How I Became A VC: Canvas Ventures’ Grace Isford

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Grace Isford started working with the Canvas Investment team in 2016. Before Canvas, Isford worked in growth equity at Stripes Group, early as a product manager at Handshake, a digital recruitment platform for college students, and at the Stanford Management Company, helping manage over $24B in assets.

Isford pursued both a Bachelors and Master’s of Science in Management Science and Engineering from Stanford. On the Farm, Isford was actively involved with Stanford Women in Business, serving as President, as well as the Mayfield Fellowship Program, participating both as a fellow and as teaching assistant, and worked with Rough Draft Ventures. Isford is originally from Connecticut, although she has lived in Tokyo and aspires to re-learn the Japanese language. She’s an avid runner and cyclist.

Canvas’ Ventures Grace Isford.

Frederick Daso: When did you first gain interest in being a VC?

Grace Isford: I didn’t know what venture capital was until my freshman year at Stanford University. In my first quarter at Stanford, I took an entrepreneurship seminar that featured prominent CEOs and venture capitalists, and I became intrigued in the entire entrepreneurship ecosystem. During my freshman spring, I participated in many entrepreneurship and venture treks, including one hosted by Canvas Ventures’ co-founder and general partner, Rebecca Lynn.

I thought venture was appealing because of the opportunity to learn from new entrepreneurs and diverse industries regularly. The particular panel Canvas held was also about how to empower female venture partners and entrepreneurs. That has always been a passion of mine. It was one of the reasons I was excited to join Rebecca and the Canvas team.

Daso: What were the essential experiences that helped you be in the position you are today?

Isford: When advising younger college students, I often get asked what internships to apply for to optimize their careers. My response is almost always the same — diversify your experiences to “taste test” what job might be the most challenging, exciting, and enjoyable to pursue after college. Looking back on my experiences, I tried different combinations of industry, location, and job title to ultimately get a sense of what most excited me.

For instance, when I worked at the Stanford Management Company, I enjoyed getting to know our investment managers. I became most interested in our private equity and venture managers.

At Handshake, I loved working on an exciting, live product with a great team but wanted to understand where Handshake stood in a broader tech ecosystem.

From Stripes, I realized I enjoyed early-stage investing more than growth investing. It was because of the more direct relationship I could develop with entrepreneurs and the opportunity to work with them more closely to build their businesses.

During the Mayfield Fellowship Program, a work-study entrepreneurship program where I had a unique opportunity to learn about how to be a productive member of a high-growth, early-stage startup with excellent mentors across venture and tech. I gained a more in-depth perspective of the different players within the entrepreneurial ecosystem, from company co-founders and product leaders to angel investors.

Daso: Who were the critical individuals or groups that contributed to your professional success, and why?

Isford: Professors Tom Byers and Tina Seelig, who taught the Mayfield Fellowship Program at Stanford, were and continue to be great mentors to me. I also had the opportunity to serve as Tom’s research assistant for his PEAK initiative to brainstorm ways to prioritize applied ethics in entrepreneurship education. Also, I got to attend a Stanford engineering trip to South Africa to learn more about the budding entrepreneurial ecosystem with Tina over the course of my time on the farm.

I’m grateful to them for all they’ve taught, especially about being an ethical, humble, and collaborative member of any company I join. I’m also thankful for exposure to many types of thoughtful entrepreneurs and venture capitalists! I also credit mentors at each of the jobs I’ve had and peer mentors at Stanford.

Finally, I would not be where I am today without the mentorship of my excellent team at Canvas. I continue to be grateful for the chance they took on me as a young Stanford student with no venture experience. I continue to learn from partners Rebecca Lynn, Paul Hsiao, Gary Little, and Mike Ghaffary every day.

Daso: How did you land your current job?

Isford: My path to venture was a bit unique, as I started working with Canvas back in 2016 as a Stanford liaison, connecting the firm with awesome Stanford companies and students. My transition to join the firm full-time after completing my masters was a bit different than most given the relationships I had already established.

Nevertheless, for interviews, I’d recommend having a point of view or investment theses on a few areas of interest for a given firm. One should also present companies within that area, which could be a compelling investment opportunity. I would also recommend gathering some investing or operating experience, even if brief, to demonstrate your vested interest in discovering and working with remarkable entrepreneurs.

Daso: Were there any particular clubs at school that were useful resources for breaking into your current field?

Stanford Women in Business (SWIB) played a key role in my professional development while at Stanford. I credit it for helping me land many of the jobs I’ve had. At Stanford, there is no “business” major, so I credit SWIB for polishing my professional chops (LinkedIn, resume, email etiquette, etc.). SWIB tuned my understanding of different fields, from consulting to tech and venture.

Most importantly, the mentorship I received, especially from older members in SWIB, was invaluable. I feel so lucky to have a community that prepared me for interviews and provided advice for any internship or job I had coming up. The group also passed along job opportunities or postings that could interest me.

And although a bit later in my Stanford career, getting involved in Rough Draft Ventures was an excellent way to identify and invest in early-stage entrepreneurs at Stanford and Berkeley, and get to know a more extensive network of ambitious college students interested in venture across the country.

Daso: What do you think stops most people from becoming a VC? What could they do to improve their chances better?

Isford: I find VC to be relationship and network-driven, and as a result, relationships can put specific candidates at an unfair advantage to score a VC job. In my case, I wonder, had I not gone to Stanford or gotten to know the Canvas team as a liaison, how I would have become a VC! To those interested in pursuing a career in VC, I would recommend trying to establish relationships with VCs and entrepreneurs as early as possible — such as through student investing groups like Rough Draft Ventures or Dorm Room Fund. Getting involved with awesome early-stage startups is another way to deepen relationships with great founders and venture firms as well.

Daso: Looking back, would you change anything about your professional path?

Isford: I have no regrets! In hindsight, it’s easy to understand how each experience I’ve had professionally led to the next, and how each was a stepping stone to where I am today. Also, I wouldn’t say I like the idea of planning my life out very far in advance. I like trusting that the best is yet to come as long as I continue to challenge myself and learn from the people I work with every day.

I am a big believer in a famous quote from Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford commencement address (would recommend watching the whole thing if you haven’t already): “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”

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If you enjoyed this article, feel free to check out my other work on LinkedIn and my personal website, Follow me on Twitter @fredsoda, on Medium @fredsoda, and on Instagram @fred_soda.

Forbes Under 30 Contributor, 2016 LinkedIn Top Voice, Venture Fellow at Rough Draft Ventures

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