This is part of our HERStory campaign, featuring women who are changing the world with their innovative work in STEM fields. In interviews conducted by Technovation Girls alumni and student ambassadors, we’re sharing stories and advice from women in STEM.
Recently Technovation alumni Sakshi sat down with Deena Shakir, a partner at Lux Capital (and a Technovation Board Member). They talked about finding a career that fits your skills and interests, as well as how to pitch a social enterprise. Sakshi is a Technovation alum from India and Student Ambassador who mentored other girls as they worked through the program, and recently started her own venture, Farm Theory. Deena is a partner at Lux, an early-stage venture capital firm with about 2.5 billion dollars under management. She explains that Lux likes to “Invest in innovators that we say are ‘turning science fiction into fact.’ ”
After introducing herself and her work, Sakshi wanted to know more about Deena – especially how Deena found herself in a venture capital career. That question sparked a conversation about career paths, curiosity, and how following a passion can take you some surprising places – and how valuable it is to trust yourself, believe in your ability to learn new things, and chase the things that fuel you.
Watch the full conversation below or read on for some of our favorite moments.
On getting started in venture capital
Venture Capital wasn’t always in Deena’s career path – after college she was planning to do a PhD in anthropology! This interest was driven by Deena’s background, as well as her drive to do work that made a significant social impact. Deena explained that she was interested in “building bridges and … changing the narrative around Middle East and U.S. relations. My family comes from Iraq, and [I came] of age as an Arab and Muslim American post-9/11. So I was really committed, and I thought academia and anthropology would be the best path to do that work.”
After getting her undergraduate degree, Deena pursued a Master’s degree in Arab Studies at Georgetown University. While there, she kept an eye out for side hustles that would help pay for school and also help guide her career. In her first year at Georgetown, Deena worked at the Aspen Institute on nonprofit and social innovation projects, as well as in journalism, where she delivered news in Arabic and English. That journalism opportunity eventually brought Deena to the BBC for a summer internship. “I was helping cover the White House, [and that summer] President Obama gave a really pivotal speech, which became known as the Cairo speech or the “New Beginnings” speech, about new beginnings of the Muslim world. The part that really struck me was around technology and education and entrepreneurship as a way of building bridges.”
“After covering that speech, I realized I didn’t want to be writing about these moments in history, I wanted to be a part of them…so I abandoned my nascent career in journalism, [and] joined the Obama administration—specifically to work on the policy that came out of that speech.”
“There was something else that happened at that time, sort of outside of my personal world, and that was the Arab Spring. I witnessed technology catalyze a grassroots movement in a way that I didn’t think was possible just a few years before.” Once again Deena followed her shifting interests and transitioned to a new position. “I was already starting to spend time on the ground in Silicon Valley and be just refreshed by the notion of building products and what that could do to the social fabric that we’re living in.”
On joining the tech industry
Deena joined Google’s social impact team which was developing tech products that would have a social impact. By this point, Deena knew she wanted to work on the product side of things, and jumped in.
“I spent a few years working on building out civic technology tools, and then the next five years working on early-stage product across Google. It was super fun – our team worked on everything from Waymo, when it was just a stealth project within Google, to Loon, to Verily when it was still within GoogleX, Fiverr, and a number of other early-stage products.”
During that time, Deena found her way to healthcare products, which involved working with external partners. “I started to realize through doing all of that, how much innovation was actually happening outside of Big Tech. And, how much more impactful some of these really early-stage companies with very little funding and resources were than some of these massively well-resourced products and projects. That was another moment for me where I realized, as much as I loved and learned so much from my experience at Google, I really wanted to go to the earlier stage.”
So Deena started examining her options, asking herself what she thought would be the best fit. “I explored a number of avenues: potentially joining an early stage company, toyed around with starting one, and eventually landed on venture, so ended up at GV (the artist formerly known as Google Ventures), and had a wonderful experience there for a couple of years, and then, here I am at Lux Capital.”
How to craft a great pitch
Sakshi was also curious to know if Deena had any advice on pitching a social enterprise – “[whether it’s] to the audience, to investors, or onboarding your team members, how do you craft that pitch?”
Deena pointed out that the general advice about crafting a strong pitch applies pretty universally for all pitches, “for a social enterprise, it’s going to really depend on who the pitch is motivated towards” – this means that it’s your responsibility to make sure you’re “really doing your homework on the investor” because you’re going to be focusing on different metrics of success and return on investment depending on the investor you’re pitching to, be it a foundation, an impact investor, an endowment, or a fund.
On role models and guides
Deena considers herself “very lucky. My parents were the ones who did the hard work of emigrating and starting a new life here in Silicon Valley when they left Iraq. So I was born into what I think was really a position of privilege and that was something that really guided a lot of my motivation.”
“That knowledge of my luck and how serendipitous that was really motivated me to have a passion for having an impact. In terms of who’s been there for me all along, certainly when I was younger, my parents were my rocks. My siblings have been great, and in the last almost nine years, since I’ve been married, there’s nobody who has enabled me to do what I do more than my husband, who’s my partner and best friend and makes all of this possible, especially given we have two kids who are still pretty little. ”
On mentoring, and being mentored
“I’m very proud of being a supporter and on the board of Technovation. I’ve also been involved in a number of nonprofits over the years, including one called TechWadi, a leading nonprofit helping build bridges between the U.S. and the Middle East and Arab world in particular, via entrepreneurship.”
“I’m on the board of an organization called AMIDEAST, which is one of the leading educational nonprofits in the region. I’m also a term member at the Council on Foriegn Relations, and very much still plugged into the policy world from that perspective.
On top of all of that, Deena finds time to pursue something that means a great deal to her – one-on-one, personal mentoring. “That’s one way that at least personally, I feel I’m giving back because I can tell you, I’ve been involved in some of the largest, most global efforts around impact, literally at the executive level, in the Obama administration, but sometimes the most impactful work that I’ve done, has just been via a one-on-one relationship, and helping an individual in a way that I wish I had been helped, or in some cases how I have been [helped] throughout the years.”
Thank you so much to Deena and Sakshi for sharing their time and conversation with us and reminding us to be brave and pursue our interests, even when they change, and trust in our own abilities to learn new things and dream up big solutions. You can make HERstory too – join Technovation Girls as a student or support girls around the world as a mentor, or help us support more girls and families this year.