Q&A with Mikayla Sullivan of ISA Ventures

Venture Capitalist. Social Entrepreneur. World Traveler. Mikayla Sullivan does it all.

Mikayla recently started a new position as an Associate for ISA Ventures (ISAV), a venture capital fund that invests in Iowa-based companies. Prior to joining ISAV Mikayla co-founded KinoSol while at Iowa State, where she received a degree in Global Resource Systems.

She was an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Iowa State University’s Startup Factory and is a mentor at Techstars Iowa in Des Moines. As a female founder and investor, Mikayla brings much needed diversity to Iowa’s investment ecosystem. 

Our Q&A is below:

Have you always had an interest in entrepreneurship and startups?

I’ve always been interested in solving problems, so in a roundabout way yes. It just took me a while to connect the dots and realize that solving problems and entrepreneurship were the same thing. 

You recently started a new role as an Associate for ISA Ventures. What does that role consist of and how are you settling into the position?

My mission is to find the best founders and startups in Iowa. So that means a majority of my time is spent with founders, which I love! Whether that’s evaluating founders for investment or working with our portfolio companies, I spend a lot of my time with passionate individuals and that excitement is always contagious.  While that’s a majority of my role, the ISAV team operates very much like a startup, so I also get to help with evaluating the business/market opportunity, conducting reference calls, helping build our internal processes, and working with other investors to get deals done. 

What are the biggest challenges for a brand new venture firm like ISA Ventures?

The biggest challenge I think we have is patience. There’s a lot of things we’re working on building, and we’d love for them all to be done now to the highest level possible. But we’re a fund that’s less than a year old so having sophisticated processes fully built out is not realistic, and we have to remind ourselves of that. For example, we’re working on collecting portfolio data in a meaningful way that helps founders see key insights about their business, as well as builds a dataset that can be used down the road for founders across the state as a benchmark tool. But having that fully built out to the level of sophistication we’d like, isn’t going to happen overnight. 

What traits/qualities are you looking for when identifying and meeting with founders for new potential investments?

One of the most important qualities I look for is transparency. We’re building a long-term relationship with the founder of any company we invest in and if you aren’t transparent with your numbers, team involvement, history etc. that’s a problem. To give you an example, we had a founder we were evaluating for investment and in the middle of the due diligence process, let us know that a key sale they had in their projections fell through. They could have kept that to themselves, but instead, they were transparent and told us about it. So while they may have been concerned to share that and risk derailing the potential investment, we were incredibly impressed with the founder.  

Prior to joining ISA Ventures, you founded Kinosol. Can you talk about your experience founding a startup and how it has affected you as an entrepreneur?

Coming from a founder background brings relatability not every investor has. I know the pressure that comes with being a founder and the time commitment it takes. So while I never raised capital from outside investors with KinoSol, keeping that founder perspective front of mind has impacted how I interact with founders and the investment process we have at ISAV. I’m very cognizant of respecting the founder’s time, making our investment process transparent outlining what we need from them at the beginning, and giving them critical feedback. 

As a female founder and investor, can you share your thoughts on the role diversity should play within entrepreneurship? What steps need to be taken to create a more level playing field for underrepresented entrepreneurs and founders?

The lack of diversity in the space creates a massive barrier. If you look at VC funds here in Iowa, there are a total of 3 females who are involved in the investment decision-making process, and the ethnic representation is even worse. Raising capital is intimidating, and can feel like you’re walking into the unknown because every investor is looking for something different, and what they’re looking for is often unclear. Even though we’re “Iowa Nice”, when you look around and don’t see anyone that looks like you, it’s discouraging, unapproachable, and creates an unintentional barrier.

To create a more level playing field in Iowa some things we as investors can do: 

  • Be transparent with the investment process and timeline so founders know what to expect reducing the fear of the unknown. 
  • Get to a quick no and give feedback on why you said no. Don’t just give a cop-out that it’s not the right time, or you’re too early. That doesn’t help founders. 
  • Be intentional in the hiring process. If you list you are looking for a new team member for your fund and one of the skills/experiences required is previous investor experience, you will most likely not get diverse applications. It’s not about lowering the bar but prioritizing bringing diverse people to the table and to do that it’s important to focus on key traits, like entrepreneurial mindset, not technical skills. 

At ISAV: 

  • We’re intentionally trying to meet entrepreneurs where they are, connecting and helping them however we can, whether they’re ready to raise capital or just have questions about the process, we want to help. 
  • Additionally, I’m typically the one on the team who hops on the first call with an entrepreneur and while our entire team is amazing, there’s something slightly less intimidating to meet with a young (25-year-old) female who has been a founder and has had to overcome some of the challenges many underrepresented founders face. 
  • One of the other key programs we’re launching is a Venture fellowship program fall of 2021. No prior founder or investment experience necessary. You’ll hear more about this soon! 

Where do you see Iowa’s startup ecosystem being at five years from now?

More collaborative and cohesive. Right now it feels like we still operate in silos across the state. Founders don’t always know what resources are available in Ames, Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, at the universities, etc. It’s easy to plug into your local ecosystem, but there’s no reason to recreate resources, especially in the virtual world we live in today. There are a lot of us working collaboratively across the state to bring resources front and center for founders, and I’m excited to see that continue to grow! 

What advice would you give to your 18-year-old self?

I would tell myself to trust in the skills I bring to the table. Being vocal about my talents and skills has never been a strong suit of mine. There’s an expectation of loud confidence in the startup community, and as a female, the need to overcompensate just to be seen or taken seriously in a male-dominated space is tremendous and frustrating. If someone will only take you seriously if you introduce yourself as the CEO, or you’ve scaled your business to $X in revenue, or because you’re wearing a suit, or because you’re older, that’s their unfortunate mistake. Age, gender, ethnicity, education, and title don’t represent a person’s capability or value.