Ivan Zhao on the launch of PRISM Investor Track

Ivan Zhao, an investment partner on the Boston team, runs Dorm Room Fund’s first PRISM Investor Track. This year, PRISM accepted 15 students who identify as queer for a six-week program. Feel free to email him at izhao@dormroomfund.com or on Twitter @zhaovan8 to chat.

Why PRISM?

I jokingly said in the fall, “If I was part of DRF, I would totally love to run this.” It’s like the TikTok sound where they say, “At first, I’d like to run it as a joke, but it’s not a joke anymore.”

I identify as queer, and bringing identity into the workplace was super important to me. In high school and college, you’re navigating different identities and you’re not really sure. Obviously, the world isn’t built for you. I had always cared about uplifting other queer voices and really focusing on that, but didn’t have any tangible outcomes of things that I did.

One summer, a couple of friends and I ran a speaker series with queer college students in tech and design. We talked with professors, grad students and designers. It was a great opportunity for community building. I had never realized how much space heteronormativity takes up until I realized that when you are in a room with only queers, that is the norm.

Coming into DRF, I definitely noticed that wasn’t the example. Out of most people, there are not that many queer partners, and they aren’t super vocal about it. Since venture capital is still siloed and white male-dominated, I wanted to build a program around being queer.

How did you launch the PRISM program?

It was important for me that everyone we got also identified as queer and was well known in the industry. Some people we got were Lee Edwards from Root, Maria Salamanca from Unshackled, and Vinay Iyengar from Two Sigma.

There are not that many queer venture capitalists. It’s important to gain knowledge, but it’s important to gain knowledge from someone who potentially has a shared experience. All of the investors and mentors in PRISM are queer identifying. A lot of the investors have been super radically honest with us, and the biggest value added was that shared space and community.

Queerness in venture capital

VC in and of itself is still black boxed. No one knows how the process works. You want to seem like the perfect candidate as possible, but if you’re queer identifying, you might stay closeted. The statistics I use also show that 57% of founders raising money don’t identify as queer. That was hard for me to hear because VC and founders are relationship and network-driven. How can you establish a relationship if you don’t know the entirety of a person?

There’s also this backward mindset that diversity means lowering the bar. Because there’s not a lot of queerness reflected in companies, people don’t feel as comfortable talking about it. It’s also just a systematic issue. If the majority of your group is straight people, that results in the discourse you have. It’s hard to have that sense of camaraderie.

What’s the value in recruiting queer people?

It brings a unique perspective. One concrete example is this company called Ash, which does at-home STD kit testing. It was originally designed for gay men because that’s a huge issue. People were originally like “This market isn’t big enough” or “Is this really a problem?” When you aren’t aware of a lot of problems, especially those of marginalized groups, investors ride it off very quickly. They’ll say I don’t see this as a market, but it’s important to recognize that this is a market, and there’s more nuance than you understand.

If you come from a marginalized background, you also have the tenacity to make more out of things that weren’t given to you freely.

What’s been challenging in running PRISM?

Jokingly, getting swag to ship was super difficult. I have so much respect for people who deal with supply chain. Y’all are great; I could never do it.

The most challenging thing is scheduling because people are very busy. This is both on the volunteer and VC side. I send four or five emails in a week asking people if this time works, or if another time works. We had a couple of last-minute dropouts and switches in time.

The other challenge was finding mentors. A lot of the investors who I talked to said they don’t know that many other queer investors. That’s literally a problem. We ended up being okay, but I had to send a lot of emails and Tweeted a lot of them. It’s such a niche intersection that there are just not that many queer investors.

I tried to talk to as many people in VC to see what they wanted to see from this program. In one conversation, I talked to Najva Sol, Earnest Capital’s head of product, who came from art school. She said that in art school, nobody even thinks that venture capital is an option. The biggest thing for us is having more conversation around venture capital, and having queer people see that this is a program specifically built for you.

What are the goals of PRISM?

Friendships. At the end of the program, I want to ask, “Do you think you have made a friend past this program? Will you keep chatting with them?” That is super important because you know someone who has your back, no matter what, and understands a lot of the same stuff. Even to my friends, when I joke about being gay, it’s a completely different experience. My friends and I joke that if you have many queers in a room, it becomes group therapy. In PRISM, there’s a lot of bonding of shared trauma.

Opportunity. When we opened up applications, we got an email from someone who said, “Thank you so much. As a queer woman and person of color, I have never felt that this space was built for me. This literally shows that there is room and opportunity.” That is the most impactful thing.

Authenticity. It’s nice to hear from people who have the experience of figuring out their identity. It feels more real and genuine than going to a company that says they care about diversity. For marginalized groups, it’s important that the person running a program also has a shared identity and cares about the problem. People joining PRISM shouldn’t feel like we are a checkmark for DRF to feel better. It should feel like a space where you are valued as an individual.


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