Interview: Elizabeth Kraus, Co-founder + Chief Investment Officer at MergeLane

I was instantly a fan of Elizabeth's when I used her online scheduler to set up our first meeting and an option was "hiking meeting"! Elizabeth is a dynamo and I am honored to be a small part of what she is doing through MergeLane. This program is empowering and inspiring women entrepreneurs.  Elizabeth's answers are honest and insightful. I personally loved the 20% answer. Enjoy!

CD: Where did your inspiration to start MergeLane come from?

EK: MergeLane is an effort to prove that investing in women isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do. We’re currently doing that in three ways. We run a 12-week accelerator program that pairs a select group of high-growth startups with at least one woman in leadership with industry leading mentors, investors, executive coaches and curriculum to dramatically accelerate their business. We have an investment fund that invests in women-led startups that are not a fit for our accelerator program. Thirdly, we run three-day intensive leadership camps for women in startups, corporations, nonprofits and government.

Two and a half years ago when my co-founder asked me to join MergeLane, I originally said that I had absolutely zero interest. I’ve never felt limited by my gender, and I didn’t want to marginalize myself from my network made up mostly of men who I enjoyed working with by focusing specifically on women.

But….my co-founder Sue is a former Federal Prosecutor and is quite persuasive. She said:

“Listen. I think you should take a second look at this for three reasons:

  1. There is all of this data coming out that proves that investing in women makes good business sense.

  2. I think the investors you’ve been working with are going to be thrilled to have the opportunity to invest in more women

  3. You and I are uniquely talented in leveraging the strengths and complimenting the weaknesses of female leaders.”

Wow. That was a pretty powerful statement. I decided her proposition was worth considering.

To be honest, I had given so little thought to being a woman in business that I actually had no idea what these innate strengths and weaknesses even were. However, as I did my research, I realized that some of these traits had been the root cause of some of my biggest wins and the biggest losses of my career.

I’m proud to say that MergeLane has done the exact opposite of marginalizing me. We’ve oversubscribed every investment fund we’ve opened, over-sold every event we’ve planned and invested in 26 extraordinary companies led by extraordinary women. 

CD: How did you decide whether to bootstrap the business, seek angel investors, or take VC money?

EK: Because we are an investment accelerator and an investment fund, we needed to raise a small investment fund to kick things off. We used the strategy that I always recommend to other entrepreneurs, and raised our fund from five types of investors, in this order:

  1. Reputable investors we most wanted to work with. These investors (each of the Foundry Group partners being the first to commit) added the additional credibility we needed to encourage others to invest. They have also added extraordinary value every step of the way.

  2. Our friends and family members we most wanted to offer the opportunity to. I often tell entrepreneurs to think about how they would feel if they were the founders of Facebook and they didn’t ask their aunt, who could have easily afforded to lose $10,000, to invest $10,000 in their company. Because we strongly believe that investing in women is not only the right, but the smart thing to do, we made sure to ask the people most close to us to invest.

  3. People who were interested and well-suited to play an active role in our business as advisors.

  4. Successful entrepreneurs, investors and executives who were too busy to play an active role, but added credibility and could make helpful connections.

  5. People we genuinely enjoyed as people, who were passionate about our mission and believed in our investment thesis.

CD: Can you walk us through a typical day for you? What is the best part of your day?

EK: A typical day for me:

  • Get up and have breakfast

  • Work on emails and independent work

  • Go work out

  • Do some follow-up emails, and research online, or meet with potential investors, or potential companies for the Mergelane program

  • At about 3:00 p.m: Do hiking meetings, either with investors, or with companies that I’m interested in investing with

  • Dinner at home

  • Work for about three more hours at night

Hiking meetings are the favorite part of my day.

CD: WHAT DID YOU LEARN FROM YOUR BIGGEST FAILURE? WHAT WOULD YOU HAVE DONE DIFFERENTLY?

EK: The first startup I founded at the age of 24 did alright, but it wasn’t the smashing success I was hoping for. In my eyes, it was a failure. The most important lesson I learned is that: It takes a village. As Brad Feld writes about in Startup Communities, it really does take a village to build a startup. I failed to access the startup community I had right in my back yard in Boulder, Colorado - in part because the community was still in its infancy, but mostly for two reasons: 1) I thought I was “too busy” to waste time networking and 2) I was afraid to admit my lack of experience in certain areas. Now that I am really a part of that community, I understand its value and the importance of asking for help. 

CD: WHAT WAS THE BEST PIECE OF ADVICE YOU EVER GOT? THE WORST?

EK: The best: Do something you’ll love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.

The worst: Work is work, no matter what you do. Just do what will make you the most money.

I think my truth lies somewhere in between. My work situation is about as good as it gets. I am extremely passionate about the work I do, can work from anywhere, have a flexible schedule, and am making a difference. However, at least 20% of my work time is spent on stuff I’d rather not be doing. I’ve created incredible efficiencies to keep this at 20%, but I’m not sure there is a career that does not require some “work”. If I don’t feel fairly compensated for that “work”, I start to feel resentful.

Also, while money certainly does not buy happiness, I do think it makes life easier. I have also learned that I can make an incredible impact with money. 

CD: WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO ASPIRING ENTREPRENEURS?

EK: Just take the leap. It's scary, it's risky, but it's a lot of fun. 
Surround yourself with people who will consistently push your personal boundaries.
If you aren’t embarrassed by your first attempt, you are waiting too long.
Trust your gut. Any time you start to feel like it just isn't feeling right, you should get out.

Perhaps most importantly: Learn how to say “no” with grace. Saying “NO” in one place enables you to say “YES” in another. I have written an entire article about this

CD: HOW DO YOU STAY HEALTHY (PHYSICALLY AND MENTALLY) WHILE BUILDING A BUSINESS?

EK: My honest answer to this question is that I have learned and constantly have to re-learn to be selfish.

As a former fitness instructor and triathlete, and a skier and a dancer, I love working out perhaps more than anything in the world. I started working out to lose weight and to “look better”. Admittedly, I still love to “look” fit, but now I’m much more addicted to the way it makes me feel. Because I prioritize it so highly, I would guess that I work out more than 99% of entrepreneurs. Yet, I have extreme guilt for every moment I spend exercising. Right or wrong, I see those moments as time I should be spending building my business, helping my family or making an impact on the world.

I used to rectify this guilt by simply sleeping less. I would wake up at 3:00 am so I could put in a 12-hour day as an entrepreneur and still have time for family and friends. However, several years of that took a serious toll on my physical and mental health.

I am still better at maintaining my physical rather than my mental health, but I now rectify my guilt for taking care of my mental and physical health in two ways:

  1. I use solo workouts to take a mental break. I have learned that if I can just start moving, my mental list of to dos and the fog of guilt for taking a break will start to clear at about minute 15 of my workout. Nicole DeBoom, former Ironman Champion and the founder of Skirt Sports, did a beautiful job of explaining this phenomenon and her approach to staying fit in her recent Real Leaders podcast with my business partner Sue. Worth a listen.
  2. I incorporate physical fitness into my workday. I regularly do walking, skiing and hiking meetings. I take calls on spin bikes, treadmills and trails. I answer emails while walking on the treadmill (try this at your own risk) or riding an incumbent bike (much safer).

CD: WHAT'S YOUR FAVORITE BOOK?

EK: The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck. I recently read it because I wanted to take a break from reading entrepreneur-related books. Ironically, I think I learned more about being an entrepreneur from this book than any I have ever read. It is a story of sheer grit and perseverance, and a powerful view of the beauty and peril of ambition.

CD: WHO WOULD YOU MOST LIKE TO HAVE DINNER WITH?

EK: Madeleine Albright. Although I have never met her, I owe her a deep apology. You can read more about that here.

CD: WHAT'S YOUR FAVORITE VACATION SPOT?

EK: Key Biscayne. It is only twenty minutes from the Miami airport, but it feels like it is 100 miles away from the hustle and bustle of Miami. Please, please, please don’t share this secret.

Interview Elizabeth Kraus- LIFE SMART by Carrie Dorr