There is no conventional path in life. Find something you’re passionate about, and interesting things will come your way!
Rokas’ story is one to remember. From his early career trading exotic derivatives in London to founding his VC firm tackling climate change, Rokas has always liked to follow his gut and go against the odds. His spontaneous and positive personality was felt throughout the interview and made us understand that our years ahead will be full of opportunities.
Rokas is the Managing Director of Contrarian Ventures, an early-stage Venture Capital firm focusing on energy and mobility. Before that, he worked for Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley. Rokas is currently part of Kauffman Fellows (Class 25), the world’s most prestigious VC program, and has studied at Harvard and University of Glasgow.
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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What did you dream of when you were a kid?
I always wanted to become a trader.
When I was 14, I was an avid player of RuneScape. In this multiplayer video game, the goal was to collect valuable items. However, it was also allowed to communicate with other players. What ended up happening very quickly is that, instead of playing the game itself, I started trading items for real dollars and resold them for a profit to Chinese resellers. This was completely illegal and I could have been banned from the game, but I didn’t care. It was extremely satisfying and profitable!
Looking back at it, trading these items was similar to 2021’s NFTs.
By the time I was 16, my parents would regularly pick up Western Union checks on my behalf. I made my first capital from that experience, and that opened an entirely new world: real-life securities trading.
The natural thing to do with this first money was to invest it, so that’s exactly what I did. I used my mother’s name to open an account and started trading with that initial capital. But then, 2008 happened, and I let you imagine what was left of my initial investment. So, by the time I was 18, I had already understood what it meant to have a leveraged position. I was getting familiar with what would later become my career.
Then studying in Scotland?
Yes, I left home to study Finance at the University of Glasgow. I had a fantastic time there because I spent most of my days exploring new ideas and building new projects.
What is also important to understand is that I was always the underdog in the room as a Lithuanian living abroad. Adding to this the fact that the University of Glasgow is a non-target school for trading positions, you understand that landing a job in finance in London was close to impossible. I had to stand out!
But you made it. You got your dream job in the City. How did it feel?
Yes (laughs), I somehow managed to start working full-time at Bank of America as an inflation trader.
It was an extremely competitive environment, and the job was challenging. It taught me how to think fast and make quick decisions. I also realized how little I knew about trading. It’s such a vast, technical and complex world; that fascinated me straight away.
Overall, there was no better place to start my career: I achieved my childhood dream and learned a ton during those few years in trading.
Straight after I started working, I came to two realizations:
- Trading is a very peculiar job. My boss used to joke: “Trading was fun in the nineties when there were no rules!”. Nowadays, it’s extremely computer-driven.
- My role was highly technical. I was trading exotic inflation derivatives. There are probably less than a few hundred people in the world who trade such products. I understood that there were very few opportunities down the road.
It was clear that I didn’t want to stay in this position for the rest of my life. I didn’t want to speak with the same five brokers through squawk for the next 30 years. I was convinced that other roles could be more in line with my skill set and goals.
How was the transition from finance to venture capital?
Whatever you do or study, there is always a “path”, this traditional route that most people are taking: starting in investment banking, then private equity, and finishing in venture capital for instance. Across all the industries I have worked in, the most interesting people I met had all one thing in common: an unconventional journey. People who have a traditional path tend to be very boring (laughs).
When I left Bank of America, everything changed. I was not part of this huge infrastructure anymore, and it was like leaving a golden cage where you are on your own.
It was my way of showing that I could also get on that unconventional path.
I went on founding my firm, which was a real entrepreneurial experience. From the first hires to raising funds, this has been a true roller coaster. After almost four years, I can safely say that I deeply enjoy creating new things, and I could never go back to my previous job!
You founded Contrarian Ventures. What does it mean to be contrarian?
A lot of people tell me about this name (laughs). It’s a name with a heavy connotation.
Personally, there are two reasons we decided to call ourselves Contrarian:
Firstly, I went against all odds and left a promising trading career to found my own firm at the age of 26. On a personal level, this was very contrarian and tough, especially with no prior venture experience.
Secondly, we decided not to be a generalist fund. Instead went to focus on the most technology undisrupted sectors - energy and mobility. Without this focus, we would have probably never been able to raise the fund.
This Contrarian mindset still resonates with us today. It drives how we organize ourselves and dictates how we can differentiate from other funds. We are very hands-on with our founders and are on our way to build a strong community. In addition, we run one of the largest Energy Tech Conferences in Europe. We also launched an initiative called Climate 50, which is a top 50 list for VCs involved in Climate Tech. Also, we have recently launched a rebranding to reflect our mission, value, and investment beliefs.
Contrarian Ventures focuses on Climate Tech and Mobility. Can you give us the general trends you see arising in those sectors?
The energy sector is very complex, but let me try to break it down.
For the last hundreds of years, our commodity of choice was oil. In the next hundred years, it’s going to be the electron.
Oil is a complex product due to its numerous by-products. It’s difficult to extract and refine. There are a lot of use-cases related to oil, ranging from plastic to fueling the energy sector.
On the other hand, electricity is super simple. You generate it, transmit it and consume it, without creating any or little carbon footprint in the process other than the one you initially made to generate the electrons. The whole flow is simple, without any by-product.
Electricity is going to dominate the whole world. We are transitioning into an Electrification of our planet, and that’s beautiful! With electricity comes the renewable energy generation boom, and with that comes an optimization problem. You have an unlimited supply, and your job is now to determine how to use the resources as efficiently as possible.
A lot of opportunities are going to arise from this optimization problem. Finding the balance between the appropriate hardware and software is going to be crucial to enable this shift to a net-zero planet.
Lastly, I need to mention parallel technologies. These technologies are not yet feasible from an economical point of view but have a lot of potential, such as hydrogen and some carbon capture technologies.
Energy and mobility are going through a crucial shift. For years, things that have been taken for granted, like gas-powered cars, are being disrupted by newcomers. We are trying to reverse what we did to our planet over the last 50 years. This is not going to be easy, but I see so much happening that I can only be optimistic!
You’re a Kauffman Fellow, the world's most prestigious VC program. What is so far the most important lesson the program taught you?
I’ve always believed in mentorship and peer-based learning. Naturally, participating in the Kauffman Fellows is one of the best decisions I have made in my whole career.
Here is my rationale:
- It’s not full-time, so you can directly apply in your job what you learn during the program. Most participants are running their first, second, or third fund.
- Peer learning makes the whole experience much richer. You maximize your learning by interacting with the brightest VCs. Everything is confidential, and everyone comes with a lot of respect for each other. You come with a commitment to share your knowledge and learn from others’ mistakes.
- I come from a non-VC experience. I always lacked knowledge and network, which are the two pillars on which the program is based.
To be completely honest with you, it’s going to feel strange to meet all these people in real life once COVID is over. We have connected on such a deep level with each other, but only through Zoom. So, it’s going to be fascinating to meet all of them finally in person this year.
There is no conventional path in life. Find something you’re passionate about, and interesting things will come your way!
You lived in a few places but always came back to Lithuania. It seems like you want to make an impact in the Lithuanian startup ecosystem. Why so?
Let me give you my narrative through example. The World Economic Forum in Davos is an event that everyone wants to attend. In Lithuania, our president might have been invited once, but that is it. How can you get there? You either need to be super influential on a world level of politics or business or be the number one in your country. It’s easier to become number one in Lithuania I guess (laughs).
I have a special connection with Vilnius and Lithuania in general. I have been involved in the early days of startups in the country. I was working for a government program to support the startup ecosystem from the early innings.
As you said, I have an international background, from Harvard and Kauffman, for example. It’s interesting to bring these two networks to Lithuania. The most successful ecosystems are built by people who can bring robust networks. Estonia is a small country, but it is thriving from a VC perspective because it has been able to bring those vast networks into the country.
Don’t get me wrong, in the long run; we will expand to the US because that’s where the NBA of VCs is. It’s just a matter of time.
What is the most impulsive thing you've ever done?
There are probably quite some examples because I’m a very spontaneous person. I could tell you about a few anecdotes, but the craziest thing I have done by far is leaving my trading career and diving into VC without any prior experience.
Another spontaneous thing we have done as a firm is launching Climate 50. Everyone told us that it would be impossible to launch an award, that there were too many labels already, and that nobody would consider us seriously. We said screw it and built the most transparent ranking in the world, with a clear methodology, focusing on community inclusion for instance. This has been widely successful, and I’m extremely proud of it.
My advice is to approach everything in life as a small experiment. The lower the expectations, the easier it is to get back from failure.
What would you do if you’d only have 30 days to live?
Go for a run and open a bottle of good wine.
I’m lucky enough to have most of my relatives around. Saying goodbye would probably take more than a month. I’d love to set up something that goes beyond my name: a non-profit or a company on which people can keep working on with purpose once I have passed away.
An inspiring figure?
This is a hard question because there are a few people.
I love to read biographies of people on Wikipedia. This is literally my own fetish. Every inspiring person has done something unconventional in his/her career, and it’s so interesting to know more about it. For example, Peter Thiel is a great inspiration of mine.
A different person inspired me in each part of my career. Today, I would consider Chris Sacca extremely influential. What he’s doing for climate change is simply phenomenal. No bullsh*t approach, no greenwashing, speaking simple words. I like this direct approach. That’s how you should invest and communicate your thesis.
Overall, I had multiple mentors and I wouldn’t want to cite anyone in particular. They will recognize themselves.
The New New Thing by Michael Lewis.
If you were to start a company today, what would be your One-Billion Dollars Idea?
It’s a straightforward question! Don’t start another app, don’t start another social media, instead start working on something that will impact billions of lives.
Climate Tech is a generational opportunity. The amount of capital that will go into this sector is unbelievable. If you look at the most valuable companies ten years ago, the majority of them were oil and gas companies. These companies are not on that list anymore (other than Saudi Aramco). Opportunities for new technologies to disrupt the world are coming, and I’m excited about the future! A future where financial gain can be combined with impact.
Our Main Takeaways
- There is no standard path in life. Find something you’re passionate about, and interesting people will join you in your journey.
- Start locally before going global. Rokas decided to go back to his home country to make an impact, but he still has world domination in mind.
- Unconventional thinking should be cheered, not avoided. Sometimes being impulsive and thinking outside the box beats calculated and rational thoughts.
- Take a road less traveled. Also, the extra mile is less crowded.
Inspiring story Rokas, thank you very much.
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