Miriam Rivera is not your typical VC. The cofounder, CEO and managing director of Ulu Ventures was raised by parents from Puerto Rico who came to the mainland U.S. as migrant farmers. She credits her early immersion in computer education for setting her up for her future career, which has included four degrees from Stanford and becoming Google’s deputy general counsel.
It was after leaving Google in 2006 that Rivera began angel investing, then decided a Latina woman could make a meaningful contribution to venture capital. “What I was seeing in the market was a lot of people who struggled to get access to capital and part of it was just this lack of opportunity,” Rivera tells Forbes. “We could get access to entrepreneurs that both cared about that, regardless of their race or gender, and also people that wanted to help create an ecosystem for greater access to capital for diverse entrepreneurs and diverse managers.”
She launched Ulu Ventures in 2008 with Clint Korver, the most “analytic mind she knows” — though she may be biased, as he’s her husband. Now, 13 years later, the firm is announcing its third fund as originally reported in the Midas Touch newsletter.
Ulu Ventures raised $138 million for its latest vehicle, soaring past its $100 million target and more than doubling the $66 million it raised for Fund II. This makes it one of the largest, if not the largest, Latina Woman-led vehicles. The fund will focus on investing in mainly U.S.-based seed-stage enterprise IT companies across industries and is particularly excited about fintech and edtech. Rivera says Ulu had raised a little over $66 million when Covid hit last year and forced a change in plans. “When covid-19 hit, and to be fair for six months after, we didn’t receive one additional commitment,” she says. “We were starting to get a little worried.”
The pause didn’t last. Rivera says that the social justice movement last summer helped put their fund on the map to LPs and others in the venture community who were looking to help promote diversity in the industry. “People were just educating themselves and realizing that despite the data they were actually making completely different economic choices in terms of who they invested in,” she says. “ That part certainly helped our firm in terms of fundraising.”
The firm raised money from fund of funds such as Plexo Capital, corporations such as Twitter and Motley Fool, pensions including the Los Angeles Fire and Police Pensions, endowments like the University of Rochester and firms like Goldman Sachs. Suzanne Gauron, the head of Launch at GS, a program looking to invest $1 billion into diverse-led startups and funds, says Rivera actually helped advise them on the program making her fund a natural choice. “We talk a lot about thinking of a diversity ethos surrounding the investors at the firm and the companies they back and Ulu was a perfect expression of that,” Gauron says.
Ulu uses a data-driven approach to investing similar to the method of an institutional investor, Rivera says. The firm evaluates each company by a rubric of five criteria including geography, category, diversity, stage and connection to Stanford, and looks to do further due diligence in companies with at least three of the qualifications. While diversity isn’t one of the firm’s mandates, it is essential to its underlying strategy. “It turned out that approach also helped us to identify diverse teams that would be financially outperforming,” Rivera says. “We had the hypothesis that diverse teams would outperform, we were seeing public company data to that effect, but no data within early-stage companies.” More than 75% of the companies in Ulu’s second fund were founded by diverse teams, with Fund III on track to do better, she adds.
The 13-year-old firm is starting to see its portfolio mature. Ulu’s 2010 investment in Palantir paid off when the data company went public at a $22 billion valuation in September. The firm also has several SPACs in the works in its portfolio, including wealth management software company SoFi, which has agreed to go public at an $8.65 billion valuation, and electric bus company Proterra, which is going public through a $1.6 billion deal. “It’s really exciting to see some of these companies we were in really early,” Rivera says. “I remember seeing things like signs for SoFi on the way to San Francisco, and you see them on TV. You’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s one of our companies.’”