By Manon DeFelice
As working women, how do we “lean in” to traditionally male-dominated industries while achieving work-life balance? It’s a question that Kendra Ragatz is uniquely suited to answer. As COO and a General Partner at Aspect Ventures, a woman-owned venture capital firm based in California’s Silicon Valley, Ragatz knows how to thrive in an intensely demanding industry that’s just 7% female—and how to be a stellar mom to her two daughters, ages 11 and 13.
I connected with Ragatz recently to ask her about the workplace flexibility that was key to keeping her in the workforce after she had children, and that is rare to achieve in the venture capital field. She did it by taking on project-based and part-time positions that kept her skills fresh and broadened her expertise. Now she is back to full-time, doing amazing things with her colleagues at Aspect, where the focus falls on early-stage tech investing and nurturing innovative companies from the ground up.
Manon DeFelice: It’s rare to be a woman in your industry, much less a mother doing project-based work. How did you make it happen?
Kendra Ragatz: I had worked as an investor straight out of college, so I have been in this industry for my entire career. When I had my first baby, I stepped out of the workforce for about a year; my husband and I jointly made the decision that I would stay at home with her. I do realize how very fortunate I was to have this choice.
Around this time, a few executives I had previously worked with reached out asking if I could do project-based work. One was a former CEO who asked me to help him with financial analysis and budgeting work. He was clear with me that he was getting a much more highly trained resource than what was available at his startup, so he would be flexible on time if I could be flexible with projects. Then another person in my network contacted me about part-time help in evaluating new angel investments on his behalf. It made me realize that these arrangements are actually possible.
When I did my first project work, I told the guy who hired me, “There are certain times when I’m not going to be available. Is that OK with you?” He understood and said, “Kendra, my entire office is female and most of them are moms. Trust me, mothers know how to prioritize and multitask. They show up with a we versus a me attitude. I’d even argue that being a mother and an executive provides you with a broader set of perspectives and makes you more valuable than you were before .” Having someone articulate this was critical at this stage in my career.
DeFelice: Eventually you transitioned from project work to part-time in an office. Why?
Ragatz: I was looking to be part of a team; I wanted to be in an office for both the social and intellectual stimulation it can afford. While pushing our kids on the swings one day, a female friend who had recently executed a career shift from law to academia gave me great advice. She said, “Figure out how much time you have to give to a part-time role. Is it 10 hours, is it 20? Next figure out what’s most important to you. Is it comp? No travel? Specific nature of the work? Then reach out to your network. Put it out there that you are looking for something on those terms, and let them figure out how you might fit into their organization.”
So I had lunch with the phenomenal guy who founded DAG Ventures and he said, “I’m going to figure something out for you.” By that time I had 12 years of investing experience, so I could step into a role very quickly. I could take a huge chunk of time off their hands by taking over several board observer seats so they could focus on evaluating new deals. I worked part-time at DAG for nine years and am forever grateful to the founder for creating that role for me.
DeFelice: How often do you encounter other women in the venture-capital world?
Ragatz: The first time I ever worked with another female investor was when I joined Aspect Ventures—21 years after I began working in private equity. I have always wanted to work with another female investment partner, and now I have three! There’s something so powerful about not being the token female: You are able to bring your whole self to work. I find that working with other female investors also provides for a more robust dialogue amongst the larger team. Several studies show that diverse teams far outperform homogenous teams—they drive to better decision-making, think more innovatively and participate in less group think.
DeFelice: Does being a minority female in your industry change the way you work?
Ragatz: At Aspect Ventures, our team is 50% female and far more ethnically and experientially diverse than the majority of venture firms out there. We recognize the value of bringing diverse perspectives to problem-solving. This also plays out in our deal sourcing networks and executive team networks: I would argue that we have a much broader and diverse network for a firm of our size than our competitors. We have a cohesive and collaborative team culture; we value everyone’s perspective and contributions. Entrepreneurs often confirm this, saying we “show up differently” from other firms. We meet them as equal partners and collaborators, and have a we versus a me attitude.
DeFelice: Have you been able to achieve work-life balance?
Ragatz: I feel like I’ve had great balance overall. My husband and I have always looked at raising our family as a team effort, and there have been times when either one of us is out of balance in some way. I am grateful for the flexible roles I’ve had so that I could keep my career options open and also provide an example to my daughters of a balanced working mother. I think my career has also shown them that not all paths are linear and that’s ok: It’s just important to keep trying and doing your best. At the end of the day, the most important contributor to my balance has been my relationships—a loving and supportive husband, two fantastic daughters, family and dear friends.
DeFelice: Any advice for other people seeking work-life balance?
Ragatz: It’s really important to develop a valuable skill set and invest in your relationships early in your career. Whatever skill set makes you the most valuable will help you most in achieving the long-term balance you seek, so “lean in” all the way early in your career. And do something you love, not something that fits into everyone else’s schedules. Part of balance is feeling fulfilled in your various roles.
If the time comes that you are looking for a flexible arrangement, figure out what your priorities are, and then solicit advice from your cadre of friends and colleagues. If you have a valuable skill set, people are going to want to help you. Also, recruiting firms like Inkwell specialize in part-time or project-based work—reach out to them and see what current options may be.
A lot of choices in our society feel so absolute these days. They’re not. Finding balance and creating more flexible roles for women and men will help our society achieve a greater degree of gender parity. That’s important for everyone.