Shannon Austin is not your typical venture capitalist.
A former journalist, Austin is a partner at Financial Venture Studio, where she leads the firm’s communications advisory for portfolio companies.
Before joining FVS (which recently closed on a $13 million fund), Austin led all marketing and communications efforts at Financial Solutions Lab, where she advised more than 33 fintech startups.
Earlier in her career, Austin co-founded bankjobs.com, an online job board for the banking and financial services industry. During its 16-year history, Bankjobs.com served as both an electronic outplacement alternative and online recruiting resource to many of the nation’s top banks including Citi and Bank of America.
Today, Austin is not just passionate about startups, but also about helping founders tell their stories. I talked with her about everything from her investment style to what areas of fintech excite her to what she really thinks about those “women’s lists.”
FL: You’re a partner at seed-stage fintech firm Financial Venture Studio. Describe your investing style.
SA: I don’t consider myself an investor; I consider myself a connector. It helps that my partners Ryan Falvey and Tyler Griffin consider themselves investors first, so they deal with the nuts and bolts there. But there are so many fintech investors right now, chasing early-stage companies, that I don’t see capital as a differentiator at all. If your idea isn’t half bad, you’ll get funding — the hard part is getting momentum that can get you to a Series A round, and that’s where our FVS program comes into play. In the end, at the earliest stage, it’s not the money, it’s the momentum.
FL: What areas of fintech get you the most excited? Any sectors you think are overhyped?
SA: I really like solutions that increase accessibility and remove friction. Things like filling out forms, which our portfolio company Anvil makes easier, to onboarding business customers faster using Know Your Customer (KYC) tools, which Zaam, a YC company we invested in, does.
I’m also excited about innovation in insurance, whether it’s something that empowers agents, like Agentero, or something that “morselizes” expensive comprehensive healthcare into smaller chunks of products that people actually need and can afford. Austin-based Spot—cofounded by the terrific team of Maria Goy and Matt Randall—does this now, and has been really innovative in their approach to injury insurance, which can help mitigate financial shocks like medical bills. We are not investors in Spot, but I’m a big fan.
FL: What would you say is one of the coolest fintechs you’ve backed in terms of the problem it’s solving?
SA: I have to laugh because I’m a mom, and both of my children are my favorites….and as an investor who tends to care deeply about founders in our portfolio, they’re all my favorites, too! We invested early (through a previous entity as well as through Financial Venture Studio) in Digit and also in Dave, and both of these have been amazing at growing their user bases in a way that traditional banks never could have imagined possible. It will be really interesting to see how all the challenger banks evolve over the next few years, but I’m excited about the potential they represent for consumers to become more engaged with their finances.
FL: What does it take to be successful in fintech?
The #1 thing people need — regardless of gender or ethnicity — is a passion for the problem they solve and empathy for the customer they serve. I would say passion and empathy are also pretty important to being successful in life.
FL: How do you feel about “women’s lists”?
SA: I have a love-hate relationship with them, as many women do. On the one hand, I love seeing brilliant women recognized. On the other hand, it’s annoying that in 2020 it still takes a list of “just women” in order to get women recognized; there are plenty of extraordinary women who belong on “best of” lists in general, regardless of their genitalia.
Organizationally, I applaud the terrific women and male allies who have taken matters into their own hands and spearheaded organizations aimed at raising the profiles of women in finance. NYC Fintech Women is one of them, Women in VC, All Raise—all terrific at bringing women together on Slack and in person to support each other. I’m also thrilled to see more organizations like 100 Women in Finance partnering up with organizations like Deloitte to shine more light on the gender disparity in funding.
FL: As a former journalist, what do you think about features on women?
SA: I know a lot of female founders don’t enjoy them, when they’re approached as “because you’re a WOMAN doing this thing, you’re now interesting because my editor says so” — how about “because you’re amazing, period, I’d like to feature you” — I like the sound of that!
However, as the mother of two daughters, I always ask female founders to respond to the asks, to do the stories about women. Because until the day when I’m walking through the airport and seeing as many women and people of color on magazine covers as I’m seeing white guys, we still haven’t done enough of those. So I encourage female founders to do them for my daughters!
FL: How does the disparity of funding between male and female founders hit you?
SA: I hate that we’re not seeing more female founders in fintech, but it’s not entirely surprising. Few people can go without pay for a couple of years to get something off the ground, and women and people of color are the least likely to be able to make that leap.
We have a few female founders within the FVS portfolio, and I see the highs and lows of it, the obstacles they’re facing to be taken seriously in the industry. One of them, Nami Baral, fundraised while pregnant with her son. I was on a call with her the other day where she was presenting to other founders, and since it was on Zoom, she made a point to say that she’d started her family and startup at the same time.
I think it’s so important that founders, in general, say the things others can’t see; that they have families, that they have partners, that life is complicated, that it’s not easy. All this BS and bluster we see among founders about how they’re “crushing it” is not usually real. We need to dispel this myth that anyone does this alone, that it’s not a long hard slog. I think if more women realized that those who are launching are just facing down the fear—but are not immune to it, because no one is—that might make more women realize that they, too, can take that great idea they have and make something of it.