It’s December 2016, and venture capital investor Samara Mejía Hernández tries her hand at op-ed writing with a blog post on LinkedIn. Titled “Why Your Boss Is Still a White Guy,” she takes the tech industry, and particularly the VC world, to task for its stunning lack of diversity — only 2 percent of venture capital-backed startups have women-only boards, while just 1 percent of VC funding goes to people of color, according to First Round Capital’s 2016 State of Startups report. Combining data-based reasoning with cutting asides like “apparently being born without a Y chromosome makes you a better notetaker. Still waiting on the peer-reviewed study,” the post goes viral within 24 hours.
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The vitriolic backlash hits just as fast. “I was just trying to write the facts,” Mejía Hernández tells me over Skype, her voice tinged with disbelief as she recounts people taking the opportunity to be “racist just to be racist.” When her post started “becoming a platform for hate,” she took it down.
Understandably, she’s been flying lower under the radar — without slowing down — ever since. Instead, she’s carved out space in a hectic schedule to offer herself as a mentor for underrepresented groups in the VC industry, while “counting the women I’ve gotten into venture.” She also helped start the Latinx Founders Collective through her partnership with the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, is part of the leadership council for Women Tech Founders, and serves on the (once all-White, all-male) board of Communities in Schools of Chicago, where she’s working to get more underrepresented groups into STEM education.
Reading what this 34-year-old has accomplished can feel like a typical financier-turned-venture-capitalist fairy tale: With an engineering degree from the University of Michigan and a master’s degree in business administration from Northwestern, Mejía Hernández spent eight years at Goldman Sachs before becoming an early-stage VC investor, specializing in tech startups, at Chicago-based MATH Venture Partners (she was promoted to principal after two years).
Yet her “once upon a time” opens very differently. Born in Cuernavaca, a city outside Mexico’s capital, she moved with her two sisters and parents to Chicago as a 6-year-old. When (at first) English failed her, she was able to excel in math, she recalls. “Numbers are a universal language.” An immigrant, a woman, a Latina — Mejía Hernández’s venture capital success story is anything but typical. And it would take until she reached adulthood for her to realize that diversity — her diversity — is an asset “to any organization, any group, any family.”
Mejía Hernández is doing everything she can to bust the myth around what someone in VC looks like.
And that blog post? It was a bruising experience that taught her that “women that publish things get a lot more shit about it than men,” but in hindsight, the good outweighs the bad. “I got so many people from all over the world — New Zealand, Hong Kong, Germany — reaching out and saying thank you.” One of them was Ximena N. Larkin, a fellow Mexican-born, Chicago-raised woman. “It was wild to know someone like her existed,” says Larkin. “It’s very powerful to know you’re not alone,” she adds.
In the intervening two years, the VC world — at least according to First Round Capital’s 2017 State of Startups — hasn’t progressed much in terms of diversity. Nearly 60 percent of VC-funded startups have all-male boards whereas women-only boards account for just 3 percent. Further research by Axios notes that a whopping 91 percent of decision-makers at U.S.-based VC firms are men. But Mejía Hernández — not one for empty gestures — is trying to effect change by making herself an open resource for women of color. Whether it’s weekend texts or email threads with industry rookies, she feels a responsibility to help as many people as possible while advancing the conversation.
But why — when 80-hour workweeks aren’t uncommon and she’s pregnant with her first child? Because her op-ed was unequivocal about the shortage of mentors for underrepresented people. Having a mentor who understands your particular challenges is both necessary and effective — and VC, after all, is an industry that’s driven by return on investment.
Still, there are those who argue that helping women of color isn’t enough. “Skin color and gender are a proxy … a Band-Aid for the diversity and inclusion issues that venture and tech in general are experiencing,” says Nina Stepanov, a first-generation Eastern European-American and head of New York City-based venture capital firm Acceleprise. The bigger concern, she says, is the generic mold of venture, which has long been filled and reinforced by the finance industry. Stepanov advocates for diversity of thought, not diversity of skin color and gender. “You can easily surround yourself with people who don’t look like you but act and think just like you, and then we’re not all that much closer to equality than we were before.”
It’s a critique that could be leveled at Mejía Hernández — who reached venture capital through the oh-so-popular finance route. But she’s not apologizing for her past. And the present? She’s working on it. “I like to really get deep into one organization and … make an impact instead of spreading myself too wide.” It seems our definitions of spreading oneself too wide differ considerably in light of everything Mejía Hernández has taken on. Her latest project is creating a fund, which she hopes to launch later this year, to provide capital for entrepreneurs from marginalized groups.
First, though, she and her husband are anticipating their baby’s arrival in September. In the meantime, she is doing everything she can to bust the myth around what someone in VC looks like, starting with her story: the daughter of Mexican immigrants who grew up to become one of Chicago’s leading — and only — Latina venture capitalists.
5 Questions for Samara Mejía Hernández
What’s your daily morning ritual? Wake up, travel to work and read a book on the train, go to the gym … have an iced chai with almond milk, eggs and turkey bacon for breakfast, begin checking my emails.
What’s your favorite book? The Alchemist. Anything from Paulo Coelho.
If you could go back and major in a different subject, what would it be? I honestly wouldn’t major in a different subject, but if I could do anything maybe I would major in dance.
Who’s your hero? My family.
What do you think gets overhyped? Lots of things! Diets, fashion trends, workouts — I can’t pinpoint one.