“I definitely didn’t think, I want to be a venture capitalist,” says Alison Rapaport, CFA and vice president of Serena Ventures. A few short years ago, she was on track to forge a storied path in big business, the world of stocks, bonds, currencies and commodities. She graduated from the Wharton School of Business magna cum laude. After spending her young adult life in finance, at J.P. Morgan, she hit the books once again, this time at Harvard Business School. But in grad school, she started learning about the smaller side of the business landscape, and she was hooked. "Early stage was really exciting to me," she remembers.
She met Serena Williams — tennis superstar, fashion maven, devoted mother, and it turns out, powerhouse investor — through Chris Lyons of the Cultural Leadership Fund. His fund, part of Andreesen Horowitz, connects cultural leaders (think of the likes of Shonda Rhimes, Quincy Jones, and Sean “Diddy” Combs) to technology companies and by extension, helps more young African Americans enter the tech world.
At the time, Rapaport was looking to work with talent-based investors. “He introduced me to a couple of different people creating their own funds and taking it very seriously,” she recalls. She and Williams hit it off like a house afire. “Serena is a bit of a winner, in case you didn’t know,” she jokes.
But Rapaport isn’t just any venture capitalist, and Serena Ventures isn’t just any venture firm. Because investments are all made with Williams’ own money, the company has flexibility to be truly mission-oriented. “Our goal is to make the everyday lives of everyday people better,” she explains. How? By helping lift up companies that solve problems that disproportionately affect people of color, for one. Those businesses, not surprisingly, are overwhelmingly run by diverse leadership teams.
It’s a newer take on VC funding, with a young team. “I think that I've always kind of been the youngest person in the room at my job,” Rapaport admits. “I’m used to being surrounded by lots of older men, which is often the case in venture settings.” But she says she’s never really thought about the rarity of being a woman or being younger. She’s built up a supportive cast of mentors that help her feel less alone when she needs it.
“Venture is first and foremost about being a people person and connector,” she says. “As long as you can find common ground, you can continue the conversation.” Being a sports fan with a powerful love of business stands her in good stead in nearly any room, she says. But she adds that it’s great to be dealing with women in the venture community as their presence grows.
Those include Bumble founder and CEO Whitney Wolfe Herd, with whom Williams has partnered on the Bumble Fund. “We share similar visions when it comes to supporting women,” says Rapaport. Alice took part in the fund’s pitch competition earlier this year, helping to vet more than 9,000 applicants. Williams and Herd went through the top 20 contestants, and were ultimately so impressed that they picked two winners, Nude Barre and Virtue Health (now called Clio and live in the App Store).
What makes a worthwhile investment? “We want to find founders who are personally connected to an issue and uniquely positioned to solve it,” Rapaport says. She and Williams are likely to pass on a founder who spent “six months in a room trying to come up with a business” in favor of someone who’s seeking to solve a problem with which they actually struggled.
Some of Rapaport’s favorite investments include Retail Zipline, a software company that helps retailers with task management and communication. “The number one job Americans have is working in retail,” she reasons of the power of the SaaS product. Another, Mahmee, helps maternal health outcomes by focusing on women just after they’ve given birth, from lactation advice to surveys that test for postpartum depression.
But we’re most excited about Serena Ventures’ latest investment: Alice. Williams met founders Elizabeth Gore and Carolyn Rodz at the Bumble Bizz First Movers Summit and was immediately drawn to them, Rapaport says. But it wasn’t just a great personality match. “Hearing about this small business marketplace that could actually empower people to get the resources they need was an ‘aha’ moment for us,” she remembers. AI was also a hole in their portfolio that she and Williams were looking to fill. “For us, it was kind of a perfect storm,” she says.
And we at Alice couldn’t be more excited to work with Rapaport, Williams, and Serena Ventures.