Most things look intimidating from the outside, but once you start doing them yourself, you realise that everything is possible.
Lea met us with a gentle smile and a cup of coffee. She filled the conversation with positive energy and made us realize that there are few things better than starting the morning off with a great life story. Lea dialled in from Paris and ordered her cup of coffee in French. That’s when we understood she was a true citizen of the world. Lea has seen more than most people per time unit. However, she is still hungry to learn. What a lovely morning!
Originally from Croatia, she has worked all over the world as an investor, operator, and founder. Lea moved to Sweden at age ten and later studied at Stockholm School of Economics and HEC Paris. She began her career working at McKinsey and spent five years at Morgan Stanley. After a few years in the corporate world, Lea moved to Boston to pursue an MBA at Harvard. There, she discovered her passion for early-stage investing and building, always driven by purpose.
After Harvard, Lea spent five years as an investment director at Northzone, where she co-led the investments in iZettle (sold to Paypal for $2.2bn) and Trustpilot (IPO, “TRST”). Despite that, Lea felt she needed to work in the trenches and become a founder. She moved to Silicon Valley to co-found Averon, which ended up raising $20M from Marc Benioff (CEO of Salesforce), among several others including a company in infrastructure/ electrification space and a more recently a B2B SaaS-enabled marketplace focused on healthcare supplies and services soon coming out of stealth.
Lea is currently a Partner at Antler, helping early-stage founders get off the ground. Lea also co-founded OzoneX, a US and Europe-focused VC firm backing under-represented founders (women, people of color, Latin X, immigrants, etc.) who are building purposeful companies (main verticals targeted: sustainability, health, education, employment, financial inclusion). They leverage collective intelligence and invite our readers to join the expert community (signup: https://www.ozonex.vc/experts). Experts get to evaluate the companies, option to co-invest, and even earn carry in the fund (!). Beyond Lea’s impressive resume, she is a mum, a nutritionist, and a former fitness instructor. What an incredible story!
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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You have lived in multiple countries. How did these experiences form you as a person?
Living in many countries taught me about how different norms and cultures change our perspective of the world. We are all a product of our environment, and we see things from our unique set of lenses/experiences. The more countries you explore, the more lenses you have at your disposition. Having more lenses enables you to be more open, more compassionate, listen more carefully and better understand the world and different perspectives around you. You realize that there is no right way and that there are many different ways to see any given situation. As Anais Nin said: we don't see things as they are, we see them as we are.
How did you envision your future when studying in Stockholm?
I wanted to work in a field that had an impact and real consequences. I also wanted to be in an environment that could teach me how to connect the dots and draw conclusions about the real world. I thrive on learning new things, so I have always been drawn to places where you are always learning and a bit out of your depth.
Then you entered the world of high finance. What was your goal?
I joined Morgan Stanley after graduation, and it was pretty scary at first. However, it was the perfect place for me to learn about the business world. I felt I was pursuing an educational path, and living in a city like London gave me unparalleled international exposure. The main takeaway from this experience was seeing how decisions were taken at board levels and getting a tool kit of skills that still serve me on a daily basis. It was a fascinating world that provided me with a leg to stand on for my next chapter.
After five years at Morgan Stanley, you decided to study at Harvard. Why such a decision?
My experience at Morgan Stanley was my first full-time work experience abroad. My first day at Morgan Stanley was my first day in an English-speaking country. I didn't know what was beyond the world of finance. Working long hours and being in a high-pressure environment gave me no time to find out what I truly wanted to do. I also knew that I wanted to have a real impact and that deep inside I thrived on building.
I decided to move to the US, and Harvard in particular, because of their unique two-year program, which would allow me to have more time at hand to explore, learn and make the best decision for how I want to spend the next chapter of my life. Besides its incredible alumni network and stellar reputation, Harvard was the perfect place for me to take a step back and learn about any field from the best. All in all, I wanted to go back to school to get a grander exposure to the world of business and impact and discover what kind of future I want to be part of building.
I believe it is helpful to take mini-retirements (3-6 months) during our career to reflect and be deliberate about what we want to do in the next five to ten years. I have seen people on autopilot, only to wake up 20 years later and wonder what happened.
What did Harvard bring you, and would you do it all again?
I would go back instantly (laughs). Harvard made me fall in love with the world of entrepreneurship. I will never forget the moment, during my first year, when it all clicked for me. It was during a class in entrepreneurial finance taught by the renowned professor Josh Lerner. He connected the dots between all the mechanisms a small enterprise generates in such a remarkable way that I felt truly inspired. I signed up for all the entrepreneurship and VC classes I could. It didn't take long before I knew this was the path I wanted to pursue. So in the best of ways, I did find my path there, as was my hope.
What happened after Harvard?
With my background at the time, I did not look like a risk-taker. It was tricky for me to find a job in a startup when moving back to Europe. Every startup kept asking me for my specific skills (or my superpower in startup language). I was a generalist and had never really built anything apart from power points and Excel models.
I soon realized that my profile had no appeal and in order to get a foot in the tech industry I needed to offer to work for free. I said: I will show you I can deliver and will work for free; if you feel I detract value, please tell me to leave.
Most of my friends had taken well-paying, stable jobs post business school. I also had some offers but not in areas I wanted to work and I decided to stay true to my calling. My friends did wonder about my choices as did I, especially during particularly hard moments. It was a turbulent time, and I remember many sleepless nights pondering about life's big questions. I learned that to thrive in a startup, one needs to be highly comfortable with ambiguity. I needed to think through and be prepared for case scenarios, move fast, make decisions without many data points and trust in myself.
Then your first experience as a venture capitalist at Northzone. What drove you to make this decision?
Most of my friends thought that I was crazy working for startups without getting any salary, but that endeavour paid off. I got my hands dirty with multiple projects including with Northzone. Magically, Northzone then asked if I was interested in joining their investment team. It was a no-brainer, I loved the team and I felt that working as an investor would enable me to have even more impact in the tech ecosystem.
Who works for free after getting an MBA from the most prestigious university in the world?
Why become a founder yourself?
In the world of tech, everyone talks about the benefits of having operational experience; that investors who had operational experience are of additional value to founders since they had gone through the trenches themselves.
I do believe the surest way to be able to fully empathize with early-stage founders is to have been a founder yourself. Also, I wanted to try it out and build something from scratch. It was an itchy feeling that I just had to scratch in the end. I just did it, and it was an incredible life experience.
You ended up raising $20 million and growing a team from the heart of Silicon Valley. How was this experience?
It was so incredibly intimidating at first, and I doubted myself every step of the way. I moved to Silicon Valley and read about these all-star entrepreneurs. One big question mark I had was: what do they do when they arrive at their office in the morning? How do you start building something? This was a concept that was utterly foreign to me.
Everything came to life piece by piece, step by step. I first met my co-founders, who had multiple exits in the world of cybersecurity. We then started developing an innovative piece of technology and strategizing on ways to apply it to actual business problems. Consequently, we raised initial funds, gathered a team, and ran demos with our first customers. In the end, we had a product that solved a real problem. It was almost magical, but then everything came crashing down.
And why such a sudden end?
The product became incomplete overnight when one of our US telcos decided to cut the signal to all their partners. We knew there is always a risk involved in building something on top of an existing platform (in our case telcos), but we thought the stability of telcos should make the risk small. We tried our best to make something new work with the funds we had but we were mid fundraising and our story had changed, which made it hard. Unfortunately, it didn't work out.
Reflecting on it now, do you think you could have avoided this abrupt end?
It was a Back Swan event. It happened unexpectedly, and even our best efforts were not enough to keep it running. Of course, lots of great learnings from this and things we could have done, as any time things don't work out.
What is your take on failure?
We need to celebrate people building, trying new and bold things- even if it fails. Most of us reflect more on and learn more from our failures than our successes. Failures provide us with valuable insights that can be game-changing for our future. Embracing failures and applying the learnings as one continues is often the single most important thing a founder can do.
Do you guys know who’s one of the basketball players who missed the most shots in history? Micheal Jordan. You need to practice and keep trying and always learning and improving. As Tiger Woods said, “the harder I practice, the luckier I get”. You get up and try again and do it more times than anybody else. Failure is an integral part of any journey and is only negative if you don’t see the bigger picture.
If you could change one thing in your journey, what would it be?
I don't believe in thinking like that or having regrets. I am happy where I am today, and I aim to live by the life approach of:
Happiness is not having everything you want but wanting everything you have.
Of course, we all have crossroads on our journey. What matters is asking yourself if you are doing something that makes you feel inspired. If the answer is no, then you are accountable to make a change. It is on you to live your life in line with your values, to have the impact you want to have. One way to mitigate any regrets is to have the courage to take full responsibility for your life path.
In life, you will more often regret things you did not do, than the things you did.
When was the time you felt the most vulnerable?
It must be the time when I became a mum. It was a holy sh*t moment. I felt all the emotions at once, and it changed my life for the better, for good.
What would you do if you only had 30 days to live?
I would spend as much time as possible with the people closest to me. I would also make videos and write letters for my daughter. It would be full of valuable life advice that can guide her through life, so that she can always feel that I am by her side, having her back. To always help her remember how loved she is and how nothing is impossible if you truly want it.
Do you have an inspiring figure?
Without any competition, my mum. She taught me to believe in myself and follow my dreams. Every time I failed, she motivated me and believed in me, even when I did not believe in myself. Her stability, resilience and boundless passion for life and learning have been instrumental in my journey.
In entrepreneurship, or in anything, nobody manages to go through it alone. We all need someone who can support us when things get hard. She taught me that the impossible is just a concept used by people who don’t have the courage to explore what force they have within themselves to make a change. ‘Before it was possible, it was impossible”, as she says.
However, my daughter is turning out to be quite the teacher too.
If you were to start a company today, what would be your one-billion idea?
If you start a company, you have a social responsibility to make something for the greater good. I love this quote from the movie Fight Club:
We buy things we don't need, with money we don't have, to impress people we don't like.
So many companies feed this cycle. I would advise anyone who is starting a company to aim to create real and positive consequences for others. Likewise, for investors; being an investor comes with a huge amount of responsibility. As an investor, you choose what kind of future you want to see when allocating the capital. Whenever I start something, I want it to be something that would make my daughter proud and life on earth better.
Our Main Takeaways
- Failure needs to be celebrated. Embracing every failure and applying the learnings is key in a founder's journey.
- Anything is possible. If you can dream it, you can do it.
- Theory is great, but nothing beats hands-on experience. It's a little bit like playing an instrument; no matter how many books you read, you won't know how to do it until you actually start playing.
- Founders and investors have a huge responsibility. How they are allocating their time and capital has an enormous impact on the future we will live in.
Inspiring story Lea, thank you very much.
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