Welcome back to Merit Office Hours! We had the pleasure of sitting down with the phenomenal Bo Ren, who is a Merit investor and startup advisor extraordinaire. Bo’s had several pivots in her career, from customer support to product management to venture capital to banking. We asked her how she navigates her journey, especially as a woman of color in tech.
Bo is Managing Director of Early-Stage Startups at Silicon Valley Bank, a division of First Citizens, in New York City. In this role, she mentors and advises startups at the beginning stages of their journey, connecting them to the larger SVB ecosystem and accelerating them to Series A via company building and fundraising strategies.
Before joining SVB, Bo invested in and led ecosystem strategy at Samsung Next. There, she invested in AI/ML, data privacy and deep tech and helped entrepreneurs and innovators build, grow and scale their software and services ideas and businesses. Bo also spent a decade building engaging consumer products at such companies as Facebook, Instagram, and Tumblr. She began her career in cleantech, scaling the companies Sunrun and Opower to IPO.
Our conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Rachel Spurrier: This interview is about career paths, and yours in particular. Could you give a quick overview of your career journey to now?
Bo Ren: I see the journey as three different arcs of my career path. The first arc of my journey was how to, as an operator, go from being a liberal arts major to a product manager. The second arc was how to go from PM into venture capital. And I think the third arc is how to go from VC into banking.
I was supposed to go to law school. I ended up graduating into the financial crisis and deferred law school to join a startup called Sunrun, so I took the first job at a Series A company I could get.
I started with a role in customer service, answering the phones eight hours a day. I had people yell things at me and say things like, "Rip this sh*t off my roof," because we were a solar leasing company. Through a deep understanding of customer pain points, I started to triangulate information between the customer to product and engineering. That was how I discovered the world of software product management. I taught myself to code. I didn't have a CS degree or an MBA. So really, I had to crack into that technical role.
There were a series of close approximations. I moved more cross-functionally into a project management role. I moved to Opower, which is a clean tech company that harnesses energy efficiency for behavioral change as a technical project manager. Then I joined a fintech company, called SigFig, to work as a product manager to launch their robo advisor investment manager tool. Then I went through the Facebook RPM Program, which is Rotational Product Management Program.
When I moved to New York in 2016, I had moved here for Tumblr. I had launched this incubated, hackathon project called Facebook Notes, which became an online publishing tool that competed with Medium, LinkedIn Publishing, and Automatic.
That project had caught the eye of [Tumblr founder] David Karp, and he wanted to recruit me to move to New York and redesign the Tumblr mobile creation app toolkit. I did that for about a year and a half, and then we sold to Verizon. After that acquisition, I decided to think about what's next in terms of the next arc of my journey.
I started to advise and consult as a product advisor with companies and startups, like Merit—early stage companies in New York. Over time as I was adding value to these founders, they started asking me to write small angel checks. So I moved more from the product operating world into angel investing and advising.
I tried to raise a microfund. I realized that path really wasn't for me and moved into the world of consulting, helping incubate companies, helping VCs think about how to accelerate finding product-market fit with their portfolio companies.
I moved in-house as a consultant to New Lab, which is a frontier tech, deep tech, coworking space out in Navy Yards. I acted as an investment and venture studio strategist to help them come up with an innovation hub that would bring in Fortune 500 companies to incubate new companies that would help solve the innovator's dilemma.
That experience of investing, incubating, designing a venture studio segued me more into the world of venture. I moved over to Samsung next, in 2019, to lead our early-stage, ecosystem development efforts, as well as lead the pre-seed program to invest and incubate in startups that were strategic to Samsung for potential acquisitions, investments, and partnerships.
I had some exposure into more of the deep tech world, around AI, edge computing, and data privacy. Those were strategic to the Samsung Electronics family. From there, I joined Silicon Valley Bank to now focus more holistically on the early stage founder experience so that I can harvest all the different disparate experiences I've had, from operating and from investing, to now, “How do we help our clients who bank with us accelerate to Series A as quickly as possible?”
RS: Thank you for that overview. You mentioned those arcs that you've had in your career. When you were moving from one arc into another, did you have a specific plan about the shift that you were making, or were you more following your curiosity, to quote your TED Talk a little bit? And what were those transitions like, as you were moving from one role or sphere into another?
BR: That's a great question. A lot of the realization to pivot came from following my curiosity of realizing that I've really mastered a lot of product management; I enjoy working with high velocity teams, but I also want to expand my purview from really owning micro units of a business to “How do we zoom out and see things on a macro level around market trends?”
After realizing, “My curiosity is starting to shift,” that was when I would kick in to plan mode. How do I get a job in VC? How do I raise the funds? I've always applied a more stochastic outlook. I have a plan, but the plan will probably shift as new information comes to light. I'm okay with not sticking to the plan if I start going down a path that I no longer enjoy. I’ve learned through second degree ignorance: you don't know what you don't know. I've had realizations, ”This is no longer what I want to do anymore.”
For me, it's always been that curiosity fueling the intention to make a pivot, and then I try to construct a loose plan knowing that it's probably going to iterate overtime informed by new information and data points. The future may end up being better than you imagined so don’t close yourself up from new possibilities and serendipities. Engage in divergent thinking for a sense of possibilities. I had every intention thinking I would land in VC. But then as I was starting to do more investing and starting to interview at different VC firms, I realized that role is very bespoke. It is a function of the partnership. And I wanted to be in a values-aligned environment with enough oxygen in the room to be my authentic self. So, if I couldn't find that, I wasn't just going to accept any investment role. As new findings came to light, I started to modify the plan: taking a step back, I really enjoy working with founders. That is the primary motivating factor—I am energized with supporting smart and passionate people catalyze their idea.
So starting at first principles thinking: I enjoy working with founders. That could be venture. That could be operating, like at a fund, and helping incubate companies. That could be joining a bank like Silicon Valley Bank, and focusing on founder success. It could be a number of things.
That’s how I think about making the big pivot: have an intention and a North Star, but be okay to deviate from that path.
RS: Yes, absolutely. I was talking to [Merit co-founder] Kirk for a blog post that I wrote for Merit in December 2021. He said the same thing, of essentially, "Be focused on the mission and flexible on the details."
For this next question, it's really up to you how much you want to dig into it. I've read a little bit of your writing on Medium on being from two underrepresented groups. How has your journey been affected by being from two underrepresented groups? And in what ways, if at all, has your approach been different because of your background?
BR: That is a very real question. Because I don't come from the pedigree that people have to naturally get into product management, venture, or banking, I have this grit in me, where I expect “no”s. I expect rejection because I don't fit the mold. In the beginning, it really hurt me a lot to feel like, “Had I only gotten a CS degree, had I only gone to Stanford, had I only gotten an MBA, my path would be so smooth.”
There was a lot of “should’ve, could’ve, would’ve.” Along the way, through writing and sharing my experiences of breaking into product management as a double minority, of overcoming hardships as a woman of color in tech, I started realizing these differences are what makes me so unique and powerful, and people gravitate and resonate with those hardships.
I started realizing that it's okay for the path to not be linear and smooth. It's okay that I didn't have an easy time in my 20s trying to carve my own path in tech as a liberal arts major. And I think now that I look back on the first decade of my career, I'm actually quite grateful that I have the resilience and grit to expect things to be hard so that when things do come to me with some relative ease, I appreciate it more. I also have the empathy and self-awareness to hold space for other people who also don't fit the mold—and really encourage them to speak up and to feel seen, because someone like me somehow found a way into that room.
I always joke with my friend Robina Verbeek, who's a founder—she struggles with this too because she's a female founder in hardware—about “Think of it as you didn't walk through the door. Somebody left the window cracked open, and you crawled through it.”
That's how I see the three different arcs of my journey: I never walked through the door. The door was never open for me. I just figured out some type of crack in the window, and I found a way to crawl through that window. Now that I've gone through so many of these experiences, I'm way more confident in my ability to learn quickly, my ability to overcome setbacks. Honestly, I take the “no”s and the nay-sayers as motivation now. That fuels me to do things. It might not be the most healthy approach, but I get jet fuel from that type of rejection.
Overall, I'm grateful for those experiences, even though going through it was very much trial by fire.
RS: I really like that you have a strategy and a mindset that works for you. That takes me to my next question. In your TED Talk, you also talk about impostor syndrome, which is something that we've written about a little bit on the Merit blog. What are some strategies you’ve found useful in thinking about and through your experiences with impostor syndrome?
BR: Quite truthfully, my thinking around impostor syndrome has evolved in the last couple of years. I've done a little bit more research around how impostor syndrome came about, from a psychological standpoint. The term “impostor syndrome” was coined to explain why underrepresented, disenfranchised groups—in particular women and people of color—tend to feel like they can't achieve or they're not qualified to do something.
The shift happened from understanding the etiology of impostor syndrome as this one-size-fits-all term for why women, especially women of color, doubt themselves. The psychologists behind the term were two white women, who asked, "Oh, why is it that women tend to self-doubt?" from interviewing a set of primarily white women lacking confidence, despite being surrounded by an educational system and workforce that recognized their excellence.
Impostor syndrome puts the onus on the individuals instead of reflecting on the sociocultural elements of the environment. Why would you feel like an impostor if you belonged?
I had that epiphany quite recently last year when I went to the Gold Gala, which celebrated the top A100v list of Asian Americans in tech, entertainment, and media. Because they were all Asian American, gathered together in this gala, I felt like I belonged. I really thought attending would've triggered my impostor syndrome to feel like I didn’t fit in, like I hadn’t made it. I was standing next to Michelle Yeoh. She and I shared the same air space and bathroom! And I was just like, "How am I here? But I also feel like I belong."
That is probably the seismic shift I made around impostor syndrome in the last two or so years: I used to blame myself. "You just have to fake it ‘til you make it. You just have to, through exposure therapy, keep facing your fears, and over time, it will resolve itself." That really helped me move through the paralysis of impostor syndrome.
But in this chapter of my life and my career, I realize that the origin of impostor syndrome is more than just me. It is more of a gene environment response, of, "I am me, but I'm also in a setting where I am a minoritized figure." So of course I'm going to look around and think, "There's no representation here. Why should I be here?” and start questioning myself. But now that I've experienced powerful rooms with influential figures who look like me, I realize I'm no longer triggered by that.
So I think that's kind of the, six years later, TED Talk update I would give [laughs].
RS: I love that. You've just completely reframed my thinking on impostor syndrome as well. That's such a great point. If I'm the only one in the room, why is it on me to fight through my sense of “I don't belong here, and someone's going to realize I'm not qualified”? Why aren't there more people who look like me in the room to begin with? Thank you for sharing that. That is a light bulb moment for me as well.
BR: Of course. The thread was a professor talking about how “impostor syndrome” should not be used as much. It’s used as a catch-all term for why minoritized people don't feel like they belong instead of examining the system and interrogating, “Why is this system set up so that we always have to be impostors?” In recent years, I’ve felt less like an impostor and more underestimated in my abilities.
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