Sarah Kunst is a 28-year-old Renaissance woman.
She’s part investor (having worked at Mohr Davidow Ventures, a VC firm that invests in early-stage tech startups), part social change agent (she’s on the investment board of Venture for America, a nonprofit encouraging entrepreneurship), and an all-around badass (check her out on Forbes’ 30 Under 30).
Presently, she’s a tech M&A partner at search/recruiting firm Fortis Partners, where she uses her connections to help pair small startups with large companies who may want to purchase them — she’s a matchmaker, of sorts. “Most startups are too small to retain someone to help with M&A, but because of my experience and passion for small companies, I focus only on startup acquisition,” she says. “It’s a mix of investment banking and recruiting.”
And it’s a far cry from her beginnings in rural Michigan. In fact, it wasn’t until she attended Michigan State University that she got a liking for tech while working as a campus marketing manager for Apple. “I have always loved design and building businesses, but after I realized that technology combined those elements with the ability to truly innovate — creating products and services that had never existed before — I was hooked,” she says.
After graduating in 2008 with a degree in advertising and international development, she hit the ground running in the startup and investment worlds. At one point, she served as director of business development for Kaleidoscope, a fashion app. And while at Mohr Davidow, she worked on researching and investing in companies like Randi Zuckerberg’s Dot Complicated.
Now, in addition to her work with Fortis Partners, she also finds other ways to help early-stage ventures. “I’m an advisor to several startups, including Adventr.tv, founded by Grammy Award-winning producer Devo Harris,” she says. “And, I mentor at several accelerators,” including Mergelane, which focuses on women-led companies, and Boost.vc, backed by bitcoin investor Adam Draper.
Along the way, she’s noticed a slow turning of the tide for women and people of color in the finance and tech worlds. “It’s a long road, and many funds are just now starting to make a commitment to change,” she says. “Diversity creates more profitable companies and higher returns on investments. Not having a diverse investment team means you are leaving money on the table. You are choosing to sacrifice financial gain in favor of homogeny.”
When we spoke with Kunst, she discussed her battle scars from grappling with industrial patriarchy, the small deal that made a big difference in her professional outlook, and her love of lifting weights.
Edited interview excerpts below.
The Story Exchange: When you were a child, what did you imagine being when you grew up?
A leader in business — I always loved working and making money. I’ve also always had a passion for media and fashion that led me to roles at Chanel and several media startups as an adult.
The Story Exchange: What is the biggest mistake you’ve made in your career, and how did you work past it?
Not understanding the culture of a company or industry. In school, you are taught to work hard and have the right answers to get an A. In your career, you will most likely find that there is no grading rubric, and that being aware of the politics, loyalties and other such factors will get you much further than doing the most or the best work.
The Story Exchange: If you had to delete all but one app, which one would you choose to keep, and why?
Google Chrome, mainly because the browser allows me to access all other services. Hacked it!
The Story Exchange: What is your proudest accomplishment? Not necessarily your biggest, but your proudest.
I am proud of a small deal I completed earlier this year. It wasn’t the splashiest or highest profile, and it unfortunately isn’t public yet. But I built out a new M&A business unit at my company. Having that first “win” after months of work proved that my instincts were right.
The Story Exchange: When you need to unwind after a particularly trying day, what is your go-to plan?
I head to Equinox gym; lifting heavy weights to Jay-Z and Kanye West is my therapy.
The Story Exchange: What is the most difficult part of working in an industry with such widespread diversity problems?
That’s like asking, “What’s the most difficult part of drowning?” It’s all enveloping and frequently heart breaking. I have stories of almost every type of insanity — from a prominent VC who told me he didn’t know if he wanted to “hire me or hit on me” during a job interview to a portfolio company CEO assuming I was the administrator, not the investor. Friends have told me about VCs explicitly asking for sex in return for investments, while other investors have told me they don’t think women should be investors. It’s eye-opening to stand in the middle of a tech revolution and realize that the mindsets of so many around you are stuck in the Dark Ages.
The Story Exchange: What is the most exciting part of working with entrepreneurs and their companies as an investor?
Bringing the future to life! To see things that were barely imaginable just one decade ago become affordable, daily technologies is the most fascinating, empowering thing in the world. I advise Garden Fresh Farms, who are making it possible to grow produce in warehouses. Osteoid is making 3D-printed casts that heal bones 40 percent faster. We have self-driving cars! The future came true, and we are just now exploring the possibilities in a world where computer chips are smaller than potato chips. I thrive on finding companies lead by good people who will make the world easier.
The Story Exchange: When you retire, what do you hope to be able to say when looking back at your career?
“Woah, I made a lot of money!” Too often, women worry that they will seem greedy or aggressive, and as a result, will leave money on the table. I hope to be an example of unabashedly owning the fact that I’m good at making money. Warren Buffett never apologizes for his success. I’d like to see more women do the same.