Here at 4Degrees we’re setting out to learn how the best VCs in the world go about building their strongest assets: their professional networks. For the second part in a series of interviews, we sat down with Keji Mustapha of Connect Ventures. Also check out our other conversations in this series with Lindsay Knight (Chicago Ventures), Devon Leichtman (Origin Ventures), Kelley Mak (Work-Bench) and Laurel Woerner (RRE Ventures).
Platform is Network
Over the past decade, entrepreneurs have come to expect more and more from their investors; it is no longer enough to write a check and then send a catch-up email once a quarter. Founders are now looking to their investors for more robust advice and help in the day-to-day struggle of building a successful startup. This broader set of resources that VCs can bring to bear has become known as “Platform”.
Every venture capital firm thinks about Platform a little differently. For Keji Mustapha at Connect Ventures, Platform and network are inseparable. In other words, the help Connect Ventures brings to its portfolio will almost always come in the form of facilitating connection to someone within the firm’s network who can lend a hand.
In many ways, this philosophy demonstrates great humility on the part of the Connect Ventures team. They recognize that there is almost always going to be someone better suited than themselves to the thorny issues startups run into on a regular basis. Rather than muddle along, they’ve shifted their focus to cultivating relationships with a few dozen of Europe and North America’s top experts on all things startup.
Keji has focused the firm’s network on three key components of successful startup building: talent, growth, and leadership. Each of the experts she connects with the firm’s companies specialize in at least one of these areas. In addition to facilitating ad hoc connections, she proactively sets up regular events where the experts can share their knowledge in a workshop or dinner format.
Always be Networking
One of the defining characteristics of Keji’s work with Connect is focus. Because the firm only makes about 10 investments per year, she gets to know each portfolio company and its leadership personally. This high-touch approach translates directly into a nuanced understanding of the needs of the companies and where Connect’s network needs to be improved to meet those needs.
Keji’s key to translating those identified needs into reality is to constantly be on the search for what she needs. If the network has a notable gap in consumer marketplace go-to-market strategy, then you can bet that Keji is bringing up that need every time she gets asked “How can I help?”.
With this focus, Keji has become known in the community for having clear, actionable asks. Other members of the tech ecosystem love that they can lend a hand without wading through ambiguity or lack of direction. As such, Keji’s efforts have translated into a steady flow of inbound introductions to top talent on both sides of the Atlantic. She then spends substantial time making sure every new expert coming into the firm’s inner circle is highly relevant and well-vetted.
A Focus on Leadership Development and Wellbeing
Early in Keji’s career she was fortunate to work with a boss who placed a premium on leadership development and wellbeing: she was offered executive coaching as a part of her work responsibilities. She’s never forgotten that early lesson, bringing an emphasis on self-development and overall wellbeing in each of her subsequent roles. That care has embedded itself into the culture at Connect Ventures.
The keystone of Connect’s network activities is (dis)connect, its annual founder retreat. Each year, they invite a small group of their founders to a remote, warm destination in Europe to reflect, recharge, and reset. Leadership coaches and wellbeing experts from the network lead the founders in a range of full group and smaller group sessions. The focus in these sessions is on core leadership skills in addition to exercises in mindfulness and mental wellbeing. The goal of the retreat is to help the founders develop themselves as leaders, connect with themselves, their peers and the Connect Ventures team. To that end, the retreat is designed in such a way as to ensure that the founders return to their companies feeling re-energized and with a renewed sense of purpose.
Indeed, one of Keji’s personal missions for the network, aside from helping the founders to plug their knowledge gaps, is to find ways to add an element of fun to their entrepreneurial journey. She believes that building a company is fundamentally an exciting and rewarding process, which unfortunately often gets buried under stress, anxiety, and pressure. She hopes that by helping solve startups’ problems and providing coaching on overall wellbeing, she’ll promote a healthier founder lifestyle that also results in better business outcomes.