Mercedes Bent fell in love with venture investing while getting a graduate degree at Stanford in 2017. While there she worked at the school's Impact Fund, which backs socially conscience companies, and at an edtech venture firm called Owl Ventures.
Despite working for those funds, the elite world of Silicon Valley's top venture firms was a mystery to her. She had spent the bulk of her early career as a product manager at the edtech startup General Assembly.
She felt it was impossible to know which firms were actually hiring, given that they rarely posted formal job openings. She had to fight for access to the VCs who spoke on campus, rushing to them after events so she could introduce herself and ask for a coffee meeting.
While at school, Bent, now 32, reached out to hundreds of investors, using a spreadsheet to keep track of her progress. And like many of her other classmates, she spent her free time meeting VCs, sometimes at their offices just ten minutes away from campus on Sand Hill Road, or simply on a park bench at Stanford.
"It's kind of getting to know people and asking if they might have a position open in the coming years," Bent told Insider.
After countless such meetings she got a lucky break in December of that year, when Lightspeed Venture Partners talent partner Brian Kasser added her as a connection on Linkedin.
Bent quickly reached out and the two met, kicking off an almost year-long process that eventually landed her as a partner at the firm.
Bent acknowledges that being at Stanford's Graduate School of Business (GSB) gave her advantages for breaking into the venture world.
"Just being at the GSB alone, you get access to VCs in a way that not everyone across the whole world does," she said. "So I'm very thankful and feel lucky for that."
But she also says she used a few crucial tricks to the application process that even the best business school students tend to neglect.
Informal coffee chats
Bent's initial meeting with Kasser kicked off three subsequent meetings with different partners at the firm over the next year, while Bent was still in school.
While they were advertised as informal, get-to-know-you chats, Bent developed a very specific approach for impressing the partners during those meetings.
Rather than speak in generalities about her careers goals, she told the partners the three specific areas she wanted to invest in: edtech, multicultural consumer products, and virtual reality.
Then she explained her specific investment theses for each, drawing from her own professional experience and experience as a Black woman. (Bent did a short stint at a virtual reality startup after leaving General Assembly and before business school.)
For example, she explained why she believed there was a huge potential for Black women's' hair products, referencing statistics showing that while Black women spend more on haircare than any other US demographic, there was no venture-backed haircare startup that served their specific needs.
From her work at General Assembly and Owl Ventures, she explained why she felt universities weren't doing a good enough job preparing their students for a rapidly-evolving job market, so she liked a new crop of edtech startups focused on career training.
The Lightspeed investors were impressed, and Bent was offered a chance to formally interview for a position at the firm in the fall of 2018.
Part of the "secret sauce" to her initial success, Bent said, "was having a very directed approach" to the investment theses she presented before the partners.
"It's not something I always see from people who are looking for jobs in venture. But I think it can get you a lot further, more quickly," she added.
To Bent's surprise, Lightspeed's formal interview process entailed just one task: she was to talk about three to five companies she wanted to back during a few, one-on-one meetings with the firm's investors.
Bent wasn't exactly sure what Lightspeed expected of her for these interviews, given how vague the prompt was. But she knew that she wanted to show them that she could excel at all the things VCs were expected to excel at.
"I wanted to show that I am going after these spaces. I can run really hard. I can find founders. I can evaluate. I can potentially even win deals and I can serve as a good board member," she said.
So she mimicked the day-to-day job of being a venture investor when preparing for her interviews.
Bent created a list of 60 companies in edtech, multicultural consumer and virtual reality. Then, she narrowed the list down to a dozen startups and conducted an initial round of due diligence on those companies, evaluating their business fundamentals and the markets they were operating in.
Based on her research, she whittled the list to eight, did more research on them, and cut the list down to four. Bent wrote investment memos for each of the four and created a final list of three to present to the Lightspeed investors.
To make sure she could answer any questions about the three, she spoke to their founders and independent industry experts.
Bent then outlined her entire process during her interviews and presented it via a slide deck that incorporated her own personal and professional experiences.
Lightspeed's investors liked what they saw and she got the job in late 2018, a few months before she graduated from Stanford.
Helping others break into venture
At Lightspeed, Bent has focused on the edtech sector, investing in companies like Forage, a career discovery platform that lets employers create courses simulating what it's like to work at their firms.
But she's also committed to helping other people from diverse backgrounds break into the world of elite venture firm.
Bent, who is from North Carolina, leads Lightspeed's Scout fund. Its goal is to help Black, Latinx, Indigenous and Pacific Islander communities build the support and network they need to join the venture industry.
That program has already paid dividends. Ivan Alo and LaDante McMillon, for example, cofounded the seed-stage firm New Age Capital after the two were investment scouts for Lightspeed. The two are on Business Insider's list of the 100 rising-star VCs of 2020.
"I don't want to have the guilt of: if I leave VC, I'm taking one black person or maybe the only black person at my firm out of the industry," Bent said. "Not having that be a fear would be a great impact to have on the industry."