Allie Burns leads Village Capital, the Washington, D.C. early-stage accelerator and investor seeking to change the power dynamics of venture capital. Allie spoke with us about her work to support entrepreneurs, how she got hooked on impact investing, and how her marketing and communications background helps her challenge the status quo.
You were named CEO of Village Capital earlier this year. Can you talk about your role and where the company is headed?
It was a true honor to be named CEO and step into the impossible-to-fill shoes of our co-founder, Ross Baird. Later this year, Village Capital will mark 10 years of pushing the boundaries in entrepreneur support. We’ve been doing that by re-thinking how investment decisions are made (and flipping the power dynamic on its head), by introducing a “common language” for entrepreneurs and investors, and supporting and investing in entrepreneurs solving some of the world’s hardest problems. I’m proud to be a part of an organization that isn’t afraid to question the status quo when it comes to how we find and fund new ideas.
As we look to the next 10 years, we’re excited to scale our support to tens of thousands of entrepreneurs, leveraging the best practices, tools and relationships we’ve built with hundreds of entrepreneur support organizations globally. We’re also excited to work more closely with capital providers looking for more impactful ways to invest and help catalyze billions of dollars in investment to early-stage entrepreneurs.
How has your experience in senior communications and marketing roles (Case Foundation, Revolution, and others) shaped the perspective and approach you bring to Village Capital?
Working with Jean and Steve Case was transformative for my career—they are visionaries who have long believed in the opportunity to invest in entrepreneurs currently overlooked by most early-stage investors. Through our work together, I got a front-row seat to some of the most dramatic conversation shifts around how we support new ideas—from field-building and advocacy for impact investing to the creation of Startup America and Rise of the Rest to support entrepreneurs in historically overlooked geographies in the US.
A strong understanding of communications and marketing is valuable when you’re questioning and shifting the status quo. You need an effective communication platform and the ability to attract the attention of the media and other influencers to drive the public conversation that is needed before any behavior change can happen.
What drew you to the world of entrepreneurship, venture capital and impact investing—what are the challenges, what are the rewards?
The truth is, one might have thought I’d steer clear of entrepreneurship as my father started a business when I was younger which ultimately failed and wasn’t the best experience for our family. I began my career just as the dot-com bubble of the late 90s/early 2000s was about to burst and in spite of seeing a lot of failure (for both entrepreneurs and venture capitalists) I was captivated by the scrappy nature of the early-stage businesses I supported in my first job. I’ve also always believed business has a critical role to play in improving society. Once I was introduced to the idea of impact investing in 2009, I was hooked.
This space is certainly not for the faint of heart. Businesses fail at a far higher rate than they succeed, and you need a tough stomach to navigate the ups and downs—founders, who need this resilience more than anyone, have me in awe every day. There are still more skeptics than believers in the idea of impact investing, but it’s a fun challenge to work on shifting entrenched mindsets. In the end, the reward of seeing an entrepreneur succeed—the small and large milestones—far outweighs the challenges.
Technology-driven fields are still heavily male-dominated. Can you talk about Village Capital’s work to increase investment in start-ups led by women and people of color?
The numbers on early-stage investment capital going to female-founded/co-founded companies (less than 10%) and people of color (less than 1%) are abysmal. Since 2009, we’ve been focused on changing the power dynamic that leads to bias in the investment decision-making process. Our peer-review-based investment process has led to a far more diverse portfolio. In fact, 40% of our companies are founded/co-founded by women (compared to the industry average of 10%) and 20% of our US portfolio companies are founded by people of color (compared to the paltry industry average of less than 2%).
Village Capital’s accelerator program invests in innovators who address two major problem-solving areas: access to opportunity for all underserved communities and resource sustainability of the planet. How would you like to see cleantech and clean energy entrepreneurs and companies address these issues?
Last year, transportation became the single biggest source of carbon dioxide emissions in the world. More children get asthma from cars, trucks and planes than from power plants. We’re never going to stop moving or transporting people, food and other goods from place to place. In fact, thanks to a growing global middle class, we’re moving more than ever. That said, we can get smarter about it and we need to keep innovating to find better solutions.
At Village Capital, we’re really interested in tech-enabled solutions that fix or improve systems rather than “disrupt” them. In the past, we’ve invested in clean energy innovations like solar panels and hydro generators, but for our latest cleantech accelerator, we focused more on the systems-change aspect. We also put out a report, Moving Electrons, that explored some of the industries and areas that excite us most. One example is aviation, where start-ups are chasing niche innovations like lighter aircraft parts for lower-emission airplanes.