Schwarzman Scholar Austin Mejia on the value of a track for LGBTQ+

Austin Mejia, right, in San Francisco in July 2021. Courtesy of Austin Mejia.

Austin Mejia, an incoming Schwarzman Scholar at Tsinghua University, graduated from Princeton University in 2020. He joined the 2021 PRISM Investor Track. You can reach him on Twitter @austinlmejia and austinlmejia@gmail.com.

What’s the value of a track aimed at LGBTQ+ people?

I did a lot of entrepreneurship on Princeton’s campus. I was the president of the entrepreneurship club. I was a TA for a popular entrepreneurship class. But at the end of the day, I could only see one other person in an entrepreneurial leadership position across the entire university who was also queer. It felt like an echo chamber.

Being queer in VC creates an awful Catch 22. If you try to make it visible, people think that you’re profiting off of it, or you’re a diversity hire. But then if you don’t, it’s impossible to connect with and identify other people in the space. By trying to make yourself visible, you have to make it part of your brand when you don’t want to.

Getting to see successful queer investors lets you know that queer people can be successful as investors. Once you know something can be done, it’s much easier to do it.

How did you come across PRISM?

I came across PRISM from a tweet that Ivan Zhao, who is running the fellowship, sent out. He said to look out for something pertaining to VC and LGBTQ people. I immediately DM’ed him being like, “you have to let me know as soon as this happens.” Later, he sent me the application link.

I see myself as an entrepreneur, and I’m constantly building things. In the next five years, I want to start a company. The big things that I constantly think about are climate change, how we make doing good easier, and how we build tech products of the future.

I’ve talked to a lot of founders. I’ve worked with them. I’ve founded things myself. But I had this realization that I have no understanding of how VC works! I saw this program as a phenomenal opportunity to get my feet wet, learn more about the VC ecosystem, and understand how VCs think to make myself a better founder.

What has PRISM taught you?

PRISM taught me two things. The first is that you don’t have to be at a major venture capital firm to be in VC. We got to speak to successful angel investors who wrote checks on the side while they were still doing their main hustle. I didn’t know that you could be a successful investor and not be full time: I thought you either had to be an entrepreneur, work in tech, or be a VC. I learned it was much more of a spectrum than I originally thought, which was exciting because I can see myself writing small angel checks and helping teams.

The second thing I learned was how valuable these career paths are. I thought VC was an end game, career-wise: you either do it after startups, after being an operator, or you enter VC directly. We got to talk to some speakers who showed that you can switch back into being an operator or founder anytime. In fact, I’m getting a coffee chat with one of the speakers who was a VC and got so invested in a problem space that he’s now a founder again, which I find exciting.

If I were to synthesize all those insights down, it would be that fundamentally, PRISM track opened my mind towards the entire landscape of venture capital.

Austin Mejia, third from left, at a birthday party in Philadelphia in June 2021. Courtesy of Austin Mejia.

How has your view of VC changed this summer?

From an outside perspective, it’s easy to feel like venture capital is a black box. Pitch decks go in, and 0.05% of decks come out with a deal. You have no idea of what goes in between.

PRISM gave this peek behind the lid of the box where you understand what these VCs are looking for — great business fundamentals, a big enough market size, a good team and some amount of traction. That’s what it’s all about. If you have four of those (plus a free Canva account to make a nice pitch deck) you’re 95% of the way. That isn’t apparent to someone on the outside. It takes a lot of conversations with VCs and looking at enough decks to pattern match. Everything else, like the number of pitch competitions you’ve been in and retweets you get on social media, is tangential.

What do you like about social impact businesses?

The traditional path for doing good used to be founding a nonprofit, but nonprofits are highly unsustainable. There’s a lot of studies that have demonstrated starting a nonprofit and then running out of funding can cause more harm than good because communities become dependent on them. By creating a for-profit, you ensure some amount of stability that charities can never achieve.

Not only that, but it’s really good business to be a founder trying to solve a social problem. Consumers are increasingly wanting to see a social impact in companies. You’re getting access to phenomenal talent demanding it from their employers, and you’re accessing opportunities and venues of marketing, promotion, and networking that you don’t otherwise get.

I’ve had this experience in building my Chrome extension Donera where I talk about the company with people, and they’re volunteering themselves to join. Every hire I’ve made through the startup has been me talking about the idea with other people and them saying, “How do I get involved?”

Austin Mejia at a volcano state national park in Hawaii in May 2021. Courtesy of Austin Mejia.

During the pandemic, why did you get into cooking?

My pandemic hobby is cooking. There are very few skills that have such immediate payoff; it’s a high utility skill because we eat multiple times a day, every single day. And once you get good enough at cooking, you gain a better appreciation for the food you eat and how difficult it is to make a perfect piece of seasoned chicken.

My go-to dish has been blackened Cajun salmon with spicy broccoli and the best roasted potatoes you’ve ever had. It’s like an oven baked potato with the texture and consistency of a french fry.

If you think about someone who picks up painting, you have to paint for years before you make something good enough, but it takes three tries for a recipe before you make it good enough where you’re like, “This is nice, and I’ll make this for myself.”


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