Emily St. Denis, Cultivating Community for Female Founders
July 1, 2019
Emily St. Denis cultivates community for female founders as the Head of Platform at Female Founders Fund, an early-stage venture fund based in New York City investing in technology companies founded by women. Prior to joining Female Founders Fund, Emily was hired to be one of SoulCycle’s first 30 corporate employees in 2013. Through her work at SoulCycle, she learned the value of tenacity, perseverance, and the ability to be solution-oriented. Her work in the fitness and lifestyle industry continued when she accepted the position of Director of Operations at Xtend Barre. It was at this time when she noticed how she could be more impactful if she were involved from the beginning. This was where her interest toward the world of VC piqued.
In this feature, Emily shared with us how unexpected her business career was, her experiences that led to her interest in VC, and her passion for female-founded businesses. Read along to soak up her incredible career advice for ambitious women, such as yourself.
You graduated from Skidmore College with a degree in Psychology and American History. How did your studies help you land your first position as a Strategist at Horizon Media?
As much as I will always love American History (my minor), I chose Psychology as a major because I figured of the two interests I could probably translate my Psych degree more easily following graduation. I was pretty positive I’d end up as a child psychologist, so my summer jobs and internships throughout high school and college were at hospitals and recovery centers, research labs, and child development programs. Once I graduated from Skidmore, it occurred to me that I had never considered I might be good at (or enjoy) anything else -- and since I wasn’t super excited with the prospect of jumping right back into a grad school program, I decided to look into options outside of the mental health field. A friend of a friend worked at Horizon Media and he offered to share my resume, so I decided to pitch my psych research experience as “consumer insights” and landed a job as a strategist.
After working as a Media Strategist for Horizon Media, you became an Operations Administrator at SoulCycle. What skillsets did you realize you needed to quickly adopt to succeed at SoulCycle?
At Horizon I learned how to be an Excel pro, how to be resourceful, how to check (and double check, and triple check) my work, and how to operate in a corporate environment. This provided a foundation to hit the ground running at SoulCycle, although over time I found the skills that served me best at SC were a willingness to do any job that needed to be done (a core value we called “get dirty”), finding “the yes” (a way to make it happen), the ability to be solution-oriented, clear and of course, genuine enthusiasm and excitement for the role and for the brand.
Female Founders Fund
How did you switch from a career in the fitness industry to venture capital?
After 4+ years at SoulCycle I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to stay in fitness, an industry I loved and believed in, or broaden my skill set with a new role -- or start a company of my own. While I was wrestling with the decision, I was connected to a financial advisory firm for the lifestyle, health, and wellness sectors who had invested in companies like Higher Dose, Nutritious Life, Xtend Barre (an international barre & pilates franchise), and others. They offered me a role as Director of Operations at Xtend Barre and I accepted, figuring I could broaden my Ops knowledge learning about franchising and investing along the way. Alongside two powerhouse leaders (Melissa Chordock and Tori Johnston, now President and CMO respectively at AKT), we were able to grow the business 38% YOY. However, through this time I realized how challenging it was to make real change not having been on board at the very beginning (the company was 10 years old when we joined). I wanted to make an impact at the beginning, so I started learning more about Seed and Series A stage companies which is where I was exposed to the world of VC for the first time.
Why did you choose to pursue a role at Female Founders Fund?
As someone who has worked almost exclusively at female-founded companies -- and would like the option of starting a company herself one day! -- it was important for me to continue to support female entrepreneurs. FFF’s Platform role was strongly rooted in my Ops background, but offered new opportunities for growth: content creation, event planning and execution, founder support, talent sourcing and placement, and exposure to deal flow. I felt the position was a chance to support a mission I believed in while pushing my experience and believed capabilities to the next level.
What does your role as Head of Platform at F3 entail?
What do you do in your day-to-day? My responsibilities range from operations, business development, content and communications, event planning, talent support, and more... so every day is different depending on what we have going on! But I typically think about my role with 3 focuses: events, ongoing programs, and new initiatives. At FFF we put on 30-40 events a year with the intention of providing a strong (authentic, supportive, and connected) community for our founders and for the greater women in tech ecosystem. In terms of ongoing programs, I run our College Fellows program, Advisor Network, and Talent program. I also manage the fund’s branding and content which includes our newsletters, Medium posts, social media presence, etc. In addition, we’re constantly thinking of ways to innovate and be supportive of our founders and the greater women in the tech community, so a large part of my role involves creating and developing new initiatives to push the fund forward.
There has been more attention brought to female-focused VC firms due to the general lack of funding going to female founders in start-up capital. What excites you most about the future of F3?
Anu started the fund in 2014, long before it was trendy to invest in diversity -- and I believe she and Sutian are trailblazers with the vision to really identify the next generation of leaders and companies. There are so many spaces where a different perspective, leadership style, and vision would be so welcome -- I truly believe the next round of companies solving the world’s problems will be run by women. It’s exciting to support that initiative.
What do you wish you knew when you were first starting out your career?
Pay attention to what lights you up, and stay open. You may not end up where you expected but it could lead you somewhere much more interesting :)
What advice do you have for young women who want to enter VC?
Talk to everyone. Go to as many events and take as many coffee meetings as possible. Keep pulling at the string. Once you decide what aspect of VC you’re interested in working in, communicate that to the people you’ve met. VC is a small community where job descriptions are emailed around before being posted online, so it’s helpful for people to know who you are and know what you’re looking for so they can refer you.
What would you say to young businesswomen who want to excel in their current roles?
If you can find someone at work who believes in your abilities, and challenges them -- that’s awesome, and you’re lucky! But if that’s not an option right now, it’s your responsibility to challenge your belief in your own abilities by raising your hand for projects that excite you, even if they don’t fall directly into your scope of work. Some of the work I’m most proud of has been from jumping in headfirst to something I had no idea how to do.
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