Feb 20, 2023
This featured story is brought to you by the Power of Why Podcast in collaboration with Invest Ottawa, with critical support from BDC Capital’s Thrive Venture Fund and Title Sponsor of International Women’s Week. We teamed up to produce this special series to celebrate women leading in Ottawa for International Women’s Week (IWW 2023) and shine the spotlight on our IWW 2023 featured leaders to unpack their passion and purpose.
Each year, five inspirational leaders are selected to represent International Women’s Week. They are role models achieving a significant impact on our economy, community and society, and embody the spirit, goals and values of IWW.
Mass layoffs. The climate crisis. Springing, starry-eyed, from a global pandemic only to find a recession stalking our shadow.
Are we lurching toward The End? Or, as impact entrepreneur and angel investor Victoria Xu sees it, are we gearing up for The Next Leap?
Decarbonizing heavy industry with deep tech prodigy CleanInnoGen, investing in future-focused startups, and empowering everyone to join the charge with i4Green League, Victoria is helping reset, regroup and shore up the resources we need to face climate change.
Humble, visionary and relentlessly optimistic, here’s how she does it.
[7:30] When Victoria met cleantech
[8:00] 10 years in business? Time to study public policy.
[15:00] Angel investing isn’t about money
[16:20] “I feel a responsibility to take on risk.”
[17:30] Why angel investors need their eyes on the horizon
[18:50] What it’ll take for Victoria to invest in your business
[21:00] From neuroscience rabbit hole to full-fledged investment
[25:00] How a volunteer role at a grassroots non-profit was overwhelmed with top talent
Tune in to the podcast or take the time to digest each article found below. Regardless of the format, there’s great content in store for you!
Naomi Haile: I’d love for you to talk about your origin story.
Victoria Xu: I grew up in rural China. I experienced a unique kind of extreme poverty that people here can’t imagine. In a way, it was a sustainable, pre-industrialized society. I lived in the kind of house you see people today building on YouTube: without any modern materials, where the rooftop is hay. I’m lucky that I didn’t suffer from things you might associate with extreme poverty, like starvation.
I got to embrace nature as my only curriculum.
I learned how to swim in a river. There was no technology, no screen time, because there were no screens. That shaped my values and taught me to be curious, and to have a sense of connection with nature. I ended up in the tech industry and found that those childhood experiences guided me to where I am now.
Naomi: Did that environment allow you to be yourself?
Victoria: I was lucky that I didn’t feel a lot of stress. I would ask “why?” a lot, but my family was really supportive and they gave me the freedom to explore everything, to express everything. The society I grew up in wasn’t as free as the one we have here but I didn’t feel that pressure.
I learned that the only thing in life that’s certain is constant change.
That helped me, even when I was different from the other kids at school. I was a good student, and when you are, people aren’t as bothered by your other behaviours.
Naomi: How did you go from there to North America, and working in tech?
Victoria: After graduation my first job was at Bell Labs, a global leader in telecommunications. That brought me to the US and into the corporate and tech world. That experience shaped my professional life. I joined top talent from all over the world. I learned a lot there.
Naomi: In 2015, during your graduate studies at the University of Maryland, you developed an interest in climate change. What drew you to it?
Victoria: I went to the University of Maryland after working in the global telecom industry for 10 years.
Typically, people did an MBA at that point in their career, but I was more interested in exploring what else was out there.
I didn’t need an MBA because my work at a global tech company was great training. I went to Maryland’s School of Public Policy instead to learn about the public sector, nonprofit management and policy instead. We had a new dean who, today, is the Special Secretary on Climate Change for the United Nations. That experience opened up a new world to me. A new Global Sustainability Center was created.
My peers were going to COP 25 [The 2019 United Nations Climate Change Conference]. It’s interesting because that’s also when my children started to talk about climate change. The experience got me to explore it seriously, instead of thinking of it as another political buzzword.
Naomi: The spaces you’ve operated in, and the companies you invest in, are dedicated to improving people’s quality of life. Why?
Victoria: The trigger point for me was COVID-19. Before that it felt more business-driven. The pandemic showed us that adaptation is needed to continually improve society. It reinforced what’s essential, it reminded us that there’s always uncertainty. In early-stage business, there’s always risk, right? So we need to stick to what’s valuable. What made money before might not make money in the future.
Climate change is similar to the pandemic in that it reminds us that we cannot continue on the previous track.
That’s why my mandate for investing is to improve our quality of life. It’s the only thing that matters. It’s all about people and our journey in this world. Children play a role here. When you’re a parent, you’re reminded of the meaning of life. You want to create a better world for your children. It’s all connected.
Naomi: How did you get started with angel investing?
Victoria: I didn’t plan to be an angel investor, it just happened. It’s a way to bring more impact to the world, in terms of applying technology to make the world better. I’ve always seen entrepreneurship in myself but I only have 24 hours in one day. There are too many ideas and too many things to be done. I like the challenge that comes with understanding a new technology, or an entrepreneur and their business. As an entrepreneur you have to focus. Angel investors are similar, in that many of them are very active and hands-on.
From my perspective, angel investment isn’t just a financial investment. The numbers show that the annual return for angel investors is 20% plus, which isn’t bad from a financial perspective, but at the individual level you’re prepared to lose all the money you invest.
Because even when we lose money we’re still supporting entrepreneurs and an early-stage startup ecosystem that really matters.
Studying public policy and public management helped me see the big picture, and understand how valuable these ecosystems are. I’m prepared to accept the risk that comes with it.
Naomi: Where did your appetite for risk come from?
Victoria: I have a safety net: because of my experience, because of what I’ve achieved. Being in this position, I feel a responsibility to take on risk and uncertainty — otherwise who will? The journey itself is valuable. When I invest I’m not thinking about my return just in terms of money. There’s more to it than that. That’s a skill that angel investors need to develop: to see beyond the near future and that short-term financial statement.
Naomi: What do you look for when you decide to invest in a company?
Victoria: I’ve honed in on climate change because it’s such a big issue. We need a lot of new innovation because some will fail and some will, eventually, succeed. I don’t invest in solo founders. There are successful ones for sure, but it’s my personal preference to invest in great teams.
When a group of people share the same values they can drive positive change.
In terms of technology, I don’t have a list. Angels work differently from other funds who can source their deals. We don’t really have control over our deal flow. We’ve seen a wide range of startups. The one rule I have is that I will validate whether theirs is a true innovation, or something that will make money but won’t drive change.
There’s five technical “whys” you can ask to understand what problem a startup is addressing, and what it will look like in the future. It’s hard to define, and that’s the beauty of early-stage investing: you never know what you’ll come across. I have my own limitations, in that I only invest in things I can understand.
Neurovine, whose founder, Ashley, is on your podcast as well, is a story that demonstrates how all these points come together. First, they have a great team. They’re also working on technology that I understand — I actually studied biomedical engineering. I was personally interested in brain health as well, so I’d research neuroscience in my spare time. Because they’re not working in a crowded space, I could see value beyond their current product, which is a concussion treatment app.
In times of crisis, leaders who dare to be hopeful are those who are able to drive us toward change.
Startups have to be agile, ready to pivot to meet the market’s changing demands.
Since I’ve invested in Neurovine they’ve evolved to do just that. They have their own EEG band [Electroencephalography, which records the brain’s electrical activity] now. They’re on their way to becoming a significant player in brain health.
Naomi: In your industry, what’s one thing you have your eye on?
Victoria: I won’t talk about a particular technology because it’s all exploratory. What I will say is that the expected recession and big tech layoffs are a good thing for clean tech. People used to be in their comfort zone, holding a decent job, staying on track. But now those resources, that talent, will be released from the founder’s industry, where there’s less investment in apps, to clean tech and fighting climate change.
Imagine you got laid off. You might be rethinking where you want to work, and realising that there’s a whole new world that’s opening up. The nonprofit I work with opened a volunteer Board of Director position. It’s a grassroots initiative, we didn’t even have the website running yet, but we explained that our work is on climate change.
We got flooded with over-qualified candidates. When we talked to them, they delivered this message that, regardless of what industry they’re in, they realised that we have to work on sustainability, we have to work on climate change, because it’s the only thing that matters.
Even if technology changes, even if policies change, climate change will not go away.
Mother Nature works like that. We need people to move into this industry, bring their talent, and stay hopeful.
LinkedIn – Victoria Xu
An intrapreneur, consultant, and interviewer.
Naomi Haile is curious about people, their paths and what drives them. In 2017, she launched the Power of Why Podcast. Her guests have taken the non-linear path in business, venture capital and other creative professions to share their story. Each episode explores people’s philosophy on life and work.
As we all navigate our lives and careers, Naomi hopes that everyone she connects with – guests and listeners – can shape products, companies, and communities of impact.
Naomi is a consultant at QuakeLab. She recently graduated from Columbia University, studying Human Capital Management.
In support of its Women Founders and Owners strategy, Invest Ottawa offers programs and services that enable and accelerate the growth and success of women entrepreneurs from every walk of life. Visit www.investottawa.ca/women to learn more!