Elizabeth McCluskey of CMFG Ventures Discovery Fund: “Support very early-stage companies ”

Support very early-stage companies — Less than 3% of VC funding goes to women. Companies at the earliest stages will always need capital to ensure that they survive to even have a chance to scale. Being deliberate about investing in women-led companies is a must.

As part of my interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Elizabeth McCluskey. She leads CMFG Ventures Discovery Fund, which invests in early-stage companies with diverse founding teams targeting the financial technology industry. CMFG Ventures is the venture capital arm of CUNA Mutual Group, a broad financial services company focused on creating a more equitable financial system to improve the lives of those we serve. Prior to joining the Discovery Fund, Elizabeth was a principal at Impact Engine, a women-owned and led venture capital and private equity firm that invests in companies driving positive impact in economic empowerment, environmental sustainability, health, and education.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

Thank you so much for giving me this opportunity. My “backstory” starts in college. I studied economics, which lead me to a career in investment banking for UBS in London. It was there where I was exposed to people from different countries and cultures, and I learned how much I valued being part of a culture with such diversity and inclusion. From there, I transitioned into wealth management and experienced the ’08 crash, which highlighted how fragile the financial system was as well as how vulnerable consumer finances were.

Convinced the current state of the system was unsustainable, I went back to business school at the University of Michigan Ross to figure out how to harness capitalism — which I believe is a powerful tool and force in society — for impact. I spent the next eight years building the impact investing ecosystem in Chicago, primarily at Impact Engine. There, I focused on investing in early-stage companies, addressing challenges in economic opportunity, health equity and environmental sustainability. While we didn’t have a specific gender lens to our investing, we were a women-led firm, and close to half the entrepreneurs we invested in were women. In my new role leading CMFG Ventures and the Discovery Fund, the venture capital arm of CUNA Mutual Group, I am proud to continue that work of investing in underrepresented founders who are trying to create a positive impact for their customers, in this case by building products that are improving consumer financial health.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

Many people think venture capital is like an episode of Shark Tank. It’s typically not! Diligence is a much more thorough process — between getting to know the founders and the business as well as really digging into the details, we often spend several months working on a deal before making the decision to invest. However, one particular meeting really stands out to me — I sat in on a pitch with an investor and a company, and less than an hour into the conversation, the investor asked the entrepreneur how much he could invest in the company. Both the investor and the entrepreneur were white men. This was a stark reminder to me that sometimes it IS that easy for people who are well connected and fit a “profile” to get funding. I’ve never seen the same thing happen for a female founder, but I’m working to improve access to capital (while still doing my due diligence) for female founders as well as people of color.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I have a pretty big mistake to share here. Early on, I was investing in a company in tranches — meaning we were not giving them all of the money upfronts. In one instance I accidentally wired the entire investment amount to the company (I’m still cringing). Luckily, the company sent the overpayment back almost immediately and I never made that mistake again. Importantly, I learned to triple-check my work.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Yes, definitely. My former colleague Tasha is someone who I am particularly grateful to. Tasha spent 20 years in traditional tech VC before joining Impact Engine, where she believed strongly in the mission of the firm and wanted to help it grow and succeed. At Impact Engine, she took me under her wing and taught me everything she knew about venture capital. We had a very team-based approach. In the early days, she would guide and let me observe, but over time, she solicited more and more feedback and input from me on deals and our diligence processes. Eventually, I was leading calls and taking ownership of certain deals. Beyond Tasha’s leadership skills, I admire the risks she took, which gave me the confidence to take my own risks and pursue this opportunity with CMFG Ventures to lead and define a new strategy.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Adam Grant’s Give & Take made quite a significant impact on me. I had the opportunity to hear Adam present in person when the book was first published while I was getting my MBA at the University of Michigan. The takeaways were a revelation and have helped shape my approach to investing. He categorizes people into three types: givers, takers and matchers. Surprisingly, givers are actually the most successful people. He argues that it’s because they are able to build the most supportive networks, inspire creativity and achieve the best negotiation outcomes. This approach is particularly relevant when investing in early-stage companies with underrepresented founders. Grant argues that givers are the best at “finding the diamond in the rough” because they excel at recognizing and developing potential. Venture capitalists are often thought of like the checkwriters. But entrepreneurs don’t just need capital, they need emotional support, a network of advisers and people who can make introductions on their behalf. Giving entrepreneurs my time, my feedback, and my network, even if I don’t end up investing in them, has paid dividends for them and also for me.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

I do really like the saying, “Put your money where your mouth is.” Throughout my career, I’ve learned it’s important to act upon my conviction. That’s why I’m committed to investing in underrepresented founders because I believe so strongly that the companies that will be the drivers of our economy in the next generation should be much more representative of our current demographics.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

I like to think that investing in companies that are overlooked and founders who are underrepresented makes the world a better place for business owners who are seeking to make a difference through their company and for themselves. I can only hope that through my work I have contributed in a positive, impactful way to make the world a better place.

Can you share with our readers what you are doing to help empower women to become founders?

Every day I’m looking to invest in women who have the guts and the commitment to build great companies. I empower them by listening to their business pitches and then giving my honest feedback. There are way more companies I don’t invest in than those that I do, but I do try to empower every female founder to believe in herself and have the confidence to make their pitch.

This might be intuitive to you, but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?

It’s very important to spell this out and continue to be intentional about empowering more women founders. I believe the best entrepreneurs are deeply connected to the problems they are solving. We need more women founders to build companies that address the needs of this half of our society. Entire industries have been ignored when it comes to innovation and technology because, historically, there haven’t been women founders (or women investors) at the table. We need to continue to show younger women that there is a pathway for them to become a founder as well.

Can you please share 5 things that can be done or should be done to help empower more women to become founders? If you can, please share an example or story for each.

1. Highlight success stories and trailblazers — I think it’s really important for women founders to have role models and evidence that they can succeed. Thanks to Authority Magazine for highlighting some of these stories!

2. Promote and support more female investors — Women in VC and AllRaise are doing a great job of building a community amongst female VCs already and we all need to continue to build on this momentum.

3. Build networks amongst female founders — It’s just as important to have a trusted network you can share war stories with as it is to have mentors. Entrepreneurship can be lonely, especially when you feel like you’re an exception to the rule — so lean on other women who are your peers and lift up each other during the journey.

4. Support very early-stage companies — Less than 3% of VC funding goes to women. Companies at the earliest stages will always need capital to ensure that they survive to even have a chance to scale. Being deliberate about investing in women-led companies is a must.

5. Increase education and exposure to entrepreneurship at a young age for girls — The earlier young women start believing this is a viable pathway, the more they will have the confidence to pursue it.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

My movement would be: Activate your network on behalf of others. Whenever I talk to a founder, I ask them to review my LinkedIn connections and see if there is anyone that could be helpful to them. If they are willing to put in the effort to be thoughtful about who could help them and why, I’m almost always happy to make those introductions.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I would love to have the opportunity to sit down with Julia Louis-Dreyfus. She is incredibly talented and hilarious, and she has broken down so many barriers for women in comedy. She also uses her platform to advocate for causes that are important to her, which I respect and admire.

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