Q&A with Alex Glasson, Lilly Rumsey and Austin Powell, managing partners of the Pioneer Venture Group
The Pioneer Venture Group is a student-run venture capital (VC) firm at the Daniels College of Business. Previously featured on the Daniels Blog and the Entrepreneurship@DU Podcast, the firm is in its fourth year of operation. PVG listens to pitches from early-stage startups in the Rocky Mountain region and provides them with seed funding awards of up to $25,000. Its current portfolio includes The Last Gameboard, MODL and Aspero. General partners of PVG include both graduate and undergraduate students from Daniels, Sturm College of Law, and the Ritchie School of Engineering and Computer Science.
We sat down with current students Alex Glasson, Lilly Rumsey and Austin Powell to learn how they got involved with PVG, the value of working in VC and how the firm is preparing them for their post-grad careers.
How did you first hear about PVG? Did you have previous VC experience?
Powell: There is a small but pretty tight-knit venture community at DU’s law school. There is a group called the Venture Law Society (VLS). Last year, at a student organization fair, I was speaking with last year’s VLS president. I have a background in venture legal work. It is kind of my passion, and that is what I want to do when I graduate. He pointed me in the direction of the Pioneer Venture Group so I could get more hands-on experience.
I lived in Dallas, Texas, for a few years prior to law school. I minored in legal studies in undergrad. I knew that eventually, I wanted to go the law school route. Out of sheer luck, I applied to a law firm in Dallas. They were willing to take a chance on me. They do a lot of venture work, and I fell in love with what we did. We helped form companies all the time, and we were overseeing a lot of transactions every single week. It was really fun for me. So now, I’m running with it.
Glasson: I have a pretty non-traditional background. I dropped out of school when I was 19 to start a music production company with some friends. We did that for five years. My big claim to fame is that I made Keith Urban’s official app. (That was the big thing a few years ago—musicians and celebrities all wanted their own app.) Through that, I realized I have this passion for entrepreneurship. After we sold the company, people would ask me, “Why don’t you just start another company?” Well, it’s a lot of work! The burnout can be difficult. I realized that the best way for me to keep contributing to that community would be to go into venture capital. Once I came to DU, I immediately sought out VC opportunities. Colorado has an interesting venture community. It is small compared to San Francisco, where I grew up. But that does not make it any less exciting. It’s kind of cool because it’s a super tight knit community out here. Everyone knows each other, and it has been a great opportunity to meet people and learn more about something I am super interested in.
Rumsey: Going into grad school, I knew I wanted to be in VC. When I heard about Pioneer Venture Group through the MBA program, it was a no-brainer for me. Prior to grad school, I had always been interested in private equity and investing. I invested a lot in the stock market on my own, but I specifically focused on finding companies that were new and exciting—ones that were disrupting their industries.
If you have that entrepreneurial spirit, you’re often in ideation mode. Starting your own company requires you to be dialed into one thing. In venture capital, you can be in a lot of different areas at the same time. I think that’s really cool. My mind goes to so many different ideas every day, so PVG allows me to be part of a lot of different industries.
As managing partners, what do your responsibilities entail?
Powell: A lot. (He laughs.) The administrative responsibilities are intense. I think the easiest part of our role is the weekly meetings with our general partners, where we have a company come in and pitch to us. It’s a lot of due diligence, but that’s the fun part of the job. I’ll do that all day! But before that, we need to create an agenda that goes out to the general partners. We have to do outreach to local startups. We have a newsletter we should be sending out. Then there’s social media, all the things that are not the first thing that comes to mind for a venture fund.
Glasson: The behind-the-scenes work is tenfold as much as it takes us to bring in companies and hear them pitch. Like Austin said, we are doing outreach to advisory boards, and to the broader venture community. We are trying to find events for our members to go to in the venture community. We want general partners to be able to go out and learn about this on their own. Ultimately, the success of PVG reflects on our work as managing partners. As we apply for careers after grad school, we want to point to PVG and say, “Look at the assets we managed in this portfolio.” If we can grow that portfolio, that will impress recruiters.
How does PVG find startups? Do entrepreneurs reach out to you, or do you contact new ventures and invite them to pitch to you?
Glasson: Most of our sourcing comes directly from us. Every once in a while, we’ll have companies reach out to us. Now that our LinkedIn profiles say “managing partner at a venture fund,” people will reach out and contact us. But most of our sourcing generally does come from us, and that’s usually from going out to events. Lilly and I both interned at Techstars last year, a pre-seed investor based in Boulder. That helped us connect with the founder community out here in Colorado. We have had a few Techstars companies pitch to us in the last year.
Rumsey: Because we invest so early in companies, it’s challenging, because they are often still in their pre-revenue stage of development. Even for VC funds that provide Series A or Series B funding, that is still a humongous risk—and those are startups that are further along than the ones we work with. So, our position is tenfold riskier. As a firm, we are trying to find the balance between hearing from a lot of founders because we want to find those few unicorns; but we don’t want to overload our team by hearing so many pitches. We have to narrow down to companies we really want to hear from. It is a tricky balance to strike.
When you graduate, do you see yourself working in VC? How does your experience with PVG connect to your personal goals?
Powell: I definitely see myself continuing to practice venture. Honestly, the main reason I went to law school was to practice venture afterwards. I did venture work at a law firm in Dallas, so that bolsters my resume—but managing PVG will really set me apart, I think. A lot of law students can work at a law firm, but I can say I actually managed a venture fund. Being able to do all the due diligence, look over the legal items that most people don’t even think about…being the only law student of the managing partners, I guess that’s really my area of expertise. For me, that has been fun. I think it will definitely help for post-grad job searching.
Rumsey: I would like to pursue VC after grad school, but I am also interested in pursuing entrepreneurship myself. I have not had the burnout Alex mentioned when he spoke about starting a company. Part of me still feels a strong pull to pursue a startup after grad school, and just see where that goes. I think a big part of entrepreneurship is the process, and I really love the process—it’s something I always want to do, even if it fails. I think it has been beneficial working in venture with PVG, because this experience has helped me understand what a lot of entrepreneurs go through. On the flipside, PVG has shown me what investors are looking for when hearing entrepreneurs pitch their businesses. So I’m kind of in between going either a private equity route or pursuing my own startup after grad school.
Glasson: I agree with Lilly: VC and entrepreneurship are two sides of the same coin. There are your founders on one side, and then the investors on the other side. It makes perfect sense for Lilly to start on one side of the coin and go to the other. I’m doing it in the opposite direction. When I graduate, I would love to continue working in venture. The VC economy right now is tough; 2021 was a huge year for venture, but since then it has slowed down. A lot of venture firms right now are cutting back on hiring, so it can be hard to find your way into the industry. That being said, if I can’t work in venture right out of school, I am hoping for something akin to private equity or private wealth management—maybe investment banking, or something in the finance industry where I am still working with the entrepreneurial community. If I don’t work in venture right out of school, maybe I’ll try and start my own fund 10 years from now.