Today's installment in my series chronicling the stories of different roles at Blume Ventures is a special one because my colleague Rohit Kaul put me in the hot seat and gave me the chance to talk about my journey, my career decisions, defining moments and what I'm working on at Blume. The more we do this, the more I realise how much there is yet to do! But it's special to be able to build a place like Blume in a world like ours today - where there are a million ideas, probably a hundred million dollars, but only a few people who commit to do whatever it takes to make a thousand special founders bloom! And if you're curious about creating a role like this at your VC fund, or looking to work in this role, please email me and I'd be happy to share my learnings and insights.
Rohit: Hey. Good to have you today. Good to turn the tables!
Ria: Yeah. Nervous but excited.
Rohit: Looking forward to asking you some hard questions!
I think why don't we start from the very beginning, I’m very keen to know - you’ve worked across different types of setups. You worked for not-for-profit, for startups, and you worked for a corporate, which IPO’d recently. If you can just walk us through those early stages of your career and the roles and how they've shaped your journey till now - now that you're the Head of People and Culture at Blume?
Ria: I moved back to India in 2012 after studying abroad and I think I was in a very exploratory phase, but also very hesitant to lock myself down in one particular area. I think there was massive FOMO about just picking one stream and sticking to it. I looked for different opportunities. And I think the first one, when I started at a nonprofit was as an executive assistant. And I think that was my first sort of stint working in India also after being away for so long. And what I really enjoyed over there was…setting a lot of org structures and processes, which came naturally to me.
There was definitely a different side of the organization which was very hands-on in the field, on the ground, and I was not that person at all, so I was very happy to find something that allowed me to work very behind the scenes and I think I was the only person with that sort of skill set in the org, so it was highly valued. I saw a lot of impact being able to do those small things, bringing the leadership together, just getting good at long-term organizational planning, goal setting, those sorts of things.
Then after two-and-a-half years, I decided that I wanted to stay within that space, but upskill myself by challenging myself to work in a little more professional setup, in a more corporate, more traditional setup, so to say. One of the things that really stuck with me when I moved back to India was that I had made a commitment to myself saying, "I'll work for Indian companies." I think being away for about 10 years, you hear a different narrative about India, what people assume is great, what is not. At that time there were no – like, the startup thing was coming up, but aside from the big names, like TCS and Tata – you didn't really hear about a lot of big Indian companies. And I said, I want to work for Indian companies, Indian brands.
Very coincidentally, without not a lot of looking, a position at Sula came up and, it was unique at the time. Wine was just picking up. I didn't realize how big the company was before I joined, but it ticked a lot of boxes for me. The role was very similar, but a few steps up. Sula was one of the first professional work experiences for me. It really challenged me because it was definitely a more traditional work environment, more of a male-dominated industry compared to being in the non-profit space, which tends to skew in the other direction with many women working there. I was one of the youngest working with primarily the leadership team. So I had to do a lot of really quick thinking on my feet, learning organizational dynamics, learning a lot of business, and understanding all of the different business functions. I remember at that time there were around 13 different departments.
So, understanding the ins and outs of a company was crucial, if I wanted to be able to make any recommendations, to be able to provide any value. If I didn't understand what they were doing, there was no way I could add value back. So, a very fast and sharp learning curve. Also, I was getting a bird's eye view into running an organization, being part of board meetings, being part of goal planning. It just excited me because of my ability to connect the dots, an ability to see the big picture. I think I've always enjoyed those sorts of roles, like being able to see the big picture and then break it down. So, that role fit me really well.
Around halfway into my stint there, an opportunity came up to work more closely with the HR team over there, which in itself was a pretty matrix and complex function because we had sales teams, we had hospitality, we had corporate offices, we had wine-making and viticulture. So, just very different. And I jumped into it, not having formal HR training. What worked well for me over there was really leveraging the strengths of my team members, and letting them know right off the bat that they knew much more than me but my job was to help connect what they were doing with what the company wanted. I think there's always, in big companies, a bit of a gap, a little distance between what, goals are set, and what people on the ground are doing. So I told them, I was very committed to helping them bridge the gap and let them lead the way. And I think that helped them respond to me as a sort of outsider. A lot of people in the team had been there for around 11 or 12 years and I had been there for 3. So there was a big difference between their org knowledge, their social capital and mine.
Someone comes parachuted in to show you how to do your job, it's obvious that there could be some hesitation. So, I think tried very hard to mitigate that right off the bat and it just really helped me get a sense of what's happening on the ground. I loved getting deeper into specific aspects, whether it was setting up a learning academy, whether it was training for winemakers, or just different aspects of the role.
But, I think interestingly, that was one point where I really realized the impact of L&D on an org's learning. I think a lot of companies look at it as an external thing, but we saw how crucial it was to help people grow internally. A lot of companies talk about internal growth, and internal promotions, but what are you doing about it? This was the first place where I saw that come alive and I think, that's where the love of working with the people function, as a strategic leader came.
I took some time off after my stint at Sula, which coincided with the lockdown of 2020. I knew I wanted to stay in this space, but wasn't sure where. I was just starting a new family, so I was also mindful of personal commitments and I knew it was a hard challenge to find a situation that would allow me to manage one part of my personal life and expectations that came over there, not be in a 24x7 on-call role, as some startup roles ended up being, and also create something at scale.
I think that was one of the things that had always stuck to me - work with Indian brands, and drive goals by leveraging people. But I didn't want to be very limited to one product, one kind of niche work. Around the lockdown, a lot of startups and companies were seeking venture capital to extend their runways. I was working with a few of them also. And that's when I met a few VCs. I started learning more about it and started seeing all of the ones that were around there. And that's when the idea of trying to work in venture capital came to me.
Rohit: Got it. Very interesting. I can see, I won't say parallels, but some similarities, in the way my journey also has been – non-linear, in that sense, exploring and figuring out what is the right next step instead of planning the next 10 years or next 20 years ahead of time.
I have a bunch of questions. But I think this is the right time to ask you about the part where you joined Blume. Most people I've met have had some interesting stories to tell about joining here.
Do you have an interesting “How I joined Blume” story? I think that would be lovely to know.
Ria: A lot of it happened, I think between the first and second lockdown. I specifically remember that I was looking for opportunities. I was doing some freelancing work on my own. I'd reached out to Sajith, introducing myself. At that point, I was actually looking at very Chief of Staff sort of roles, very generalist roles - I had a cold email template down to a T saying, “here's who I am, here's what I can do for you”. And I reached out to Sajith. He was the one who was more prominent online, spoke about being part of portfolio companies and now – knowing him internally – I know I got a famous template response that he does have, which says that “a lot of people reach out to us, we don’t have any roles currently, you can reach out to the companies directly. We're a small team..etc etc.”
But yeah, I just appreciated that, and I kept watching. And then it was December, it was the first time in the whole year that personally also things were relaxed. I was just thinking of going on vacation. Suddenly I saw a post put up for this role, which is very coincidental. So, I reached out, I had everything in my head ready, so I applied. And then, I heard back in early Jan.
Sanam who leads MetaMorph, our talent advisory services, reached out to me for an initial chat and then it just snowballed from there. I remember everything was on lockdown, I came to meet Ashish first in the office and then had a series of phone calls. I was just counting this morning. I had eight conversations with all of the three partners twice, with all of the directors, and with Sarita.
So, what stood out to me was – normally you have like your two, three rounds process, right? But here I spoke with six people, and had eight interviews. And so I had a very good idea early on of the people I would work with, which was also exciting, because, again, you only expect to work with two or three people in an org very closely. And it was made very clear to me that this is an organizational role. It doesn't report to anyone per se. You're working for all of us, with all of us.
At that stage, surprisingly, because everything was on lockdown and people weren't in, I didn't get a sense of the scale and scope of Blume. Everything was online, it was a bit nebulous. But what really tipped things over for me – we have a lot of friends who are in the startup space, who are entrepreneurs themselves. A few of them had approached Blume earlier and while it didn't go through, I think every one of them had very similar things to say about the Blume team, that they're just really nice people, take the job if you get it. And, I think that was a much more personal reference that you get compared to anything else. So, yeah, things worked out and that's how I ended up here.
Rohit: Super interesting! Another interesting thing you mentioned – and I didn't know this earlier – that you mentioned that you took up a role within people culture profile without a formal HR training. And that would be interesting, it's considered to be like a specialized sort of role, like say finance which needs certain skillset. I think that would be interesting to understand if you can double click on it. How has that journey been for you? How have you gained certain skills? How is that…do you feel looking back, it has impacted your journey in certain ways?
Ria: Absolutely. So when this role was offered to me, I had the same reaction. I have no formal training. Why would you put me here? I also, to be very frank, was very hesitant to take it up because I think around 2016-2017, which is when this role came to me, the world and India were still very different. You didn't see the sort of conversations around people and culture that you see right now. So at that point, I felt like I would be pigeonholed, like I would be on a very different career path. I would be in a very, maybe not be as involved in organizational leadership, just because that's how HR roles were in organizations and Indian society at that point.
I took it up because my boss at that time broadly said, you understand the business, figure out how to make the People goals match the business goals. Which was good enough for me. I said, I'm not going to get into all of it. I understand this. I understand the goals. Let me figure out what has to be done. And I think one commitment I had made to myself was I didn't want to go through any of the bureaucracy. I wanted to do things the way I would have expected. So, I put myself as both, the customer and the person in the driver's seat. What's the experience that I would have wanted to design for myself?
I went in very sketchbook-in-mind, let's go back to basics and try to remove a lot of red tape and relook at processes, try to take a very fresh look. I think that made a huge difference because people otherwise normally come with, “this is what you're supposed to do” mindset. So, number one that I think really helped. Number two, as I was building, as I was working, I learned a lot because I had a large team and I said, okay, you all first teach me the nuances of how are you doing labor and compliance? How are you doing recruitment? And then from a very, I would say, generalist perspective, I moved into what can you do better? What are your challenges in a very problem-solving mindset? I was trying to problem-solve for them in their specific role.
Thirdly, I spent some time up-skilling myself. I did a diploma course through SHRM. It's a U.S.-based organization, Society for Human Resource Management. So, they did have a sort of competency framework. And there was an online module with an exam that you take, which just gave you a very in-depth understanding of the entire life cycle. So, for me that was a crash course, I felt a little comfortable. And then, I used a lot of my personal curiosity, I gave myself a reading list of about 10-15 books, looked up and saw everyone at that point was talking about Google. I kept trying to read a lot of how these people have done things. So, a few different ideas kept coming up, which I think made me feel a little more secure month-by-month as I started it.
At that point, I did approach it a lot as a student. The flip side of that was I also had to put on a very “fake it till you make it persona.” While I was going through this, I couldn't let my team realize that, “Oh, she doesn't know, she's figuring it out.” So, really, I had to come to work ready, show up every day, but then go back and do a lot of homework myself so that I can come and be one step ahead of them. So, it was a little bit of a crash course for myself.
Rohit: Got it. Yeah, I think the last part is interesting. I think a lot of us, when we are shifting either industries or companies or roles, I think we all do that “fake it till you make it” or putting up a brave face or whatever is the right metaphor for that, for the teams to have a certain amount of certainty in terms of...what they do.
Ria: I think that's what a lot of general management experience helped a lot though, because a lot of what good and great managers do is just manage people and projects. So, I think that part I could bring quite seamlessly. It was the domain knowledge and the expertise that I was building up on, but I think all of my past roles brought a lot of general people and project management, which I was able to employ from day one.
Rohit: If you dial back a little bit more, Ria, I think when you and I were talking as part of my interview, you had mentioned about being in a boarding school somewhere and then how that impacted your world view in terms of how you want to do things. Can you talk about that part of your life a little more?
Ria: After finishing school in Bombay, I was very hesitant to pick one of the three art, science, commerce streams – I had a lot of FOMO. I said, I want to do a little bit of everything. I can't pick right now what I want to do with my life. And at that point, the IB program, the International Baccalaureate had just come and there was a school just outside Pune, which was affiliated with the United World Colleges movement.
I started over there. They had their typical subjects, but the UWC movement, in particular, compared to other IB schools, was very focused on creating what they called agents of change. The people who started it had this very firm belief that a lot of future world problems would be solved if really young people spent a lot of their formative years interacting with the person on the other side of the fence and really understanding, what goes on at a local level.
A lot of the seeds of this movement came out actually after the Second World War, where people said if you put an Indian and a Pakistani together or someone from Israel and someone from Palestine together, when they're face to face, they're just people, and you get to know the person beyond the identity. Then, at a point, if you're ever in a position where you are thinking about someone on the other side of the fence – it's a human face to you. It's not a dehumanized person. Therefore, the kind of decisions you make as global decision-makers could be very different. So, that was the broad base of it.
But a big part of the curriculum was engaging with local communities. And we were on the outskirts of Pune. So a big part of our curriculum and our learning was learning to set up student organizations and do a lot of community work, like, that was what you had to learn in addition to everything else.
That was just part of life for two years. It was just ingrained that you went to classes and then after class, you did this sort of stuff. It was made to feel like this is a normal part of life, doing something, giving back, and trying to equalize the inequalities that you see. A lot of conversations at a very young age about privilege. What do you do with it? How do you deal with it? So, it is very impactful when you're, 15, 16.
I left that place with the idea that anyone is able, even in the smallest sphere of influence to make a difference, right? You don't have to go and become the UN Secretary-General. Even if you end up becoming a school teacher, you can still act with the idea that you are influencing people around you and what you're doing.
For me subsequent decisions, whether it was what I did just after my undergraduate degree or coming back to India and even, moving to a place like Sula, you are thinking about how you're making things better for people. Very ironically, working in a people and culture role ends up fulfilling those criteria when you think about it, but it's working backward, right? Like I never thought about it moving forward, but it just made a lot of sense. And, it all tied together. You make impact for larger communities and with the hope that someone else is inspired by that, and then they'll go ahead and exemplify that. So, that's where the idea of always wanting to make an impact at scale came from.
Rohit:. I think this place sounds like a very interesting place, especially you're talking about 11th and 12th grades, right?
Ria: Yeah, they take 11th and 12th grades. It's a network of international schools all over the world. In some places like Singapore, they do the mid year programs, but as it was originally formed, it's 11th and 12th grade equivalent. So,, after finishing 10th standard, that's where I went.
Rohit: Because if you think of it, 11th and 12th is exactly a time when you will be told not to do anything beyond your academics. Even people who are great great debating champions or chess champions – they’re told, two years give to your studies and then you can do what you want, which is actually violating the narrative.
Ria: Yeah. It's a little bit of the reverse. And I think one of the biggest classes they have in that program is called theory of knowledge, which basically very early on, they teach you to question everything. How do you know the things you know? So, it's very philosophical, if someone tells you something, how do you know it's true? How do you evaluate it for yourself? So, it was the seeds of a liberal arts education, questioning, and critical thinking, which I think make you more confident at that age when you're faced with an unpopular opinion or a disagreement and you don't want to go against the tide. I think all of those together made me more comfortable making decisions that not everyone would have thought of normally.
Rohit: Ria, I think this is really fascinating. An interesting part of your journey is, are there ways in which you are still linking those learnings? The way you spoke about is basically the art of critical thinking, because you're questioning stuff – do you link back some of your decision making or day-to-day decision making? I'm not saying like big, hairy decisions. I'm saying day-to-day decision making or day-to-day operations in terms of, are there any seeds which are sowed then, which you're seeing now, any example which come to your mind?
Ria: From right now, work at Blume? Yeah, I think number one is, when you start thinking about why we take certain things for granted. And if you, for example, apply it to the Blume context, when we're building teams and looking at the kind of people to hire. I remember when I joined the overall narrative tended to be, that the kind of people who come into venture capital are people who have done engineering, IIM, IIT, consulting, and then they're here, right?
One of my first questions was, how can that be the only way in? Or why is the accepted narrative and what about someone who's done liberal arts? What about someone who's done film and media studies? And, then obviously you unpack, okay, you're looking for a certain way of thinking. You're looking for a certain background. You're looking for a certain set of networks and experiences. And after unpacking that, I try to find ways to address those answers.
Okay. If you're looking for a certain set of thinking, then this person also has it. Here's how we measure it. If you're looking for a certain set of experiences, this is what X person has done, this is what they've done, to show that they have those experiences. If you're looking for certain networks, this is how X person can get it.
Then, why do we only have to stick with looking at people who have the wrapper and not unpack a little bit? So, I feel like I did address that head-on, in my first few months. Obviously understanding that there are certain things that do come from people who are from a certain set of institutions and networks was one of them. It was just interesting for me to find ways to address that. What was the actual problem? The actual problem was we needed, for example, analysts to come with networks so that they could go source founders. The solution to that problem is to not blindly go for someone who has been to a certain college.
The solution is to try and suss out through assignments and talking to them and understanding how they would solve the problem. We created a different interviewing process, maybe we created different, more, steps than a typical VC firm would do, but I feel we were able to actually address those answers and get a more diverse cohort of people than we would have, if we just went with the traditional narrative of this is where you get analysts and people from.
Rohit: I think this is a good segue to also move into the next part of this conversation, because I think what you explained was in a way the importance of having someone senior in the People function of a venture capital fund, basically, right? Because they bring in that sort of outsider knowledge and they bring in that sort of perspective, right? So, a good segue to the next question over here is, how would you underscore the importance of people and culture function in a VC firm? A different way to ask the same question is, if you have to go and explain it to five people, this is what I do and this is why it is important. How would you explain that? People who are not in venture, so to say.
Ria: I've been here about two-and-a-half years and I think couple of fundamental truths have emerged about what it is like working in venture. And I think, when I tell people why it's important to work in this sort of a role, this is what I normally tell.
Number one is, everyone who is here is a catalyst. You rarely have full control over outcomes, and therefore, you can only focus on your inputs. That also means that you cannot be bound to a typical attribution mindset that I did X, therefore I will get Y, or I did X, therefore I get the recognition with Y. So, you have to be okay with not getting direct credit for things, you have to be okay knowing that you did something to help. Someone may listen to you. Someone may not take your advice. You also have to be okay with a very long-term nature of the rule. You have to be around for that long to see results.
Having imbibed and understood all of these things, if a VC firm wants to build out people who will live by these things, someone needs to be stewarding and holding those principles for them. Someone needs to be educating them about it. Because another thing that I realized is the VC world can be very closed. If you don't know someone, it's hard to break in. If you don't have a referral, if you don't have someone who already works there, it's very hard to break in. And so how do you not, number one, gatekeep that knowledge and make it open and accessible to everyone? And how do you educate people about what a role is?
Everyone who's working in the firm already has a full-time role. If you're trying to get people who have that mindset that aligns to those few principles that I just talked about, that is a full-time role in itself in articulating that and explaining it.
I think firms who believe that, okay, we will do the work to get these sorts of people, because it's important for the firm in the long run, will be able to support a role like mine, because it is a full-time job to be able to articulate that. You're building a firm, you're building an institution, you're also looking for people who are looking for different challenges, different mindsets, you're asking them to unlearn everything about what work and work life and results looks like, compared to elsewhere where they may have had a target and they worked and met a target and got instantly rewarded.
Here your target is the success of a company and you are one of 10 people who may be making inputs from Blume. And then there may be 10 more investors in the cap table. So, really getting someone to understand that and hand holding them. They are unlearning a lot, right? So how do you create that environment where they know it's okay to learn. It is going to take time. We don't work at the same timelines as everyone else.
I think, building and holding all of that together requires someone who's only thinking about that. It's not a front-of-the-camera role. You're not the one getting the accolades and talking to founders and impacting startups. For doing the role that I do, you have to be very comfortable, knowing that your success is the success of the people that you have brought in and that you're working with, right?
But I think when I explain my work to people, it is that I work with a venture capital fund that finds people who are going to grow the economy and build the team who are working with those people.
I read a book a while ago, and a phrase that's really stuck with me is, "who will teach the teachers." It was in an educational context, right? But if you think about it, that's exactly what we're doing. These are people who are working with young entrepreneurs, showing them how to build businesses of tomorrow and how to make impact. Who is working with them, who is working to take care of them, who is working to show them how businesses are built to learn from mistakes, to understand how decisions were taken? So it is a very Train the Trainer, Teach the Teacher mindset. I've not seen it anywhere else. I think I'm excited by the idea of being able to create a new generation of catalysts, people who are inspiring and driving the next big companies of the future.
Rohit: Couple of interesting things you mentioned, Ria. One obviously mentioned about educating people, about this thing, their role and Training a Trainer or who will teach the teachers, right? You mentioned that people are catalysts, that they are not fully in control of the destiny of their decisions. There's obviously this long-term orientation part you mentioned about. A lot of these things, in fact, and I've spent a limited time here, but a lot of these things actually, I've heard Ashish and Karthik often talk about this from a cultural point of view. I think from your perspective, and this is something which I, in fact, ask a lot of people – I have two questions. What does culture mean to you? Usually, it's a very amorphous thing, it's like one of those things. There's a negative connotation to certain things. “Arey, management ne mana kar diya, koi decision.” So, who is management? No one knows who is management. People will use it as a blanket excuse to pass the buck.
I think that sort of obviously intrigued me in saying how to define culture? So as someone who's holding, who's a custodian of culture in a way for the firm, what does culture mean to you?
Question two is, there's a culture of things you can educate people, there's certain values you can imbibe in people when they are there, you can educate them. But there are certain values that people bring with them when they come into any setup. I may be by nature outgoing person or an honest person or a person who wants to make an impact. So, how much of culture building starts at top of the funnel, at recruitment and how much of it is education once they’re in? So, these two are linked but slightly distinct. Sorry for thelong question, but want to get your thoughts.
Ria: So to answer your first part, I think after so many years, what I have deduced that culture to me just means stories. For me, culture has always meant the stories that people tell each other in public and in private. Your founding story, how an organization was formed is also a story. Like when did someone come up with an idea? How was the organization formed? That's a story people tell. Who gets promoted? Why did they get promoted? Is a story that people will talk about at the lunch table. How did someone react to someone who went over and above? These are all stories. As much as you might write down things and put them into processes, your culture is the stories that are told about you in public and in private. We try to tell our stories in public. We try to do it through our content, through our podcast, through our learnings, writings. And then our team says stories about us. Ria was X like a manager, Karthik was like this and you can forget everything else. You can come up with five values, seven guiding statements. But your culture is the stories people are going to tell about you. And so when I think of that, number one, it makes my work really clear because I want everyone's story to have common themes and I want people to feel certain things when they think about Blume and when they're talking about it. I want them to have told a story of, this happened and I was not well, and my manager just said, forget everything, focus on what's important. I want them to tell that story about their manager, I want them to tell the story of how they got a chance to do something out of turn or just get a lot of responsibility and support. So I think of the stories I want people to tell and then I work backwards to make sure that people get to feel that way.
When I'm looking for people who are coming into the organization, I think one learning has just been like, what are the stories I've heard about them? And I think that means that for us referrals and building those relationships with candidates is super important.
The same way that our investment team is constantly scouting for founders and trying to hear their business stories, one of the things that we want to do – we've started doing a little in bits and pieces – is building a pipeline of people who we can go back to for the future. Someone may not be available today, but I really, I want to know their stories. Why are they looking somewhere else? What have they done? If it's come through a referral, if Rohit comes to me and says, I know this girl, she's been great. I've worked with her. She did X, Y, and Z. That's her story. And that is what will make me and anyone else trust them over and above what's on a resume. Especially because we've done so much work in bringing on the current people, that we have implicit trust in them. So, everyone who's here at Blume, if they come to me with something, I will trust them and I will trust the stories they share. So this may be a simplified version of it, but I think looking for people – obviously, people come to us from different places, but what we try to suss out is their why, and being convinced of their story. Why are they working in venture? What motivates them? Why are they here? If they're able to really bring something to the table then everything else can be taught.
I really feel like there's no perfect education that primes you to come and work in venture capital. There might be courses and there might be things telling you, but again, the mindset, no one's going to teach you. You either have it or you don't. So it is tough. It's not easy. We do make mistakes. But that's why we spend a lot of time on people, whether we realise it or not.
Like my eight interviews, when someone else also meets for an investment team, they're meeting about eight people and they're listening to stories. Karthik does that when he's interviewing people, he just says, tell me your life story. And, I think while that takes a lot of time, it just builds that trust. It builds that feeling that, okay, this is someone who I want with us and who's going to be able to help us share the right stories.
Rohit: On similar lines, Ria, I think by design – and again, this is my early observation of how VC firms work – a VC firm seems to me like an amalgamation of people who have strong points of view. Across hierarchies and across roles and across teams and all. Of course, the role demands it – if you want to back a deal, you want to back a founder who you believe is truly amazing, you'd want to have the sort of strong point of view. Now, imagine having 30 or 40 people like those with some strong points of view in an org, and you're trying to build a culture that is slightly more cohesive, and they’re dovetailing it into certain values or certain stories.
I can imagine it throws some oddballs, some curveballs towards you. So, are there any unique things that you want to share here, about building a culture where there’s such high cognitive, intellectual diversity and density.
Ria: I read something two weeks ago that said, “If your kid comes home with a report card and it shows that they're weak in maths and good in tennis, then get them a tennis coach, not a maths tutor.” And for me, that was interesting because I think the message that you take away is that, some people are stronger in certain things than others, right? And the one way to really get them to shine is to focus on what they're really good at. Yes, this can be a case of “too many chefs spoil the broth,” right, if everyone is trying to do just the same one thing. But I think what we're trying to do at Blume is to find a way to highlight each person's strengths because they are different strengths. A lot of them are complimentary. What I'm really bad at, someone else is really good at. And I think we've tried really hard, at least among the leadership team and then going down also to allow people to showcase their strengths.
There will always be areas of development that everyone has. One of the things we've tried really hard to do is to communicate multiple times that everyone's voice is heard at Blume, And whether that's the junior most level or the senior most level – you always talk about what an open door culture looks like. For us, an open-door culture is that everyone has a right to voice their opinion at Blume. We're not saying that everyone's opinion is implemented and acted on. Then you're causing chaos. But I think what everyone realizes here is that I have the space to say my piece, and I know it will be heard.
Now, it may be contrary to what someone feels, and a decision may still be taken in another direction, but I know that I never have that speak now or forever be silenced feeling. I would like to believe that people feel that we've created that space where you can voice, and it is heard. And it's parked, filed, and noted. It's like you dissent on record and it's there. We understand and we still explain why we've taken certain decisions. And I think that approach has helped us because we've made people feel appreciated for the strengths they bring, recognize them for those, and allow them to participate in discussions, even knowing that a decision made may be in a different direction.
Rohit: Interesting. Is it somewhat similar to that fairly famous Amazon construct of disagree and commit?
Ria: We are trying to move towards something like that. I think the other aspect of it is also when you're building a firm like this, which is a partnership, it's decentralized in some ways. You have to have immense trust for this one level. We have five investment partners. We have five leaders on the other side. That's almost 10 functions being run, even if they're small. And I have to trust implicitly that these other nine people are masters in their domain, and they will know different things than I do for doing something, and I might be able to bring certain concerns, and I will listen to certain concerns that they have for me, but at the end of the day, I have to trust their judgment, and if they take a certain decision, even with me having voiced my dissent, then they've taken the best decision that they know.
Because if I don't have that trust, if I'm questioning and not assuming that this person is doing things in the best interest of Blume, then it's sabotaging the very DNA of what we do.
The underlying assumption is that everyone is acting in Blume's best interest. Once you remind yourself of that, it sometimes becomes easy to let go of things. It's not your battle. Sometimes you pick and choose your battles, but when you have such a diverse and a large team you have to back each other sort of 150%.
Rohit: Shifting gears here, I think a different question. Each one of the people who you've interviewed for this series is in the platform or corporate function of a VC firm. You have recruited all sorts of folks at Blume. I think you have an inside view, so to say, of the kind of folks who not only come to Blume, but who make Blume their home. They work on different projects, investment, non-investments, both. On the topic of people who are not into the investment roles, your quick or maybe not so quick byte on how do those roles add value to a VC firm? Why should people explore those kinds of roles?
Ria: One of the first ways that I think a platform approach like we have works is because it gives the VC fund multiple lines of sight into how a company is performing. If it is just a founder working with one investor, it may be blinders on – the investor may not know what's happening on the other sides and there might be signals coming from other parts of the organization which could be like a warning light on a submarine or on a car that check your engine something's wrong. I think our platform team serves as those warning lights. They're able to raise a flag if some of the specialist areas that they're working on with certain functions are on track or off track, which in turn feeds data to the main investor, who's working on them with the founder. There are a lot of complex dynamics in organizations. And I think the approach that we have done has served us well to balance all of an organization's needs.
One of the main learnings at a place like Blume is investment, and non-investment are sort of two-sides-of-the-same-coin in the approach that we have taken for supporting founders and partners. And we believe really that if you do something, do it well. For us, “well” has meant really going in depth. There are some roles that work really well as a generalist, but everyone talks about what is adding value and venture capital. For us, adding value is adding specialty expertise, excellence and committed support. One investor cannot do that for 15 of her companies. They are backing up the main investor, but they're also unlocking hidden potential.
Our platform folks are non-investment team. We specifically try to look for people who they may not even be domain experts, but they may be incredibly passionate about a particular area and bring everything from that to the companies and just be really laser focused. For us, these roles have incredible potential to spin off into some orgs of their own, to become experts in the field. Again, the same concept applies. Attribution is hard. It is long term. In some places you may have smaller wins. What we've tried to engineer with our roles is that while the overall success of a company may be long term, there can be short term wins that you can capture. You don't want to drop those, whether it is debt financing, whether it is really quickly up-skilling your team and just very getting an expert to help you with a very, think of a surgical strike. Like a very particular problem you're dealing with right now, bringing in experts, bringing in mentors, master classes, whether it is helping you raise a bridge round or your next round of financing.
While the long-term picture is there, there are short-term fires also. I think our platform team does a great job of putting those out while helping build long-term strategy. So it's also a great mix of short-term and long-term orientation as well.
Non-investment roles will increasingly even out, I think, at a lot of VC firms, the more people understand what are all of the complex requirements of founders, especially in today's day and age. All organizations are becoming specialised, they're branching into multiple products, and you're not going to be able to have one person addressing all of a portfolio company's needs.
It’s like a surgical theater, where everyone is playing such a critical part for the patient. Like, it's not just the doctor, the anesthetist is equally important. The nurse, everyone is playing a part, right?
So, it is that sort of mindset that you need a team to succeed and whether it's investment, non-investment or corporate, I think that's the approach that we found works best with us.
Rohit: Great analogy. One thing I thought I'll ask you is about this value of thinking long-term. What does long-term mean for you? I shared my definition long-term with you, right? Initially kuch nahi hoga, then things zoom off. Do you have a thought or your personal view on what long-term journeys mean for you?
Ria: I think long-term correlates very strongly to the personal life journey that you're having. I think all of us, as people, have certain things we want to accomplish in life. Your first stage is exploration, validation, you're with your friends, you're going to college, you're getting that. Then the next stage is getting that professional validation you're becoming an expert at something.
I think, it's not applicable for all, but at a certain point, I'm talking for myself, once I feel like I've achieved a few of those things, then I can put my bags down and say, okay, now, let's build something. And I think I'm at that place where “let's build something” is a more overarching sentiment, which allows me to be okay with knowing that it is going to be a long-term journey than wanting to see things a little more faster. I'm also away from that comparative analysis that you would have maybe mid to late 20s also.
It's still there for all of us sometimes, but it's not as loud and as prominent as it was. You've found your own definitions of happiness, of success. And I think once you come to that place wherever it is for you personally, that's when you feel like, “I've done my stint, traveling around, I've experienced a lot of different things. And I found who I am and what makes me happy.” So I think it's a combination of a lot of things, like especially finding your own self-awareness that, “this is what I like to do. I'm okay saying no to this. I'm okay doing this”, which allows you to put a stake in the ground and say, “now I'm not looking at typical milestones, X years, X amount of money”, you want that sense of satisfaction of building something of your own.
I'm not a founder, you're not a founder, you're working in a role, which is supporting building an institution, but you feel like you are building a part of it over there without the risk, probably of starting the entire thing on your own. So, I've overwhelmingly seen at least for the people who choose venture capital, they are at that stage in their life where the desire to build something or contribute to building something much more meaningful, trumps or supersedes the desire to hit certain smaller milestones and that's what makes them okay with signing up for a long-term journey. Of course, there are a lot of other roles where you do jump in and you do come in earlier for shorter stints. There's intense learning and there are milestones and there are rewards probably earlier on in the career ladder, even in a VC firm, but increasingly people who we look to be with us for the long term, I've felt have reached that stage where they understand what they're signing up for, which makes even hiring conversations different – it doesn't feel like I have to convince you to join us. It's like they've already made up their mind to do something like this and they're trying to figure out what that looks like.
Rohit: My last question on this is. People who would want to get into a People and Culture role in a VC firm - what should they think about to make this shift? Given your journey, how would you advise them to prepare and be ready for this role?
Ria: So, I put down four points this morning, thinking about this question. it is a great question.
Number one, every VC firm that I've met has very unique roles. The platform role that we have here doesn't exist in the same way somewhere else. So, one point is work in roles where you get to understand a lot of different profiles. That doesn't mean a hiring role. Even if you're in a founder's office, like I said, at Sula, I worked and there were 13 departments. So, I understood very clearly what does a legal function do? What does a CS do? What does a winemaker do? What does a sales tax guy do? To be able to separate, these are the deliverables and these are the skills needed for this. So that you're able to apply that over here, like a Capital Networks role, fundraising for portfolio companies, the role doesn't exist out of VC. So, how do I hire into VC for it? I have to really be able to just strip it to the bare down. These are the deliverables. These are the skills needed. Where will someone with these skills come from? So, understanding different kinds of business functions will allow you to understand what sort of people really fit well into that.
Because bringing talent is a critical part of this sort of a role in VC. And it allows you to evaluate beyond the pedigree wrapper. You can have a degree, but can you actually do the work? How do you suss that out?
The second is to build networks. Like I mentioned, we fully expect that our great talent will come from our own networks. I also probably started it a little late, but I think you can find your sweet spot, that doesn't mean networking in the typical fashion. You can build your networks in your own way, but you should come with some networks or understanding that you have to build some networks.
Tied to that is to be very comfortable with communication in all forms and extend that into being comfortable with brand building. Because if you're doing this sort of a role, you're going to have to build that employer brand. You're going to have to, therefore, capture the stories of what it's like to work here. You're going to have to create those stories and you're going to have to disseminate them. Some partners and some venture capitalists may be very comfortable doing it. Some firms are not, but if you're playing this role, building the fund, you have to sell the fund. The same way the fund is sold to LPs to invest in them. You're selling the fund to a potential employees to come and work for you. So, you have to be, not a sales and marketing mindset, but communication. You have to talk about the why – you have to be comfortable with that.
Then, I think the last bit is just keeping that sort of “always a student” hat on, a lot of unlearning will happen. You can come from a lot of different fields, you're still never going to be ready for venture capital. You're going to have to learn about the fund, about the portfolio, about the roles and you're going to have to teach. So, you're the student and the teacher. But I think keeping that student hat on is easy when sort of new circumstances come up and you're quickly realigning to adjust to those.
Rohit: Yeah, all of these sound great. Awesome! I think we've covered all these serious questions. Now time for a bunch of fun questions. And I've replaced one, which will be a curveball, because you've already answered the culture one. Don't spend too much time. Any thoughts that come to your mind? So, any book you've read in the last one year?
Ria: I always reread one book every year, which is my all-time favorite. It's called Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides.
Rohit: And what is it about?
Ria: It is very complicated to explain. It ties together Greek families who came to America in the 50s, it talks about one individual who was raised a girl, but he discovers that he was intersex and then moves to living as a man, but it's all in the context of 40s, 50s Greece and moving to America. So, the whole immigrant journey. For some reason, that book has been a favorite so I reread it once a year.
Rohit: Fantastic. If you had two extra hours every day, what would you do?
Ria: I desperately miss talking in Spanish. I was a Spanish major in college. So, I would love to speak to some of my old professors and dancing again, something that I miss that I haven't had a chance to do for a long time.
Rohit: Okay. Nice! Last question: Subko, Blue Tokai, Third Wave?
Ria: Very hard to choose. I love all coffees equally. I am not a coffee snob. Fun fact for you because we didn't talk about it, but after college for a year and a half, I worked on a coffee farm in the Dominican Republic. And I absolutely did everything from picking to harvesting. I did coffee tours. So, I appreciate every cup of coffee.
Rohit: Oh cool! But you have to pick one, no? Let's pick one.
Ria: Subko. Cold Brew, 16 hours. Yeah. Very specific.
Rohit: Fantastic. One non-negotiable quality for any person who is joining Blume. I'm sure there are many, but what is that one fundamental quality?
Ria: I think one which will have to come innate is extremely high ownership. I think it's hard to teach that. Extremely high ownership is the foundation of Blume and everyone doing whatever is needed. As someone grows at Blume, I think one quality that we look for is Blume above self. I think you do what is in the org's best interest with the faith that it will impact you as well. But I think the minute you try to insert “what am I getting out of it?” it's very hard to build a narrative around that. It's one of the toughest lessons that people have had to learn. But as the org grows, there will automatically be a place for you to grow. So, I think “Blume above self” is what we look for as someone grows in the org.
Rohit: Last rapid fire question. The new one is, given that you read rather than listen, you belong to a small sliver of the population who does that, what is your reading speed like?
Ria: I've never measured it, but I'm a very fast reader. I also, right now, because I read on my Kindle, I've been through, I think I'm reading a fantasy series and I started 10 days back, I'm five books in.
Rohit: Oh. Really?
Ria: Yeah. I'm a very fast reader.
Rohit: Reading goals for people, but yeah. Awesome. Great. Those were all the questions. Thank you so much.
Ria: Superb! Thanks for doing this.
- Rohit Kaul