Season 02, Episode 04

S.02 / E.04

Beth Kolko Design Professor at UW, Co-Founder at Shift Labs, and Venture Partner at Pack VC

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Beth is a humanities-turned-engineering academic turned entrepreneur turned venture capitalist who has worked at the forefront of multiple technology-driven cultural shifts. She is really good at pattern recognition, and her superpower is probably the ability to understand complex problem spaces and know what potential users really want despite what they say they need – and contextualize that within larger infrastructure and societal constraints. She was on the front lines of the early days of the Internet, and has published 3 books and 30+ of articles on text-based virtual worlds, early messaging platforms and social networks, digital games, and technology for international development.

She worked on some of the earliest digital health tools for emerging markets as a professor at UW, and started medical device company Shift Labs to build affordable medical devices for global markets; 1000s of their devices have been deployed to combat epidemics around the world. She’s a Senior Venture Partner at Pioneer Fund and a VP at Pack Ventures, where she’s working to ensure venture contributes to equity on both the financial and the social fronts.

 
I want to help build better technologies that would advance the plot of humanity and bring us forward.
Beth Kolko : Design Professor, Co-Founder, Venture Partner / University of Washington, Shift Labs, Pack VC

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Transcript

Wilma Lam,

Host:

Hi everyone, and welcome back to Optimistic Design, a podcast where we take a practical positive look at the future of design, ethical innovation, and technology. I'm your host, Wilma Lam, Design Strategy Director at Substantial.

Today, I'm excited to be joined by Beth Kolko, Professor of Human-Centered Design and Engineering at the University of Washington, Senior Venture Partner at Pioneer fund, Venture Partner PacVentures, and founder of the medical device company Shift Labs, which builds affordable medical devices for global markets.

She has shifted from the humanities to engineering to entrepreneurship and venture capital. Throughout Beth's career, she's been at the forefront of multiple tech-driven cultural shifts and has published three books and 30+ articles on technological innovation.

Beth, welcome to Optimistic Design. We're so excited to have you joining us.

Beth Kolko:

Wilma, thank you so much for this opportunity. I am a huge fan of Substantial and the work that you do both internally and helping students at the University of Washington. It's really an honor to be part of your podcast.

Wilma Lam,

Host:

Yeah, I really appreciated that. We're so looking forward to getting to talk to you a little bit about all the different kinds of work that you've done. As mentioned earlier, you've had a couple of key shifts in your career. Can you talk about how you got into human-centered design?


Beth Kolko:

I can try. In retrospect, I'd say that I was doing human-centered design well before I had a name for it. And so, a long time ago, back when I was a graduate student, that's when I started studying the internet. And that was before the internet had pictures. So, in the late 80s and 90s. I was in graduate school for literature.

And so, I was studying tech and designing software, and I got very interested in technology as something that connects people to one another, thinking about sort of code as connective tissue. And that ended up being my lens for how I see all technology, whether it's a website or wearable piece of health tech or something, you know, a smart home.

Questions like how does this technology artifact see me? Who does it think that I am? What is it saying to me? Those are all ultimately designed questions and human-centered design.

From there, I had a lot of different kinds of research threads, looking at tech space-based virtual worlds and the challenges different people had trying to enter the tech world, sort of in-group and out-group, issues that are a real challenge for diversity.

I think ultimately, probably the most salient experience for me that really brought me to human-centered design as an approach was looking at issues of exclusion. So, issues of gender, race, and technology usage patterns. This was in the 90s and early 2000s. That's what made me really want to focus on design. So, how do we design technology to really create more on-ramps for people to participate?


Wilma Lam,

Host:

Yeah, thank you for sharing that. I mean, it's definitely something we thought a lot about at our work at Substantial, like, how do you build more equity into considerations around design. I'm curious, based on what you've shared, were there any formative kind of experiences or individuals that have shaped this approach to design and technology that you just shared?


Beth Kolko:

Oh, my gosh, so many. I would say in 1999 or 2000, I edited a book called Race in Cyberspace. What we did was we brought together a bunch of scholars who looked at different components of technology, artifacts, design, and issues of race.

And so, interacting with that kind of broad spectrum of really interesting scholars who are grappling with these questions before we really, we had a field or vocabulary to talk about, that was really instrumental. It took us 20 years to kind of bring that conversation to the center of design. So, I've loved watching the evolution.

The other thing that happened was, so many years ago, the Gates Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, worked with IDEO to develop a human-centered design toolkit for global development. This was a toolkit used by NGOs. And at the time, I was doing a lot of work in low and middle-income countries. I stumbled across this toolkit.

I started using it in my class. I mean, that was really the first time that I encountered this phrase, human-centered design, and it just made everything make sense. All the work that we've been doing in the department was like, "Oh, this is the collection, I guess, of our methodologies and our theories. Bringing it together."

And so, thinking about that toolkit and then extending it in my classroom practice was really instrumental to how I came to see myself as a human-centered designer. And then, a couple of years later, we were changing the name of our department at the University of Washington. I was the chair of that committee.

I really do see kind of a direct lineage from my working with that toolkit, seeing how it played out in the classroom, how the approaches resonated with our students and then moving that into the conversations about as a department, who are we. The human-centered design really resonated and became kind of the umbrella underneath which we could gather all of these disparate approaches and perspectives.


Wilma Lam,

Host:

Well, I think one of the things that are so interesting about your background is you have this academic background, where you're teaching students, and you're thinking about what is the meaning of human-centered design. But you also have this background where you've thought about what does it mean to actually implement human-centered design and how to apply it in different markets for different kinds of users?

So in 2012, you founded Shift Labs and developed the drip assist infusion rate monitor, which brings easier, more efficient IV infusion to patients around the world. Can you talk more about the mission of Shift Labs, why you started it, and how you started it?


Beth Kolko:

Absolutely. So, if you look at my bio, it's, shall we say, fragmented. I worked in various fields. But there's a very strong connective thread through all of the work that I've done. And that's all around impact. So, when I moved from English to engineering, it was because I had been doing this work. I mentioned the book Race in Cyberspace. I've been doing a lot of work on the sort of critiques of how technology was designed and the ways in which it was exclusionary.

I thought to myself, "Well, I could spend the rest of my career writing about what's wrong with technology, or I could help build better stuff." And engineers build things. That's when I moved from English to engineering because I wanted to help build better technologies that would—I use the phrase technologies that would advance the plot of humanity and bring us forward. I watched a lot of Star Trek.


Wilma Lam,

Host:

That was a great phrase.

Beth Kolko:

The move from being an academic to starting Shift Labs was really on the heels of working on a variety of academic research projects in low and middle-income countries increasingly focused on healthcare and digital health projects. I was working in conjunction with colleagues in computer science and the School of Medicine at the U DUB.

We built wonderful tools. I worked on an ultrasound project. I mean, we just had so many good projects coming out of that pretty expansive team. And what I saw was this gap. It was almost impossible to commercialize these tools. That frustrated me. I saw the frustration with my students as well. Like, "We built this thing. We've interacted with users enough to know that they want to have it in their hands." But what we saw were that conventional models around conventional business models and conventional approaches to intellectual property were really hampering the ability for these innovative solutions to make it into the hands of where would make a difference in their lives.

And so, that's why I started Shift Labs because I believe everyone deserves good health care. The only way that I could, in good conscience, really, continue to work on these kinds of problems was to do it in a way that was focused on impact. We really were going to say, "Okay, let's get these things out of the lab. And let's get them to the patient's bedside."

And at Shift Labs, our motto is "Simple save lives." We think that simple solutions that are affordable can make substantive differences in how people around the world receive health care every day. That's why I started Shift Labs.

"We think that simple solutions that are affordable can make substantive differences in how people around the world receive health care every day."


Wilma Lam,

Host:

Yeah, no, that's great. I've had a chance to look at some of the work that Shift Labs has done, and it does have a profound impact. One of the things I'm also wondering is, so there's like the academic sphere of the original research you did that prompted Shift Labs and working with students. But there's also the actual execution of like starting a company, running a company, making products, prototyping it.

Do you think human-centered design shaped your approach as a founder as you were actually starting up Shift Labs from that kind of business side of what it means to stand up and run a company?


Beth Kolko:

I think there's no question that human-centered design informed pretty much everything we did as well as how we did it. I joke that I got an MBA along the way. There was so much to learn. But I mean, I can look back, and I can see several inflection points for the company, where a human-centered design lens changed how we chose to proceed. That's why I'm excited about, say, more designers becoming founders.

If I had to break it down into two main areas where human-centered design really impacted how we built the company, the first is around the product, and that's the sort of more expected answer, right? That's the more conventional answer.

And then the second is around business models. There are elements of our product design where we did some unexpected things. That was because of human-centered design. And then there were elements of our business model, which was trying to get at that notion of impact, how you scale in low and middle-income countries, and human-centered design sort of was our true north of how to make good decisions.

When I think about the product that we built, so, you mentioned it's a more efficient IV infusion. So basically, patients around the world get all kinds of medications intravenously. In the US, we have pretty advanced technology in hospitals that helps to govern the rate at which those medications are delivered. Medications can have adverse effects if they're given too quickly. And if they're given too slowly, you can lose out on their full therapeutic effects. So, we wanted to make sure everybody could get their medication optimally.

So, because we were thinking designers were civil, let's go back to the first principles house. What's the simplest way you could solve this problem? And that focus on simplicity, recognizing that, where this is going to be deployed, the sort of training that you can give users, the desire for robustness, user serviceability, like inside the device, we chose to route the wires on the circuit board in a particular way, so that it would be user-serviceable, so you wouldn't need to send it back to get a fixed rate. So like, small, but impactful decisions like that, the kind of battery that we chose to use. And then so these are all sort of around the product design.

And then obviously to the UI, we spent a lot of time on a very simple UI. But on the business side, we made several decisions using that human-centered design lens, but the one that's probably simplest to explain is the idea of disposables. So, a lot of medical devices are built in such a way that if you're the user, you purchase it. But then they are disposables that you have to keep purchasing.

And so, it's the razor-razor blade model, right? But for a lot of these devices, they don't actually need the disposable. It's just a way to keep that recurring revenue going. And so we actually built a device that you wouldn't need a disposable. You could pair it in markets where that model would work. You could do that. But in markets where that model wouldn't work, you could just use the device, and you wouldn't have to have that constant outlay of cash.

That was a really hard decision to make. It was very counterintuitive. I certainly credit human-centered design with bringing us in that direction.


Wilma Lam,

Host:

Yeah. I mean, that's something that I so agree with. I'm so excited that you brought it up. I mean, when I first started in human-centered design, it was also very much this viewpoint of like, it's about the product, and it's about service.

I think today there's really this great evolving conversation that a human-centered business can also be a thing. It can also be a practice that comes out of a lot of this discipline, and it's sort of bridging into, "Okay. Well, how do you make organizational decisions and financial decisions in a human-centered way?

I really love that you share that. And I think it also bridges well with the next set of questions I want to ask you, which are around your experience in venture capital. So, you've had this founding experience as an entrepreneur. You started this company, but you're also a venture capitalist with both the Pioneer Fund and PacVentures.

I'd love to hear a little bit about that journey of going from like founding a company to getting into the venture capital space.


Beth Kolko:

Human-centered design, people think that it is only about the product, and yet there is, as you mentioned, there is this so interesting trend in business schools to be talking about human-centered design.

The move to venture is like you have one foot in this world of, "Okay, I'm building a company. We want to try to make the world more equitable." What kinds of changes to conventional practices are we going to have? And then you're in the world of venture, and you're like, "I have to make sure we make money for our investors."

It's actually very similar when building a startup. The dollars in my personal experience, in the world of venture, there are more dollars at stake. And even so, I like to say that human-centered design, yes, yes about the product, but that it is something founders can think about.

Honestly, human-centered design is great for negotiation. Right? I think this is one of the reasons it's moving into business schools. If you build empathy with the people that you're negotiating with, you can know what motivates them, and it helps you make better deals, right.

"Human-centered design is great for negotiation. If you build empathy with the people that you're negotiating with, you can know what motivates them, and it helps you make better deals."

The move for me from Shift Labs to working in a venture, again, is very similar to that move from English to engineering. It's all about impact. Doing venture, working in the venture world is the most impactful thing that I can think of doing with my time. When you allocate capital, it's fuel for those ideas. And if you allocate capital to the ideas that can change the world for the better, you are helping to advance that plot.

I'm not sure that I knew that that was going to be the case. When I started working in venture, it was with Pioneer Fund. And to be completely honest, I'm pretty sure that I was invited because I was a woman. They were like, "Oh, we need more diversity." And I'm like, "Okay, I'll join. I'll be your token." I'm perfectly happy to take the spot as a token because I knew it was something I wanted to learn more about. The deeper I get into it, the more impactful I see the work, and that's what excites me.


Wilma Lam,

Host:

Yeah. So, I'm curious. You were the first one when you joined Pioneer Fund.


Beth Kolko:

Oh, no, no, no. I was not the first one.


Wilma Lam,

Host:

So, you're asked to join Pioneer Fund. With PacVentures, you're part of the founding team. Is that right?


Beth Kolko:

That's correct.


Wilma Lam,

Host:

Yeah. So, could you talk a little bit about also like that journey? So it's like, okay, you had the experience of joining Pioneer Fund, getting involved in the venture capital space. But you're also now a venture capitalist with PacVentures. So, can you talk about what inspired joining PacVentures as well?


Beth Kolko:

I love the work that I do with Pioneer Fund. I love the community there. At Pioneer fund, all of the venture partners and senior venture partners, we all took our companies through the same incubator called Y Combinator. And so, we have that community time.

And my affection for the YC community is why I joined that. The YC Community was very accepting of me. When I attended, I was an older female founder. I was very nervous by going down to Silicon Valley. I found them to be incredibly welcoming, thoughtful, smart, and curious people.

Readers read more than most academics that I know, and I'm a sucker for people who like books. I still have an English Ph.D. And then, when I joined PAC, it was also out of a similar kind of affection for the community. So, I've been teaching at the University of Washington for over 20 years. I don't even know how many students I've taught. I started teaching entrepreneurship at the university a few years ago when I returned from building my startup.

One of the things that make you W so special is the number of first-gen students that we have. Students were the first in their families to go to college. One of the kinds of dirty little secrets about startup land that people don't talk about so often is that if you do not have networks, if your personal network is not replete with cash, it's very difficult to get started.

"One of the dirty little secrets of the startup land that people don't talk about so often is that if you do not have networks, if your personal network is not replete with cash, it's very difficult to get started."

So, when my Shift Labs co-founder and I were trying to raise capital, people were like, "Oh, well, you should raise your first half a million or million from friends and family." We just sort of looked at each other and like, "Well, all our friends and family don't have money." Like, that's absurd. There's no way that we could do that.

And for a lot of first-generation students, again, they're not going to be connected to those networks of capital. It's not quite like going through Harvard or Stanford. So, one of the ideas behind PacVentures is we are there for those founders when they have that association with the University of Washington and they want to start a company.

Our students are as smart alums. Smart as any other student in the world. And we want to have a mechanism to mentor them and fuel their ideas. And that's PacVentures. And that's why I joined.


Wilma Lam,

Host:

That's great. I think maybe expanding on this—when I was looking at PacVentures getting ready for this conversation, one thing I really noticed was that it says it's like, built from day one as a community-focused fund.

I think it's, it's such an interesting idea, this idea of supporting new founders in that way. I think, especially, as you mentioned, not all founders have the same kind of network, and how can we offer support as we're founding a company?

I'd love to hear a little bit more about how does this then shape your approach when you're working with founders with this kind of background? What does it mean, kind of on the ground day-to-day?


Beth Kolko:

I usually spend a lot of time talking to people before, maybe when they're working on a project before it's a company. Both Ken and I are really passionate about mentoring. Actually, all kinds of stages. I mean, I've talked to people. We talk to people before they're raising money. We help them think about what it might mean to raise money for what they're working on and how to put together a fundraising strategy. We talk about products. We talk about product-market fit.

I think it's really about making ourselves available to the community and demystifying the process. We want everyone to feel like they can walk through that door and talk to a venture capitalist. There's no secret language. There's no secret handshake. The door is open. Come talk to us. We are both really passionate also about diversifying who is building a company these days. And that really does mean making sure the door is wide open.


Wilma Lam,

Host:

Yeah. I mean, I think what you just talked about is a little bit of color on the role of advising and working with startup founders. I think in a similar way earlier. We talked about the impact of maybe having a human-centered design approach to being a founder. And now, I'm curious also like that background that you have in human-centered design, but also, you're kind of focusing on an equity-centered design. How does this shape then the kind of like venture capitalist that you are?


Beth Kolko:

Well, I am an opinionated one. I think most are. Because of my commitment to human-centered design, it is impossible for me to get excited about finding a company that I think will be a net attractor from a sort of human happiness, if you will.

I pay a lot of attention to the products that people are building, but I also pay attention not just to the primary users but also to those secondary or tertiary users and people who are going to be impacted by products. People within a community. I pay attention to the business model. I pay attention to environmental impact and sustainability issues. So, things that aren't always the sort of the first question that one might ask.

So, one of the things that I do when I teach entrepreneurship is I take a tool like the business model canvas. And if you're not familiar with the business model canvas, it's stripped-down. How do you build a business model? And there's a, I think, eight questions that you ask yourself. Who are your customers? What's sure? How can you make money? What are the resources you need, etc.?

I think we should have other things on that business model canvas. I think we should ask questions like, what's the environmental impact of this? Or who's going to experience secondary or tertiary impacts from this product? And so, those are the kinds of questions that I bring into my conversations with founders. And they do inform my decision-making about investment.


Wilma Lam,

Host:

No, that makes a lot of sense. I remember when I was a founder and was going to pitch for money, there's always this question of like, "Oh, our pitch deck ends with just like these slides that are all in numbers." It's like, how much revenue do we have? When are we going to break even?

I don't think it even occurred to us that you could pitch around this idea of like, well, what actual good is your company supposed to do? And also, how can that be measured? I think the company that I was working on—there was an idea of social impact, but that wasn't even the thing that we measured when we went to pitch. There was already a built-in assumption that when we go for a seed round funding, all anyone wants to hear is how are you going to drive revenue.

I think it's such an interesting concept that there can be a venture capitalist approach that also looks more at this kind of human-centered component. I think with that. I think in my mind, I'm thinking back to like, oh, when I was starting out, what do you think about when you're meeting with a founding team for the first time, especially at this kind of like pre-seed or seed stage? Like, what are you looking for them to say to you? I'm sure people have this question.


Beth Kolko:

Yeah. Well, I want to comment on what you just said first, though, about numbers and revenue. And obviously, you can't fund a company unless it's going to make revenue. But I think sometimes we set ourselves up to have—it's a false dichotomy.

It is about Optimistic Design. One of the things I'm really optimistic about is I think we have a C-change now where people are starting to think about these elements that are invisible given our current accounting strategies, if you will.

If you open up QuickBooks and there are certain categories for a P&L, well, imagine if those categories were changed or different. If I could wave a magic wand and change anything in life, it might be changing the categories that are on a P&L so that we really start calculating the costs of things that are costly to society and to a business but don't show up on those revenue slides.

The things that I look for when I talk to a founding team. So, the work that I do. I do primarily pre-seed and seed investing. So, very early stage. And for me there, then, the most important thing is the founders. It's founder strength and resiliency. Particularly thinking about human-centered design, as a founder, pretty much every day, there's pressure to make maybe decisions that are counter to this human-centered lens. And can you stay true to the vision there?

First-time founders, especially, I look back on myself as a first-time founder, and I was like, "Oh, my goodness." So much that you don't know. And that you don't know, you don't know. So that kind of resiliency, humility. Humility is really important to me as well because when you're talking to someone at the seed stage, it's usually before they have found a product-market fit. And is someone going to recognize when they've hit product-market fit? Or will they recognize when they've missed product-market fit?

And so, you have to really be open to uncomfortable truths. And that's what I look for when I talk to founders. Do they have that kind of open mind? That learning, dare I say, learning mindset and curiosity. Because things always go wrong? And how are you going to respond to that? Are you curious enough to sort of figure out how one might pivot?


Wilma Lam,

Host:

That's really insightful. I think that those were definitely the questions I had when I was first pitching for funding. But what actually do people want to learn about from me?


Beth Kolko:

This is just me, right? Other people are like, they want to know about, oh, golly. I mean, I've talked to people who care deeply about the market size and the market opportunity. Like that is the base that they're considering. What else have I seen? Oh, the background. Previous accomplishments of the founders. I think it really depends on who you're talking to. And that's why it makes sense to do a little research about who you want to pitch to.


Wilma Lam,

Host:

I think it's more about like diversity, and diversity in the venture space has really opened up. I think it used to be there was this idea of like, every group that you talked to wanted to hear about the same things. I think that has started to shift. I think one of the changes is that over the last decade, there's been an emergence of a greater early-stage investing as well as the entrance of specifically new funds focused on expanding opportunity for founders of all backgrounds and thinking in places like Venture Forward, Rise of the Rest, Black VC, Latina X VC. And so, I am curious with kind of the topics we just talked about. Where do you see more opportunities to build a more equitable venture capital system?


Beth Kolko:

I am so excited about these changes. It's a complete flywheel. Right? So earlier, I mentioned I got my first break in venture because, as a token woman, great. But now that I'm at the table, and now that more diverse folks are at the table, we get to have conversations in this space.

I get to talk to the GPs, either Pioneer Fund. GP is a general partner, either a pioneer or other funds, about the importance of diversifying teams. And you know, to the person, it takes work. You can't just say we want to be more diverse. And then, it happens. It takes attention, and it takes work.

"Having people at the table who continue to hit that note and help strategize about how to achieve that. I mean, I just think there's going to be an acceleration in the next few years. I'm so excited about this moment."


Wilma Lam,

Host:

That's wonderful. Yeah, no, it's definitely something I've been paying attention to as well. Like, I remember that the transformation from like, when I was in business school, like almost ten years ago to now has been really profound. And like, who's in venture capital now?

Beth Kolko:

Isn't that crazy? How did that happen so quickly? I have no idea.


Wilma Lam,

Host:

No. I mean, I think to me, it reinforces. I mean, speaking of optimism. There are just really incredible people out there that have decided to start this work and have stayed committed to this work in a way that I find incredibly inspiring. So, I'm also wondering, are there any specific changes that you'd love to see in the industry in the short term or in the long term?


Beth Kolko:

Yeah. I was having this conversation with a colleague the other day in venture. We were actually specifically talking about the challenge of investing in certain kinds of medical technology and biotech, which have a really long-time frame.

The conventional venture model is to fund for ten years. That's when you want your returns. But some transformational science takes longer. Some work does take a long time. And you can sit back, and you can say, "We will all benefit if this particular therapeutic is in the world, or if this particular device that enables better transplant transplants, but it's going to take x amount of dollars, and it's going to take longer than ten years. So we, as a venture fund, can't fund it because of our commitment to our limited partners. But someone needs to fund that work.

"And so, I think the specific change that I would like to see in the industry is our mechanisms that allow for more longitudinal investment, like longer-term bets, and technologies that will fundamentally be in the positive column of the balance sheet of humanity, if you will even if the IRR is not as high."

And so you can say, "Okay, if I am an LP and a fund, and I want to make a certain amount of money because it's part of my legacy for my family, can I maybe think less about the dollars and more about, I want these technologies to exist for the health of my children and grandchildren." So, think of that as part of my return on investment.

I mean, that would be a big change. This is definitely long-term. One of the things in the short term that I want to see more of are sort of courageous voices, people willing to be counterintuitive at those early stages. One of my sort of heroes here is the firm, 50 years, Ella and Seth, who started that fund. And I just think that they've been very upfront about why they're doing what they do.

It is around impact and very particular kinds of changes that they're trying to push in society through their investment decision-making. I'd like to see the industry recognize that. When you invest in a company, you are helping to shape the world. So, make wise choices.


Wilma Lam,

Host:

Yeah. I think sometimes today, I'm also like, I can't even imagine the positive change that we might see in the next decade because I couldn't have imagined the positive change that we've seen in the last decade. Venture capital. And I and I feel like I mean, you're teaching. I feel like so much of this is also about, like, it's exciting to see the next generation of students come up and what kind of questions they're asking.

I think, especially as they're looking to be founders like they're starting to ask questions like, "Well, why is venture capital this way? Why are things structured this way?" So, I'm also curious, kind of more on the educator side. If there are people out there that are thinking about venture capital and what it means and how to explore the space, especially the future of what the space could be. Are there any specific books or resources that you would recommend? Or maybe things you found really informative?


Beth Kolko:

The resources that I have found, or I guess what I would recommend, is, you know, there's a whole venture on Twitter. There are blogs. There are podcasts. And what I've done is I've really worked to find the people whose values resonate with me. So, I would say find, find those, either individual funders or the firm's whose messaging speaks to your values in your heart, and engage with those conversations.

Those are your people. And not everyone is going to see the world the same way. I mean, 50 years, as you know, I mentioned them. So many of the people at Y Combinator. Those are people who see the venture as a way to change the world. Even speaking of it in those terms is transformative.


Wilma Lam,

Host:

And then maybe like a separate that I'm also thinking about. I feel like we could go in a lot of directions with the conversation. But the other thing I'm wondering about is I remember early on in the pandemic. I was following some of what was happening in the venture space. And there's this early conversation around the pandemics changing the way that we need to meet with founders because you're not flying somebody into Silicon Valley from the other side of the world to meet with you anymore.

There are a lot of talks about how this is going to change venture capital as a practice. And then, you joined Pioneer Fund before the pandemic but launched like PacVentures during the pandemic.

So I'm wondering, from your point of view, how has maybe the pandemic environment actually also shaped venture capital and relationships with founders? Do you think it has an impact maybe on diversifying the space or changing the space in some way because of the shift to more of a remote-first model?


Beth Kolko:

One of the things that have happened because of the pandemic absolutely is everything has moved online, right? Every pitch meeting I've been in for the last two and a half, two years, two-plus years has been on Zoom or Google Meet. Sorry, teams.

Also, in Pioneer Fund, we always did a chunk of it remote, but then we did a bunch of in-person too. But now it's all remote. And I don't think anybody has a problem with it. I desperately hope that continues because that completely democratizes access to these pitch meetings.

Again, people would say, "Well, you have to go down to the valley and just walk up and down Sand Hill Road and, you know, have meetings. I was just like, "You got to be kidding me." Because if you don't have that network, it's virtually impossible to build it from nothing, right?

The rhythm now, being online, is, you know, I mentioned earlier with PAC. It's about making sure that doors are wide open. People have Calendly. Go sign up for a time, and then meet with them. And it really has shifted, I think, the balance of power and questions of access. I dearly hope that.

It's possible this is one of the positive things to come out of a horrible few years for the world.


Wilma Lam,

Host:

Or sort of like accelerated, right? I think sort of the evolution of the venture capital space and in a better direction that might have taken a lot longer, originally.


Beth Kolko:

It has. And it's also accelerated the innovation that we've seen in some key places, right. So like around kind of edtech solutions that are trying to make the remote experience better. Recognizing that hybrid is likely to be a component that's with us for a while, or, honestly, one of the most exciting areas is his health tech, and really delivering more care outside of hospitals and in homes with all the technology that allows that work to happen effectively. I mean, the pandemic just slammed on the gas pedal for those changes.


Wilma Lam,

Host:

I mean, at least my personal feeling is that some of those areas needed the gas applied like years ago. So, it's been wonderful to see a lot of innovations moving into these areas. I think also there is a sort of generation of founders now that are rising up sort of triggered by the pandemic that I think have a unique kind of passion for the spaces. That's also been amazing to be a part of and to meet people that are doing that work.

I mean, we've covered a lot of topics today. It's been amazing getting to talk to you. I'm just wondering, as a closing question, so what is top of mind now as you think about the future of design and innovation? What are you optimistic about?


Wilma Lam,

Host:

Oh, golly. I'm optimistic about several things. There's obviously all the technology which allows people to build companies faster, which means, you know, that lowers the bar of entry and helps to democratize in some sense.

I do think that biotech is the next software and the pace of innovation we'll see in that space. From a design standpoint, which is really who I am. I'm excited because I think design is now at the forefront. It's not an afterthought, right? And that movement is going to give us different kinds of products and different kinds of companies.

Having designers on founding teams makes all the difference. So, one of the questions I get from my students all the time is how do we advocate for x inside our organization? Well, go build an organization, right? And then, that design mindset is baked into the DNA of the company. There are so many things that I was only able to do with Shift Labs because I was CEO and because I had that design mindset. There's incredible value to be had encouraging people with a design background to go start companies, take that perspective, and use it to grow things and create change.

I'm very optimistic about that. And again, I do think we're getting to a point where people do see because we see the design more at the forefront were innate with an enabling environment for that.

The other thing I'm excited about is, and I mentioned that book from 20 years ago about reason cyberspace, and now, like now, 20 years later, we see a mainstreaming of equity-focused design conversations. This past quarter, in the winter of 2022, I coordinated a speaker series in my department at the university.

We brought in several alums and then other people from the design community. You can see very clear threads through their talks. They were all hitting really similar kinds of commitments to their practice, to equity-focused design in their practice. It's no longer kind of a marginal conversation. I do see it coming to the center, and I am incredibly optimistic about that.

"Equity-focused design is no longer a marginal conversation. I do see it coming to the center, and I am incredibly optimistic about that."


Beth Kolko:

Yeah. Well, thank you so much, Beth, for sharing and for joining us today. This has been a really fun conversation to be able to have with you.


Wilma Lam,

Host:

Well, thank you, Wilma. My only regret is we didn't get a chance for me to ask you a thousand questions because I want to hear your perspective on so many of these things. I mean, this has just been really fun to talk about. I hope we can continue, maybe offline, to talk about venture and change.


Beth Kolko:

Yeah, that would be wonderful.

And thank you to everyone out there for listening.

To follow along and hear the most recent releases, head to Substantial.com/OptimisticDesign.

If you enjoyed today's episode, please subscribe to the optimistic design and leave a comment. Join us next time as we continue to take a future-focused look at design, ethical innovation, and knowledge.

I'm Wilma Lam, and I look forward to talking with you again soon.


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Jennifer Gaze

Director, High Alpha Innovation

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E.05

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