How Biology, Acting and Film prepared me for the VC world

Ana Pinheiro © Mustard Seed MAZE

When I was asked what my dream job was, I answered different things throughout my life: a doctor, a biologist, a writer, an actress, a director, a film teacher at university. None of these became true. While searching for a career path, I dealt with a significant amount of frustration. I wandered in the fields of Biology, Theatre and Film, and through the fear of yet another wrong choice, I learned resilience.

This is not, however, a text about the importance of resilience in life. There are plenty of people far more qualified than I am to write about it. You see, for a long time I looked at my career wanderings as failures — I never thought I would actually find them useful learnings for my current job as an operations manager of a VC fund. And yet they were. Here’s how:

Biology: looking at everything with a microscopical lens

One of my favourite things when studying Biology was working with a microscope. The sheer level of detail something as small as a cell can have never ceased to amaze me. The membrane, the mitochondrion, the nucleus, and many other elements, working together in a team effort to become the foundation of life. You learn to become detail-focused when you look at that microscope lens.

Working in operations, I picture each of our processes as a cell. My job is to ensure it is running seamlessly and to look at each of its elements when there is space for improvement. In this job, being detail-focus is critical. And very useful when working with numbers and one single typo can take hours to find on an Excel sheet. Three months into my first corporate job, I had a client tell me I had un oeil de lynx because I spotted a missing zero on a settlement SWIFT message. At the time, I remembered my hours of eye practice in front of a microscope. Now, I keep in mind that same level of detail and focus when I prepare individualised quarterly reports to all our investors, and (ironically) each cell of an Excel is a key piece of the whole puzzle. Scrutinizing each one is my method to get closer to a perfect report.

Acting: empathy and my relationship with stakeholders

The purpose of an actor is literally to embody another person. Believe me, it is hard. I once had to play the role of a pain-killer addict housewife while not being married or addicted to any substance. How would I relate to that? You try wondering how the character feels, you do a lot of research, and you do your best to bring your own experiences and memories into bringing the character to life. Throughout my auditions, I eventually became more and more conscious of this exercise of empathy when preparing for a role.

The learning persists and I do this exercise every day. I engage with the MSM team, the founders, the investors, the service providers on a daily basis, and I find it crucial to position myself on the other side to better manage these relationships. I try to understand how they feel and what are their expectations on each interaction. Something that is obvious to me, is not necessarily on the other side of the conversation. This becomes poignant when dealing with touchy topics (and money in the context of VC sure is one of them). When preparing for drawdown requests, I keep in mind the need for empathy in my communication. I try to promote the same on the other side by helping our investors understand the importance of what we do at the MSM Fund — bringing positively impactful businesses to life. Depeche Mode sing that “before you come to any conclusions, try walking in my shoes”. And I see this empathy as a key element on all of my relationships.

Film: belief in the right stories

Blockbuster movies usually have humongous budgets. It is easier to expect a positive outcome when the project can afford an award-winning cast and crew and high-end CGI effects. Yet more often than not I find myself thinking these movies are dull and more of the same. That is where the beauty of indie cinema lies: these are projects that transpire with passion because a dedicated team believed in the story and wanted to make it happen.

That is what we do at MSM. We are far from being a blockbuster VC fund. Yet we have a team of enthusiastic people who believe that through our investments, we back founders who want to tell their stories and bring a positive impact into our society that is craving for it. All they need is a chance. For us, it is a thrill and a privilege to invest in founders whose passion and commitment are evident in their companies. We help these stories be told. As I admired the teams behind these stories in film, I do now in real life. And I too feel a sense of commitment to these people that makes me do my job with the same passion. Believing in these stories is my biggest motivation.

A few weeks ago, I was talking to my 13-year old nephew about his dream job. At such a young age, he is worried he might get it wrong. I could not help but wonder about my own “mistakes” and where they led me to. I had to go through many uncertainties in my career before getting to a place where I have a sense of mission. And I still don’t have it all figured out — quite honestly, who does? If there is something this pandemic has taught us is that there is only so much you can plan in life. I once heard an actor say his motto in life is Adapt and Overcome. I love the idea. You face each challenge and you thrive as best you can. From this lens, no experience is a waste of time, but a learning opportunity.

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