Cecily, Motley co-founder, meets Carmen Alfonso Rico, who leads the the UK investments of Samaipata VC, a pan-European pre-Series A fund investing in marketplaces and platforms. Passionate about empowering early-stage entrepreneurs, she is a mentor at Techstars and Huckletree and co-chairs LMS (the largest community of marketplace founders in the UK). Firm believer that diversity leads to better business decisions, she is also a founding member of the Fairer Funding Now campaign and a mentor at Backstage Capital Accelerator.
CM: Do you think anything differs between men and women in your industry?
Carmen: Many might disagree with this but I think women and men are different in many ways. Equal, but different. And here’s why diversity is so important. Because different means more views, broader perspectives, richer decisions. The issue or question is not so much whether we are different then but whether we are actually equal. And here it’s where it gets more complicated. So, I’m assuming your question refers to whether anything differs in how men and women are treated in my industry.
Data speaks by itself on the lack of women in senior positions, the wage gap, the funding gap. So, yes, I guess that unfortunately there’s a lot that differs between men and women but I don’t think it’s something VC-specific but a more general issue across industries.
A small but very good day-to-day example is the difference in how certain actions are perceived depending on whether they are carried out by a woman or by a man. It’s like there’s a double bar to measure and qualify the same behaviour, as if there were set roles for men and women we are expected to comply with. Like for example, men are sometimes considered “soft” if they show emotions or women are easily classified as aggressive for saying “no”, pushing back or standing their ground. Or, on the other hand, women might even be referred to as “lovely” when they are thoughtful and quiet. The latter always makes me laugh, please nobody ever refer to me as “lovely” or I’ll get very “aggressive” J.
But, seriously now, here’s the challenge. Because this is a structural problem, an unconscious bias towards set roles that are deeply rooted in our culture. And we both men and women need to unlearn what we were taught, get rid of those bias and make sure the new generations are free of them.
CM: Do you think there are different expectations as to how you have to dress in your industry, between men and women?
If there are, I don’t know them. I must say though, I’ve heard about inappropriate comments and unacceptable behaviour on this front but I’ve never directly experienced any of that nonsense
I think that clothes, jewellery, shoes, perfume…they are a powerful way to express ourselves, who we are, our personality. Requirements vary across industries, of course, and both men and women should be held to profesional standards of dressing. But within those limits, women should dress whatever way they want. I do not think women should have to dress like men to succeed.
Parity is not about women becoming men, behaving and dressing like them, it’s about women being women and still be treated as equals to men. I believe equality doesn’t mean uniformity, and assuming it does would be a big waste: there’s huge value in diversity. This might not be politically correct to say but I feel very strongly about it: our brains, but also our feminity, is an essential part of who we are. And we shouldn’t have to hide it, dressing like men, speaking like men…Because if we have to cover-up who we really are, then we won’t ever be equal.
CM: What was your worst day at work ever?
Carmen: I am a VC, we are optimistic by nature. So, I always think things will get better. Maybe that’s why I don’t exactly remember a specific very bad day, I do know though that my worse times at work have always been when I felt I had stopped learning and there wasn’t a prospect for continuing growing. I have been a VC for a few years now and I have known for a while that this is what I want to do for many more years to come. And I’m lucky to work with people who are much smarter and much knowledgeable than I am, so I keep learning every day. But to get here, it’s not been an easy ride, not at all. Jobs are not instagram perfect, most people just won’t say it.
CM: How do you express yourself at work? Do you feel that you can express yourself at work and if you do, how do you do it?
Carmen: Definitely, I do. I have to actually. Because venture capital is a lot about people and building relationships, you need to be genuine. Professional, but genuine. When we invest in a company we are going to work with the team for the next five years at least – through very high highs and very low lows – so better if we are all ourselves from the beginning or it will be tough to manage.
As an investor you provide not only strategic but also emotional support and we get very close to the founders, so you need to find the right balance and stay professional. But besides that I am pretty much myself at all times.
In fact, I am very Spanish and I never try to hide it, rather the opposite, including my accent! It’s a big part of who I am, like being a woman, and I own it. I’m lucky to have a job that does not only allow me to be myself but that encourages it, because now that I think about it I am pretty sure I’d not be great at trying not to be myself.
CM: What does work-life balance mean to you?
Carmen: This is a tricky one and many people won’t agree with me, as their circumstances might be different to mine. I actually don’t like that phrase at all. I think that saying work-life balance makes it seem like work and life are opposite things, and to me they aren’t. Work is such a big part of my life, that I don’t conceive my life without it.
I am fortunate enough to have a job that I actually enjoy, every day. And I am lucky to have friends and family who I love and who love me. So, my aim is to build a life in which both my work and my loved ones can co-exist; and I can continue building a career while always being there for those I care about. Easier said than done, I know. But the truth is that to be happy I need both – my family and friends, but also my job…
On her left hand Carmen wears three rings from the Motley x Alessandro Petrolati Monopoly Rings collection, in red, blue, and green. On her right hand she wears the Motley x Alessandro Petrolati Fleet Street Ring (index finger), and Motley x Alice Cicolini Utopia Ring.
CM: If you could do one thing to change your industry what would it be?
Carmen: I think that there is a lot we could do! Let’s start by a controversial one. I think we need to get better at risk taking. I think that VCs are not natural risk-takers, which is a paradox given we manage money to invest in tech companies that are disrupting old industries and creating new ones.
There’s a great quote by John Doerr that says, “if you can’t invent the future, the next best thing is to fund it”. That’s our job: funding the future. And that’s an incredible place to be, but it comes with big responsibility. If we can help drive progress, then we need to be more bold as forces of change. And also more mindful of the companies we fund, their mission and the impact they are going to have in the world.
It’s good to see that power has shifted to entrepreneurs and that we VCs now compete to find and fund them. But venture capital still has a long way to go in terms of transparency, on disclosing our ways of working with and investing in companies. And on showing the realities and vulnerabilities of the industry. This is especially important in an industry that is seen as “hot” and “cool” but that – as any other – is far from perfect.
And last, but definitely not least, we need more diversity in decision-making positions – having more people on the table who see different things and in a different way leads to better decisions and ultimately better investments.
You asked about one thing and I gave you three, sorry!
CM: What do you do to give yourself confidence in your working day?
Carmen: I really like my job, it allows me to be myself and I have a super supportive team so confidence is not usually an issue. But if you mean that moment right before a huge meeting…I do two things: 1. I look myself in the mirror and smile – it’s amaizing the power of a smile to set you on the right physical and emotional attitude; 2. I say to myself “get in there and have fun” – it’s the best piece of advice I got before my first job interview years ago and I still remind myself of it every time I need to be at the top of my game.
CM: Do you have a power outfit?
Carmen: Many! A red dress, high heels and sneakers, my bomber jacket, all my rings,…I have many power outfits because one thing I’ve realized through the years is that the most powerful outfit is to feel yourself, comfortable and confident in your own self. So, I like to wear clothes and accessories that are very “me”. And sometimes, but not always, they even mean something – stand for some key moment or person in my life. For example, when my mum went through heart surgery successfully, I went and spent an insane amount of money on a leather jacket. I wear it a lot for key meetings, to me it stands for strength and celebrating life, which is what I always think of when I think of my mum. I also love to wear jewellery that I have either bought for myself in specific circumstances or that I have been given as a meaningful gift. Like my parents wedding band or the heart on my neck, a gift I made to myself on my last birthday to remind me of the strength of my own heart after a tough year.
CM: What are you most intimidated by?
Carmen: It is an interesting question. I am quite complex but fear is not one of my main issues. Honestly the thing that scares me the most is that something bad happens to someone I love. From a professional perspective, I have the most respect for entrepreneurs and for our LPs – we have a big responsibility towards the founders we back and ultimately a duty to return the money (in multiples!) to our investors, and we shouldn’t forget that. But I wouldn’t say I feel intimidated, but rather that there are things and responsibilities I have respect for.
CM: What are you most proud of?
Carmen: Ha…! I guess the thing I am most proud of is the life I have built for myself in London. I am incredibly lucky to have lots of friends who I care about and that care a lot about me as well! And a job I enjoy doing every day. And I love London – to the point that not even the weather bothers me!
I think that leaving Spain and building a new life completely from scratch, both professionally and personally, in a city like London, far away from my natural comfort zone…that’s the best and most rewarding decision I have ever made.