Q&A with the managing partner of the Pioneer Venture Group
Kate Kourlis is the managing partner of the Pioneer Venture Group, the University of Denver’s first venture capital group run by a team of graduate students of varying disciplines. Whether you’re a student of law, finance or even the natural sciences, there’s a spot at the table for anyone interested in a hands-on venture capital experience. We had a conversation with Kourlis about small-town Colorado, her escape from NYC, and the Super Bowl (and a little about PVG too, of course!).
Where are you from?
I’m from a town called Craig, Colorado, which is outside Steamboat Springs. My dad has a sheep and cattle ranch, so I grew up there. I moved to Denver for high school, where I went to Kent Denver. My family on both sides are longtime Coloradans. My mom’s side is from the Colorado Springs area, and my dad’s side immigrated from Greece and settled in Colorado. So I’ve had ties here for many, many years.
So you’ve spent most of your time here?
Actually, I’ve bounced around quite a bit. I went to Stanford for college, but then I came back and worked for a year on the ranch. Then I went to New York and worked for a while, but now I’m back. Every time I bounce back, I can never stay away!
What did you study at Stanford?
Philosophy, actually! I love pontificating.
What are you studying here at DU?
I’m at the Burns School of Real Estate and Construction Management, within the Daniels College of Business. I’m in the Real Estate and the Built Environment master’s program. I’m hoping to move forward with real estate in my career, but I want to stick with venture capital and investing in new companies as well — so I’ve got a bifurcated post-grad plan.
Tell me a little bit about Pioneer Venture Group.
I was part of the first class of PVG. The rest of that first class either graduated or moved on for other reasons, so I was left as kind of a lone ranger to navigate it through the spring and summer. Over summer of 2020, I became the managing partner and have been since.
At our core, PVG is about the experiential learning — in my brain, I always need something hands-on that a classroom can’t give you. We’re hoping this org can be an evergreen thing that sticks around so students can keep getting that experiential learning of investing in a new company.
What drives your passion for venture capital investing?
Because this kind of investing is so early stage, there’s no sure way of knowing that a startup’s vision will play out to be the multimillion (or billion!) dollar idea that they hope it will be. So it’s a lot riskier, since you have no idea it’s going to work out — but by that same virtue, the profits can be that much greater. Who knows; that company you take on could be the next Facebook! In reality, it’s more of an art than a science. You have to look at the founder and ask, “Do you have something here? Is this something that can work?” You’re not relying on balance sheets and income statements — it’s really more of a gut-check.
I think because I grew up on a family business, this has really stuck with me. Ranching is really freaking hard, you know? It’s like entrepreneurship every day! Because, you think you solve a problem, and Mother Nature can blow up your plans. I think grit that my dad had from his immigrant father is very deeply rooted in me, and I’ve been close to him and looked up to him my whole life. So seeing what kind of results you can get if you really dive in, push, and pull yourself up by the bootstraps — just relying on the grit and your own skills — it’s just really rewarding, I think. I’m really passionate about those types of things, and I’m passionate about investing in those companies made up of hard workers like that.
I think it ties into how I worked with my dad on the ranch from an early age — me and all my siblings had to. Despite how much I hated it then, I look back and realize how invaluable those lessons were.
What’s your favorite thing about living in Colorado?
I think living in a place with mountains, and plains and whatnot, just really gives you some perspective — living near an ocean can have the same effect on a person. Colorado’s beauty, its land and vista, it has that power to just put things in perspective for a person. Places like Manhattan sort of have the opposite power — you live there for like 10 years, and everything there was built so fast. In Colorado, on the other hand, it’s nature that has been built over thousands and thousands of years. I just think there’s nothing like it.