have is if you have a crazy idea, take your rightful place among all the other innovators that came before you.
Somebody told Henry Ford, “All people really need is a faster horse.” In order for you to see, you’ve got to see the future and you’ve got to deliver it to people. And people will call you crazy
along the way. And that’s when you know you’re on to something.
While the future of work might seem daunting, we hope Maisha’s insights provide young learners with the confidence to make their own way. As she said, it’s not about being the best—perfection is an elusive concept, hard to define and even harder to achieve—but putting the work in and being open to all that the world has to offer. The simple act of curiosity—of commiting to becoming learners for life—contains multitudes when it comes to attaining knowledge across the subjects that define our world now and tomorrow. By investing in our history and culture, its sciences and underlying mathematics, its biology and cultural currency, students can attain the skills necessary to be like Maisha… or anything else they put their minds to.
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