FinTech Female Fridays: Meet Sarah Willson, Associate at Panache Ventures
Sarah Willson is an Associate at Panache Ventures, and has an unconventional path to venture capital. With an educational background in Neuroscience, Psychology and Entrepreneurship, Sarah started her own company Hive Sitters to connect families to last minute trusted child care in Toronto, and grew the platform to 45 child care providers and 150 families while automating 90% of daily management of the business. At Creative Destruction Lab, Sarah led the thesis development around ethical AI focused on data privacy algorithmic bias and model explainability, and met Prashant Matta to apply for the opportunity to expand his investment team in Toronto at Panache Ventures.
The culture at Panache is collaborative and also highly autonomous, and Sarah spends time connecting with inspiring Canadian founders at the earliest stages of building truly transformational companies. Panache's mission is to identify and support early stage entrepreneurs, building truly transformational companies, with potential to become venture scale ($100M+ ARR). Sarah's mission is to identify ambitious Founders early and support them in their journey of creating world changing companies, with a specific lens on addressing challenges such as gender inequity and bias in the Venture Capital and startup ecosystem, including identifying new opportunities in climate tech, data privacy and AI. Around 15% of Panache's portfolio is in Fintech, including Flinks, which was acquired by National Bank for $100M in 2021.
Sarah is super excited about the intersection of fintech and climate. As the urgency to address the climate crisis intensifies, she has seen an explosion of fintech solutions helping to accelerate the transition to a more sustainable economy in areas such as: green lending and investment platforms, carbon offset marketplaces, renewable energy financing, sustainable wealth management solutions, etc.
A piece of advice she would like to share is “Answer first, explain second”. Sometimes when in a position of vulnerability - i.e., being new to a career, raising capital for the first time, being a woman in a male dominated industry - women have a tendency to want to explain an answer to a question, before providing the answer itself to soften the blow of what they preemptively assume is an inadequate response. "Answering first, with confidence and conviction, and then providing any rationale as requested, exudes confidence and strength", says Sarah.
More on Sarah
Where you currently live: King West in Toronto
Family at home: My boyfriend, Scott! And we occasionally steal his parents’ puppy, Louie.
Hometown: Toronto, CA
Favorite hobby: Photography
Favorite show to binge: Right now, Succession
What's the best job decision you ever made?
Joining the investment team at Panache 2.5 years ago! I was lucky to join the firm at a time when we were just starting to fundraise for our current $100M fund. Because of the specific time at which I joined, I have had exposure to every aspect of fund life very early in my VC career, from raising money from LPs, to actively deploying capital out of a new fund, to seeing portfolio companies through exits. Not to mention the major market turbulence I’ve been exposed to over the last 2.5 years which started as a founder’s market where we were seeing ideas on a napkin raising at $50M+ post money valuations, to the current economy where valuations have come down and capital is undoubtedly much harder to come by. I feel like I’ve lived 10 years in 2.5!
Can you tell us about a time someone encouraged you to try a task or take on a project you didn’t think that you would know how to do/or be good at?
In my first week at Panache, I was encouraged to lead the diligence on a prop-tech company we were just introduced to. Not having a background in prop-tech, I instantly started googling most terms mentioned in their pitch deck, reaching out to friends who knew the space, and diving deep into the sector online. After completing diligence, writing the memo, and the deal ultimately getting passed by the team, I not only gained more confidence in the sector, but I felt that the experience laid the foundation for how quickly I was able to get up to speed on a novel concept and sector - which 2.5 years into my job at a generalist VC firm, I still find myself doing almost every day.
What is the most important lesson you have learned from a mistake you’ve made in the past?
A few years ago I had zero work-life balance and lived at my desk. I didn’t work out or eat properly, had minimal to no social life, and my environment was in a constant state of chaos. I was constantly multitasking and one night, while working late probably on my 6th coffee that day, ended up making a (in hindsight, relatively minor) mistake that felt catastrophic at the time. Although in the moment I blamed myself entirely, I knew the lack of sleep couldn’t have helped. That mistake taught me that you can’t be great at what you do if you’re running on empty or if you’re trying to do everything at once. I heard a quote recently that said something along the lines of “I no longer ask myself if I have worked hard enough to deserve rest, but now ask if I have taken care of myself well enough to show up and do my best, most impactful work” which I think best captures this lesson.
Do you have any productivity hacks? What keeps you motivated? How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I do meditation/cold plunge classes at this awesome studio called Othership. I find it keeps me grounded through the practice of repeatedly bringing myself back to the present moment and recognizing I am in control of the space between stimuli + response, both in these classes, as well as in my work life when I experience day to day stressors.
6:00 am: honestly, sleeping
6:30 am: checking emails + Instagram doom scrolling
7:00 am: Barre express class
7:50 am: Tim Hortons double double
8:15 am: emails + planning my day’s priorities (I plan my to do’s in HubSpot, our company CRM, so my core tasks are directly tied to any deal’s I’m actively working on and I can prioritize accordingly)
9:00 am-late: founder meetings. It’s not uncommon for me to have several founder pitch or diligence meetings a day. We are a generalist early stage firm, so in any one day I could speak to a privacy startup, a CPG consumer brand, a B2B SaaS solution for banks, and a dating app. Never a dull moment!
Noon: I shamefully eat the same salad almost every day (shoutout Beach Bowl from Fresh). Sometimes I pick this up while simultaneously picking up a dog walking shift on Rover to mitigate the guilt of a daily $20 salad.
1:00 pm: internal investment committee meeting to discuss, debate, and vote on current live deals.
3:00 pm: quarterly catch up call with another Associate
4:00 pm: more pitch meetings
6:30 pm: often, especially in the summer, my evenings are filled with networking events, pitch nights, etc. Special shoutout to DISC (diversity and inclusion small council) which is a group I am a part of that runs in person and virtual open pitch hours for any underrepresented founders to connect with investors and get feedback on their pitch + connect with other founders. We run these every other Thursday evening in person (in Toronto) and virtually.