maha ibrahim of Canaan Partners

As a venture capitalist at Canaan Partners, Maha Ibrahim aims to lead her portfolio companies to the promised land. But she and others waiting for the venture capital industry to become more diverse might feel like they’ve been wandering in the wilderness for 40 years.

In this week’s edition of Elevator Pitch, we ask Ibrahim — who specializes in cloud and digital media startups such as Kabam and Virsto — why things are taking so long in famously diverse Silicon Valley.

Q: HOW’D YOU GET INTO THIS RACKET?

A: I went to MIT to get a Ph.D. in economics.  I wanted to be a professor, since I really love teaching and public speaking.  That changed when I came to Silicon Valley after grad school and saw the transformative effects of technology during the mid-to-late 1990s.  Quickly thereafter, I went to work for Qwest Communications, which at the time was a fledgling telecommunications company building out a massive fiber network throughout the US.

When I joined, the extent of my knowledge about telecommunications was knowing how to pick up a phone.  But I’m a quick study, thankfully.  My job was to interface with valley-based equipment companies and content providers to help build out our network and figure out what sort of content would use up the immense amount of bandwidth and data center capacity we were building.  That allowed me access to an amazing array of startups and VC investors, which then led to my role at Canaan Partners.  That was 13 years ago.  Time flies.

Q: WHAT DO YOU LIKE ABOUT VENTURE CAPITAL?

A: I’m guessing my answer is very similar to most VCs.  I’m given the opportunity every day to meet with the smartest, most ambitious, most creative, craziest, funniest, most driven entrepreneurs, who are giving me front row access to their dreams.

Q: WHAT KINDS OF PITCHES ARE YOU LOOKING FOR NOW?

A: Disruptive ones.  See below for my comments on the next big thing.

Q: OK, WHAT’S THE NEXT BIG THING GOING TO BE?

A: Elastic computing and virtualization have transformed the way and price at which content is consumed and delivered to consumers and enterprises.  I am a big fan of datacenter/network automation technologies such as OpenStack and SDN, which offer cheaper, open and more flexible computing and networking environments.

My most recent investment, Metacloud, is leading this charge by offering OpenStack-as-a-Service as an alternative to incumbent networking and public cloud solutions. These technologies will significantly disrupt all of the major networking companies in the valley within five to 10 years.

Q: WHAT’S THE BIGGEST MISTAKE ENTREPRENEURS MAKE?

A: Most companies and investments fail because we have gotten market size or market timing wrong.  My first investment at Canaan in 2000 was in a company that built handheld card readers and software for mobile devices, much akin to what Square is doing today.  One of the major impediments to their success was the lack of mature and ubiquitous mobile networks — a problem that doesn’t exist today.  I’m not saying there weren’t other issues, but it is amazing how market size can cover a lot of mistakes.

Q: VENTURE CAPITAL CONTINUES TO BE A LARGELY WHITE, MALE INDUSTRY. IS THAT CHANGING FAST ENOUGH?

A: Short answer — no.  I don’t think many people would argue with that response.

The good news is that the composition of the entrepreneurial pool is changing and becoming more diverse.  Silicon Valley has long benefited from the thousands of immigrants who come here every year from India, China, Israel, Russia, etc. to start their version of the next Google.

More recently, we at Canaan have been lucky enough to invest in more female founders (of all different backgrounds) than at any time before.  Our most recent fund (Canaan IX, $600M) was raised about 18 months ago. One-third of the investments made from that fund have been female-founded companies.  

I’m personally thrilled by that figure and have led that charge at Canaan with my investments in Cuyana and The RealReal.

Q: YOU’RE MARRIED TO CAINE MOSS, WHO’S BEEN CALLED ONE OF THE TOP 20 LAWYERS IN SILICON VALLEY. HOW DO YOU BOTH HANDLE TWO HIGH-POWERED CAREERS — AND A FAMILY?

A: Caine and I have known each other for over 20 years, since we were both overly eager Stanford students.  Our family and careers (heck, everything!) have evolved so much since then. Before kids, we spent a lot of off-work time going to crazy places to further our mutual love of fly-fishing.  We are now both very committed to our two sons and professions and spend a lot of time on both.

We are very fortunate to have a ton of support from our families, and that support gives us the opportunity to “handle” and hopefully excel in our respective professions.  Of course, some days are smoother than others.

Peter Delevett Peter Delevett (184 Posts)

Peter Delevett covers startups and venture capital for the San Jose Mercury News. He's been a journalist in Silicon Valley since the dot-com daze.