Five Lessons from the Inaugural Venture Vanguard Class

Created in observance of NVCA’s 50th anniversary, the prestigious new Venture Vanguard Award honors exceptional individuals who have made or are currently making significant contributions to create opportunities for entrepreneurs to build companies that change the world and turbocharge America’s growth and success. 

It is through their combined impact that our 2023 Venture Vanguard recipients, presented by platinum sponsors EY Private and Dentons Venture Technology Group, leave an indelible mark on the industry, demonstrating the transformative potential of individuals united by common values including: 

1. Unlocking Innovation Across the Country 

“There really are so many great entrepreneurs off the coast…  and it is so important that all of them get support…. it’s not just entrepreneurs that are in the portfolio companies, but it’s entrepreneurs that want to start venture funds.” – Jan Garfinkle 

  • Venture Beyond the Coasts: Raised in the Bay Area, Jan Garfinkle relocated to Michigan with her husband and reflected on founding Arboretum Ventures after applying to work at the two existing venture funds in the state without success. Today, as she closes on her sixth fund, Jan is one of the few women over the course of her career to raise a billion dollars – with 75% of the Arboretum portfolio invested in under ventured geographies and 16 million lives impacted. Her resilience in starting her own firm motivated the crowd to embrace their own unique paths and possibilities. 
  • Startup Communities: Boulder-based Brad Feld also carried on this message by sharing invaluable insights with the room and calling for the global democratization of entrepreneurship, highlighting the importance of building startup communities and companies in any city with at least a hundred thousand people, an imperative made famous in his 2012 book.

2. Fostering Relationships and Partnerships

“Who is the crew [the inaugural Venture Vanguard Class]? Great group… We convene and compete for investments and then lock arms to help companies succeed… We don’t always agree on the game plan and the path to excellence, but when we are at our best, we make one another better.” – Mary Meeker 

  • Recognizing Individual Contributions: Queen of the Net, Mary Meeker captivated the audience with her heartfelt recognition of the unique qualities and contributions of her fellow honorees. In a significant moment, she spoke about meeting the late Don Valentine in the early 1990s at a golf tournament hosted by former Morgan Stanley, semiconductor analyst, co-founder of seven Rosen Venture capital firm, then chairman of Compact Computer, the great Ben Rosen – and gifting Don with a driver that she won in the competition. Her emphasis on finding people who have one another’s back underscored the significance of valuing and nurturing relationships. 
  • Working Together: Jan also spoke about the power of collaboration in achieving success and the value of partnership, sharing that she first connected with partner Tim Petersen 20+ years ago after placing an ad in Venture Wire. 

3. Embracing Change and Taking Risks

I spent a lot of soccer games looking over wondering who… was next to dad [the late Don Valentine]. And he said, that’s somebody coming to tell me the future of the world and how it’s going to change in your lifetime.” – Hilary Valentine 

  • Pitching the Future: Hilary Valentine, daughter of the late Don Valentine (known as the “Father of Silicon Valley”), accepted the award on her dad’s behalf and shared heartfelt anecdotes from the perspective of her younger self. The audience erupted into laughter when Hilary confirmed that she had Mary’s driver and upon hearing Hillary’s recollection of her dad talking to her kindergarten class about his job “pooling pension fund money and university endowments.” Young Hilary asked him why he, “couldn’t be something cool like maybe a fireman or a super spy?”. But over time, she learned that her dad was a superhero changing the world as young founders (including a “larger than life, young, sort of disheveled guy named Steve [of Apple]”) pitched their version of the future to him– resulting in life-changing products and innovations. 
  • Championing Women Early:  Eighty-eight-year-old Alan Patricof, who started out in the “deal business” before there was a VC industry, beamed with pride as he reflected on his early commitment to champion women in the industry such as former NVCA Board Chair Cloherty, which highlighted the importance of supporting underrepresented founders and fostering an inclusive ecosystem. 

4. Living a Balanced Life

The notion of what [VCs and entrepreneurs] do is very hard. Failure is a challenging thing to process. There is no straight path to anything… and someone you know is struggling… Treating each other like humans and really caring even in really difficult situations can be really powerful.” – Brad Feld 

  • Destigmatizing Mental Health: While sharing his own mental health struggles, Brad emphasized treating one another with respect and investing in human connection. Through his openness, he has demonstrated the power of the VC community and is helping to eliminate the stigma associated with mental fitness for hundreds of founders and investors. 
  • Enjoying the Journey: Hilary spoke from the heart, communicating that her father built his legacy by living life to the fullest (including a stint on Broadway), laughing a lot, focusing on family, and understanding the importance of personal fulfillment alongside professional success. 

5. Continued Growth and Learning

“If any of you are concerned about how long you’ll last in VC, I’m living proof you have a long career ahead of you… I’m concerned with many people in our business who spend all night in spreadsheets and don’t take the time to smell the roses.” – Alan Patricof 

  • Getting Involved: As the oldest person to finish the NY marathon ths year (and a 2022 Burning Man attendee), Alan joked that his significant other thought he was going to be one of the evening’s Rising Star honorees before diving into an inspiring message on embracing longevity, living a multifaceted life, and looking back on a long and fulfilling career in venture capital. He closed with a powerful directive and invited the audience to seek things out that interest them such as philanthropy, politics, art, and more.  
  • Technological Innovation Cycles: Mary reminded the VC community to look toward the future and prioritize job creation education in an ever-changing technology landscape, driven by advances in artificial intelligence, computation, and competition. She emphasized the significance of supporting both optimistic and pessimistic investors to foster innovation because those who make and “imagine the world the way they want…. are always the ones we should be celebrating.” 

Acknowledgments and Impact of the Venture Vanguard Award 

We extend a heartfelt thanks to EY Private and Dentons Venture Technology Group for recognizing the power of the Venture Vanguard Award through their support of the debut class.  

“It was an honor to be in the company of these leaders in our industry,” said Jeff Grabow, U.S. Venture Capital Leader, EY.  “The Venture Vanguard honorees shape the future through their funding of the innovation economy and inspire us towards a brighter future, full of trailblazing ideas, products and entrepreneurs.”  

“This extraordinary gathering [the NVCA Leadership Gala] reminds all of us that innovation and generosity of spirit is the essence of the American psyche,” said Victor H. Boyajian, Global Chair, Venture Technology and Emerging Growth Companies at Dentons Venture Technology Group. “From our global perch it is exciting to see this uniquely American phenomenon worldwide from San Francisco Bay Area, New York, Austin and Ann Arbor to London, Berlin, Singapore, LatAm and beyond.” 

Thank you to Brad, Jan, Alan, Mary, and Don for pushing the boundaries of philanthropy, and industry leadership, setting a powerful example for future generations. 

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Robin serves as the Communications Manager at the National Venture Capital Association, where she enhances day-to-day external and internal relations for NVCA while utilizing her expertise in content creation, storytelling, and data to elevate NVCA’s long-term communications strategy. As a conscientious leader, Robin is integral to the forward-looking investments NVCA makes in the greater venture capital and startup communities.