Caroline Hofmann, COO of Republic, on Being a Working Mom in Tech and Why We Need More Female VCs
July 06, 2018 | Filed in: Your Career
Caroline Hofmann is the COO of Republic, an investing platform that aims “to democratize investing and level out the fundraising landscape.” Practically speaking, this means making it easier for everyday people to invest in startups (rather than just fabulously wealthy VCs), and for innovative thinkers with great ideas who don’t always fit into the typical Silicon Valley mold to get funding. Below, she sat down to talk with us about making the leap from consulting to startups, why diversity in investing is so important, and how she developed her professional style in the uber-casual tech world.
What made you want to leave consulting for a startup?
I started my career in consulting with McKinsey, and I eventually realized that I’m just not someone who gets satisfaction from being an advisor to people. I wanted to build something. I felt like I was checking a lot of boxes in terms of having an accomplished career, but I found that the people I looked up to and found inspiring were the people who were making things, not the people who were advising them.
Having my first child was also a very clarifying moment. It really made me think about how I was spending my time. Was I doing something that I would feel proud to tell someone else about? Was it something that made enough of a difference to the world and to me personally for the trade-off of not being at home, and working long hours, to be worth it?
When I left consulting, I knew I wanted to go to a startup, but that was it. I spoke to literally everyone who was willing to meet with me, and that’s how I figured out that I wanted to be in the really early stages of building a startup, rather than joining a 500-person or even 150-person company. I think a lot of people thought it was totally crazy to leave behind a really safe job on a great trajectory to start from scratch, but I felt it was urgent for me to do something that felt more personally meaningful.
Tell us about what sets Republic apart from other VC firms.
The premise for starting Republic was that over 90 percent of startups that get funded have founders that are white and male. That’s not so surprising, because the people who make the decisions to fund these startups are venture capitalists who often happen to be white and male, too. Everyone invests in people and ideas that they can identify with. I think that’s very natural. What we saw was an opportunity to shift this paradigm: If we provide a platform where anyone can invest, from immediate friends and family to early customers, the types of ideas that get funded will be different. If 97 percent or 100 percent of the population can decide what types of startups will grow and get funded versus a really narrow part of the population, we believe the ideas that will emerge could change the economic fabric of the country.
What’s your view on getting more women to back startups?
As someone who feels strongly about equality and financial independence, it’s a priority for me to see how we can get more women to invest on our platform. Women-founded startups do get more female investors, but it’s still an uneven split between women and men, and that needs to change. It doesn’t take tens of thousands of dollars to be an active investor. I would never say that people should invest all of their savings with Republic—it’s a high-risk asset class, but it’s one that was previously only available to really wealthy people. We want successful women to be able to back founders that they are inspired by, and not just leave that to men.
What do you think it will take to get more women into the tech and VC worlds?
So many of our female and minority founders talk about pitching something to a male VC that he can’t identify with. That experience is why we need more female venture capitalists, in order to spot these ideas. You don’t have to be always be the target consumer to spot a good investment opportunity, but it makes it easier.
That said, it’s not always easy to attract women to tech. I think the most important role that I can play in attracting and retaining women at Republic is to create a work environment that is diverse and accepting of lots of different people, where everyone feels welcome. As a working mother, I also want to make sure that women feel that it’s totally possible to have a family and work in tech. One way to do that is by creating a work environment that does not force everyone to adhere to one schedule, where you work from 11 A.M. late into the night. That’s the kind of cultural issue that can make women and working mothers feel less welcome or less comfortable working in tech, and I think being mindful of those factors is a big part of getting more women into the field.
How has your approach to professional style evolved as you went from consulting to startups?
I was the first woman to be hired permanently on the team at Republic, and the guys I was working with were literally wearing shorts and T-shirts. It was very much the stereotypical tech startup. McKinsey would always say to dress “plus one”—a little bit more formal than your clients. But I think that’s changing slowly as professional services get a bit more casual.
My first paid internship was in consulting in Germany, and before I started, I reached out to my mentor for the summer to ask what I should wear. She said, “Dark pantsuits and white shirts.” That was it. I worked on a project in Madrid, which was really warm for most of the summer, but the dress code was still dark suits only. I looked like a man with long hair and heels. It was absolutely not creative—I remember people telling me, “Well, there are other firms where you can wear colored shoes.” I once saw someone at work wearing a pair of red pumps, and it was a hot topic of conversation. My approach to dressing for work now is that I want to make a good first impression as someone who is polished and thoughtful about how she dresses, but I never want to attract unnecessary attention with what I’m wearing.
When I joined Republic, I saw it as an opportunity to experiment with lots of different styles. If I felt like wearing a more formal dress, I could do it, or combine more formal pieces with casual items. My go-to professional casual look is a blazer and dark jeans. Every morning when I get up, I look at my calendar and see who I’m going to be meeting with that day. That determines if it will be a more formal day, or a more casual day.
In the tech and fundraising world, there aren’t many female style icons. There’s Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs and these other very casually dressed men who have shaped the image of what people working in tech look like. When you look at some of the women in tech, like Sheryl Sandberg or Marissa Mayer, they tend to be dressed more formally. I think it can be hard for women to dress casually in this field.
You’re a mother of two young children. What has your experience been like balancing startup life with parenting?
Being a working mom involves a lot of coordination and organization. It’s definitely exhausting, because you have a lot of different stress factors coming at you. I think the beauty of being in the early phases of building a company is that I’m largely the one who is setting goals and dictating my schedule. There’s much more flexibility in tech startups than in a lot of larger companies. The days aren’t shorter, but there is this micro-flexibility that is really helpful to me as a working parent. One of my children was sick earlier this year, and it was not a problem at all for me to go to the doctor and then go into the office. It was a bit stressful because the work still needed to happen, but I was able to arrange my own schedule to accommodate everything.
I think that flexibility is an underrated benefit of working in tech. For instance, we have a business operations manager who is the mom of a nine-month-old. She works two days from home, and then three days in the office, and it works great for us (I don’t have time to check in with her every day, anyway). And it also works for her. I think that’s the type of culture that we want to create—one that works for everyone.