WE Interviews – Nathalie Molina Niño

Nathalie Molina Niño
Founder & CEO
BRAVA Investments

As the founder and CEO of BRAVA Investments, Nathalie Molina Niño has big dreams; she aspires to build her new company into the Berkshire Hathaway of gender parity by targeting high-growth, scalable businesses that can make a catalytic economic impact on women. I recently sat down with Nathalie to talk about the inspiration behind BRAVA Investments and what it takes to get a new firm up and running. 

Embrace the long view

I began our conversation by asking Nathalie to provide a 10,000-foot view of BRAVA’s investment philosophy.

“BRAVA is, first and foremost, a holding company focused on making investments that yield market or better-than-market returns for its investors. The company embraces a thematic approach to long-view investing, meaning that we are stage agnostic. We focus on companies in the health care, education, and consumer spaces that can prove they’re making – apart from great returns for investors – significant economic impact on women at scale. BRAVA is more concerned with whether a company’s business model facilitates direct economic impact for as many women as possible rather than if the company is women-led or has women at the executive level or on the board.

“We know that those are just good business practices, so they’re included as practices that we would like to see with all companies, but fundamentally our approach comes from my personal preference. If someone were to present me with the choice of making one woman a successful entrepreneur or spending my time and energy on a company that affects the lives of billions of women, I’m always going to choose the second option.

“Right now, there’s a sense of urgency around both gender parity and economic impact, this idea that you might make one woman a billionaire, and then, hopefully, that will trickle down and impact other people, but the data is contradictory. It’s a slow pace to change, and I’m interested in accelerating the process.

Can you give me an example of a company that meets your criteria?

“The hypothetical example I use to explain why I’m not focused exclusively on women-led businesses is this: if some guy invents the cure for breast cancer tomorrow, why would I care if that’s a woman-led business or not? That’s a company that will potentially impact the lives of millions of women, and P.S., it’s going to make a lot of money.

“I can give you a real example, too. A former Kaiser Permanente obstetrician founded a company that developed a model and acquired a drug that may end up being the first ever birth control pill to go over-the-counter in the United States. It’s a little earlier staged than most of the companies we invest in, but that’s exactly why we’re stage agnostic – we want to be able to grab opportunities such as this that meet our thesis.” 

When did you realize that, for you, women were an important part of the equation as well?

I was in tech my whole life. I dropped out of graduate school because the Boulder, Colorado web development company I founded with two male partners blew up on me, which made it hard for me to finish my homework. 

It was in the early days of the commercial internet, and we made large-scale, database-driven, transactional websites for companies. We were all self-taught and there was no sense that this couldn’t be a woman’s space. I had no frame of reference, it was fun, and there was design embedded in it. I was an artist at heart who had studied engineering, so it was a nice confluence of those two things.

“I left school to pursue a career and eventually got involved in starting four more ventures, all focused on tech and globalization. I spent the first 15 years of my career in that world, first at the intersection of design in tech and later in globalization. My interest in women came after being in that industry for over a decade and ultimately realizing I was the only woman in the room for most of my career, and certainly the only Latina for miles. I was so busy building and growing businesses that I didn’t spend a lot of time being an activist. I mentored women and did all the things that you do when you want other women to succeed, but I wasn’t as much of an activist as I am now. And when I looked back, I realized that I didn’t leave the place any better than I found it, so my next move was to go and teach.

“I co-founded a center for women entrepreneurs at Barnard College’s Athena Center for Leadership Studies. I was at the point in my career where I wanted to pay it forward, but I found that most of the students who heard about my tech background wanted me to help them get into the field. I had a hard time with that because I had said ‘I’m done with tech; I’m going to turn over a new leaf.’ But here were these students, asking me to put them right back in the lion’s den. I realized, ‘I can’t be done, because if I am, then I’ve left the sector no better than I found it.’ I decided that if I was going to send these women into that world, then I had to do something to make it better. I’m almost an elder in that space now, so I can go back to my old colleagues and say, ‘This is where we were getting it wrong, and this is where we continue to get it wrong.’

“So that’s what I’ve done for the last several years. The focus was exclusively on women entrepreneurs, and I think it was much needed. After spending 15 years in a world where I don’t believe that we’ve made nearly as many strides as we should have, spending six years focused on that initiative felt like the right sort of salve.”

Find the sweet spot

Having gained a sense of Nathalie’s mission and background, I was curious to know the origins of her company. How did BRAVA come about, I asked.

“BRAVA happened because after dedicating six years to the Center for Women Entrepreneurs, it became clear to me that the largest issue holding women back was capital. There’s a lot of education and mentoring and various other things that women need and benefit from, but fundamentally, the largest issue keeping women from succeeding is access to capital.

“Having come to that conclusion while I was at Athena, I decided that, even though my background isn’t in finance, I was going into that world, because once you see the root of a problem, you can’t unsee it – there’s nothing else that you can think of doing.

“Then the challenge became how to help. Lacking a background in finance, how was I to go into the field and what role was I going to play? Should I join an existing fund that’s focused on supporting women? Should I create my own? Should I go into an institution and work my way up to some other kind of role? What’s the way in?

“I started to have conversations with a good friend of mine who had come to a similar conclusion with respect to overall impact. He was looking at everything – from water scarcity and renewables to pharma and agriculture – what he called the ‘pillars of human need.’ He said, ‘I have a similar problem regarding our relationship to capital, and I think that if we unlock the potential that capital has to make a real impact in the world, we can do something really substantial. His idea was to build an entity like Berkshire Hathaway, but with an impact lens.

“We talked about the challenges and limitations inherent to venture capital and all forms of short-term investing and concluded that if you’re really going to make an impact in these spaces, you’ve got to be in it for the long haul. That was the idea, and as we were talking about his model, he founded a company called i(x) with Howard Buffett and Todd Morley, one of the original founders of Guggenheim Partners.

“At the same time, I was thinking about BRAVA, wondering how to make it work, and realized that I really resonated with a lot of their ideas because of my experiences with venture capital and the tech world. I had witnessed the limitations and concerns there, so the long-term lens was a perfect fit for what I was thinking: focus on impact, but make sure that you’re not agreeing to take concessionary returns.

“I approached them and said, ‘You’re building a HoldCo (holding company) structure in the Berkshire Hathaway style, and you’ll be generalists who partner with specialists in different areas. I’m a domain expert and I also happen to have a great deal of experience in operating and growing high-potential companies. Let’s partner. You bring the finance chops, I’ll bring the operating chops, and we’ll build a platform that focuses on gender parity.’

“Their initial reaction was that gender parity is not a domain in the way that renewables or agriculture is. My response: ‘Yes, but there’s no reason why BRAVA can’t be like i(x). There’s no reason why BRAVA can’t be a holding company and have vertical emphasis in certain domains.’

“To determine the domains, I partnered with a woman who was a former head of corporate social responsibility at McKinsey, and we set out to do some research and identify some of the most high-growth industries. We compiled a list of future-looking, high-growth areas, and then said, ‘Which of these high-growth domains have a disproportionate number of women in the workforce or in the consumer base?’ And what we found was that women are overrepresented – either in the consumer base or in the workforce – in health care, consumer products, and education, and in the case of health care, it’s really both. We decided that we would build BRAVA as a HoldCo and focus on those three vertical areas.

“I knew as well that my community of experts and I added the most value at the intersection of health care and tech education – tech and innovative consumer products – so we concentrated on those three primary domains with the added knowledge that we would add the most value to companies that are at the intersection of industry and tech: health tech, education tech and consumer tech.” 

What stage is BRAVA at in terms of its growth, and what activities are occupying the bulk of your time now?

“When we launched last October, building my board was job one. I also wanted to make sure that we had domain experts from the different areas where we’re going to focus. I need people with great financial and regulatory chops, because we know that, in spaces like education and health care, we’re going to run into regulatory and legislative issues. We’ve been building out our community in terms of our board, our advisors, our mentors and our partners. I also want to make sure that we spend our time wisely while we have Howard Buffett, Warren Buffett’s grandson; Todd Morley, who co-founded Guggenheim; and Trevor Neilson, who is one of the early architects of the Gates Foundation, at the table. The four of us have never invested together, nor have we invested against this thesis, so there’s no portfolio that I can point to and say, ‘Look at this back testing.’

“My other priority is building partnerships so that our initial investments can be in collaboration with known entities that have great track records. For example, we’re talking to Salesforce Ventures about possibly co-investing on a deal with them.” 

Walk me through the mechanics of that — what would a partnership look like? 

“It could take a few different shapes. For example, if we partner with someone like Omidyar, we might share deal flow or our due diligence process with one another. Then we’ll either go in on deals together or BRAVA will follow on in a deal that they seeded, or we’ll go in at the same round on a deal that they’ve already researched.

“My hope is that we can develop a few strategic partnerships like that in the three domains – with entities that have great track records in health care, education, and consumer – so that we can build our track record and hopefully add value, because we do have a very, very specific thematic focus, and we’re looking at measures that others might not be spending as much time on.

“For example, we’re building a matrix of seven to ten measures that we’ll use to determine whether a company is doing well by women — providing economic benefits that are real, sustainable, and core to their business model. Rather than just counting heads on boards or in the C-suite – which may or may not mean that these companies are good for women – our metrics will provide a sense of confidence in the market that the companies BRAVA invests in and endorses are companies that truly are measurably, quantifiably good for women.” 

Take a macro-level approach

Having gained a sense of BRAVA’s backstory, mission and first steps, I was curious to hear Nathalie’s thoughts about her young company’s development. Do you feel like you’re making progress? 

It’s been a ride since October, although the press has been kind. In the beginning, we were lumped in with all the other funds focusing on women entrepreneurs that have been created over the last many years. It’s been difficult to differentiate our company because I never want to say that there’s anything wrong with those funds; in fact, I would say that we’re taking a macro-level approach to creating pipeline for them.

“I’ll give you an example of what that means. I was recently on a panel with Jesse Draper founding partner of Halogen Ventures, talking about our respective platforms and theses. Her thesis is that she invests in early-stage, women-led businesses, largely in tech. We were having a conversation about what we were seeing in the market and the fact that more black women are starting companies than anyone else in this country, with Latinas not far behind. When we got to Q&A, a wise woman in the front row raised her hand and said, ‘Okay, Jesse, you said that you’ve invested in over 60 companies, and Nathalie was just talking about how black women are starting companies more than anyone else in this country – how many of your 60-plus companies are led by black women?’ And it occurred to me that that’s fundamentally why BRAVA exists, because Jesse’s answer at that moment, though it might have changed since then, was zero.

“We forget that, although there are more black women starting businesses than anyone else in this country, most of these enterprises are home-based, family-owned businesses. We discount the fact that there’s a long stretch – I call it the valley of death – between running these micro-enterprises and being ready to stand in front of a Jesse Draper and say, ‘I’m ready for you to invest in my Series A.’

“That’s why BRAVA exists. Black and Latina women get stuck in that in-between stage where they don’t have personal capital to deploy in their first companies. They didn’t go to the fancy schools, and they don’t have the networks to create client and marketing relationships. What I want BRAVA to do is invest in companies that are putting more money into the wallets of women at the base of the pyramid, so that they can have a little bit of a nest egg and the spare time to cook up an idea that turns into a product or a business.

“BRAVA is focused on impacting as many women as possible, with the goal of creating a whole ecosystem of women outside of that week-to-week survival mode who will eventually populate that pipeline that people like Jesse meet. It’s not going to happen magically and it goes back to that choice between making one woman a billionaire right now or economically affecting the lives of a million women.

“It’s those million women who need the most help right now, and I think we forget that. We focus too much on the symbols. We focus on putting a Marissa Mayer at the helm of a big company and think that problems will magically resolve themselves because one woman gets to the top. It’s important to put women in the C suite, but it’s unfair to think that they’re going to magically solve all the problems for everyone, especially every single woman in that company. We get hung up on symbols and forget that the majority of women can’t pay the rent with symbols. They can’t feed their children with symbols. The only thing that helps them do that is cash, so my goal is to get the whole gender parity conversation away from tokenism and symbols and down to brass tacks – we’ve been too focused on things that don’t really move the dial.”

Any other exciting developments at BRAVA? 

“Yes! We’re developing an amazing ecosystem of advisors including Kerry Kennedy and Eason Jordan, formerly CNN’s chief news executive and now the director of special projects for the Malala Fund. These are strong business people who also have a track record of putting their money where their mouth is. Kat Cole, group president of FOCUS Brands, is another one of our advisors. She’s a huge advocate for gender parity, and she’s also at the helm of a multi-billion-dollar company that’s had massive global expansion.

“In other words, we’re starting to build an ecosystem of great people who are really invested in the success of both BRAVA and the companies that we’re talking to, which I think is important because companies like the birth control company are going to require a village to succeed.

“That birth control pill is not going to go to market with some standard TV commercial – that’s going to be a movement. That’s going to be more like the Women’s March than it is to Viagra. It’s going to be word of mouth, it’s going to be passion, it’s going to be people who have health insurance and don’t need to buy over-the-counter who are buying the drug on principle because it’s the right thing to do.

“Those sorts of companies are the ones that excite me. They’re the ones that could be very successful economically, but they require an ecosystem. Consequently, a big part of my focus right now is bringing in people like Kerry, Eason, Kat and Wendy Jaycox Davidson, the president of U.S. Specialty Channels for the Kellogg Company. Kellogg’s is known for putting its money where its mouth is, for example by linking people’s bonuses to the diversity in their workforce. Practices like that are quite meaningful and they’re moving the dial, so having thought leaders who are already seeking this type of change in their day jobs lend their brains and their network to BRAVA and the BRAVA network of companies is critical, because if all BRAVA is doing is deploying capital, the company is not doing its job.”

“It’s exciting. I’m now in a luxurious and fortunate place where my personal values and my company are so deeply intertwined that every person I talk to is someone whom I would honestly be spending time with, whether or not there were any business transaction happening. I look forward to every single meeting, and people can tell. They know that I’m not just doing this because it makes economic sense; I’m doing it because I’m all in.”

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