A lot of people who’ve been working in the venture industry — even for many years — haven’t seen a true down cycle.
Somewhat ironically, Priti Youssef Choksi, a newly minted VC, knows very well what one looks like. The newest partner of the multi-stage investment firm Norwest Venture Partners has been working in tech since before the last boom and bust — and she has lessons to share about both good times and bad.
It all started in her native Mumbai (“Bombay to me!” she says). Choksi didn’t tell her parents when, as a teenager, she applied to the University of Pennsylvania to study architecture and business. “I couldn’t study both back home,” she says, somewhat sheepishly from Norwest’s glass-lined new offices in San Francisco’s South Park neighborhood.
Instead of wind up at an architecture firm, she landed at Broadview Associates, an investment bank that was based in the Bay Area and advised dozens of tech companies during the go-go dot.com days — before nosediving along with the market. (In 2003, it was acquired by bigger rival Jefferies.)
By then, Choksi had already joined one of the bank’s clients, an internet marketing company called USWeb whose CEO asked her to work for him despite having no discrete job description. Looking back now, Choksi remembers the experience fondly, saying she ran strategy projects and competitive analysis of what others in the industry were doing as USWeb grew from a 200- to an 8,000-person operation. This being the dot com era, however, USWeb, which was renowned for its roll-up strategy at the time, merged with another company, which promptly went bankrupt.
Choksi again left before her employer’s demise to join a streaming media company, but alas, it wasn’t meant to last long either, either, including because broadband connections didn’t yet exist to support startup’s vision. If at this point, Choksi felt ready to throw in the towel, she doesn’t seem to recall it. Instead, she entered into a one-year program at the Kellogg School to burnish her “soft skills and negotiating skills and things you don’t have time to practice” at a startup. Then she headed right back to Silicon Valley.
Her return would begin a second chapter of sorts. In fact, like a lot of people who came to the Bay Area in the ’90s and who have stayed, Choksi’s fortunes began to turn after the detritus of the bubble’s burst began to blow away. First came a job at Google, where she stayed six years, holding roles in both strategic partnerships and, later, distribution partnerships, where she says she helped convince management to bundle the company’s search bar with other products to get it into the world more widely.
By 2009, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg — a former Google exec who’d seen Choksi’s work — was reaching out to Choksi to ask if she would help run business development at Facebook, which itself was still privately held at the time. Choksi said yes, so thoroughly enjoying the company that five years later, she moved to the “dark side, doing M&A at Facebook” for another four years.
She notes that, by then, Facebook had “moved beyond acqui-hires to doing big tech bets” but like everyone in the M&A world, she wasn’t able to strike a deal with every interesting founder she met. Eventually, her abiding fascination with compelling founders and startups led her work with a recruiter earlier this year.
At first, she imagined she would take on yet another operating role at a small but growing company. Instead, Norwest managing partner Jeff Crowe raised his hand and asked for a meeting with her. It was apparently a match from the start. Sitting in an airy conference room, Choksi says of the move that she and Crowe were and remain “just very direct with each other.” Norwest was also, somewhat incredibly, the “only venture firm that invited me to a partner-and-pitch meeting” while it was trying to lure her into the fold, she says.
Crowe certainly sees Choksi’s hire as a big win as the firm continues to build out it consumer-facing investment practice.
He volunteers that he’s particularly appreciative of Choksi’s ties to Facebook and to the many people who’ve spun out of the company to work on their own projects. But he also recognizes her ability to identify a good opportunity when she sees one and to support founders as they grow their companies. “Somebody who’s been in the industry a long time, knows a lot of people, seen a lot of technologies, and worked with entrepreneurs both inside of out of companies like Facebook — including during their awkward teenage phase?” says Crowe. “It’s pretty exciting for us.”
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