A lot of people who’ve been working in the venture industry — even for many years — haven’t seen a true down cycle.
Somewhat ironically, Priti Youssef Choksi, a newly minted VC, knows very well what one looks like. The newest partner of the multi-stage investment firm Norwest Venture Partners has been working in tech since before the last boom and bust — and she has lessons to share about both good times and bad.
It started in her native Mumbai (“Bombay to me!” she says). Choski didn’t tell her parents when, as a teenager, she applied to the University of Pennsylvania to study architecture and business. “I couldn’t study both back home,” she says, somewhat sheepishly from Norwest’s glass-lined new offices in San Francisco’s South Park neighborhood.
She didn’t wind up at an architecture firm. Instead as a young graduate, she landed at Broadview Associates, an investment bank in Foster City that advised many dozens of tech companies during the go-go dot.com era but ran into trouble when the market nosedived. (In 2003, it was acquired by bigger rival Jefferies.)
By then, Choksi had already joined one of the bank’s sell-side clients, an internet marketing company called USWeb, whose CEO asked her to work for him despite having no discrete job description in mind at the time.
Looking back now, Choksi remembers the experience fondly, saying she ran strategy projects and competitive analysis of what others in the industry were doing and ultimately helped the company grow from a 200- to an 8,000-person operation. Indeed USWeb was famous for its roll-up strategy, and it absorbed roughly 40 smaller startups over a two-year period before merging with another company. This being the dot com era, however, the combined company went bankrupt soon after.
Choksi again left before her employer’s demise. This time, when a partner at USWeb left to start an early streaming media company, she went along for the ride. Alas, it was early, broadband connections didn’t yet exist to support the vision and, well, it sold to another early web company called Inktomi that had a hugely successful IPO, saw its shares soar to $240 apiece, then crashed back to earth two years later, selling to Yahoo for just $1.65 a share.
If at this point, Choksi felt ready to throw in the towel, she doesn’t seem to recall it. Instead, she plowed forward, attending a one-year program at the Kellogg School to burnish her “soft skills and negotiating skills and things you don’t have time to practice” when at a startup. Then she headed right back to Silicon Valley.
Her return would begin a second chapter of sorts. In fact, like a lot of people who came to the Bay Area in the ’90s and who have stayed, Choksi’s fortunes began to turn after the detritus of the bubble’s burst began to blow away.
First came a job at Google when it had just 800 employees and was still privately held and that, more to the point, grew and grew rather than go out of business. Choksi wound up staying for six years, holding roles in both strategic partnerships and, later, distribution partnerships, where she says she helped convince management to bundle the company’s search bar with other products to get it into the world more widely.
She must have been doing something right. By 2009, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg — a former Google exec who’d seen Choksi’s work — was reaching out to Choksi to ask if she would help run business development at Facebook, which itself was still privately held at the time.
Choksi said yes, so thoroughly enjoying the company that five years later — two years after the company’s employee-enriching 2012 IPO, notably — she moved to the “dark side, doing M&A at Facebook” for four years. (She notes now that Facebook had “moved beyond acquihires to doing big tech bets” but declines to discuss some of her deals, some of which were never publicly announced.)
Of course, she wasn’t able to strike a deal with every interesting founder she met. In fact, her fascination with compelling founders and startups are what eventually led Choksi to work with a recruiter earlier this year. At first, she imagined she would take on yet another operating role at a small but growing company. Instead, Norwest managing partner Jeff Crowe raised his hand and asked for a meeting with her.
It was apparently a match from the start. Sitting in a conference room with us, Choksi says of the move that she and Crowe were “just very direct with each other.” More, the “culture and people at Norwest feel like the right fit; there’s not the eat-what-you-kill mentality here that you see at many other venture firms.”
Not last, says Choksi, Norwest was the “only venture firm that invited me to a partner-and-pitch meeting” while it was trying to lure her into the fold. It was a “lovely way” to begin understanding the partnership, she says.
Crowe certainly sees Choksi’s hire as a big win as the firm continues to build out it consumer-facing investment practice. He volunteers that he’s particularly appreciative of Choksi’s ties to Facebook and to the many people who’ve spun out of the company to work on their own projects. But he also recognizes her ability to identify a good opportunity when she sees one, and to support founders as they grow their companies.
“Somebody who has been in the industry a long time, knows a lot of people, seen a lot of technologies, and worked with entrepreneurs both inside of out of companies like Facebook — including during their awkward teenage phase — it’s pretty exciting for us,” he says.