Mecca Tartt

Hi ladies and gentlemen, welcome back to the Atlanta Startup Podcast. My name is Mecca Tart and I am the Executive Director of Startup Runway and your host for today. I’m really excited to sit down with Maria Velissaris, who founded SteelSky Ventures in 2020. To improve access to care and outcomes, and women’s healthcare by finding investment opportunities, and innovative medical devices, digital tools, and delivery models. Today, her firm has 73 million in assets under management. SteelSky Ventures is a black female-led venture capital fund and the largest venture capital fund focused on women’s healthcare. In today’s episode, Maria will share about her journey establishing SteelSky Ventures information about her fund, and share key insights for startups that are seeking funding. But now before we dive deep into today’s episode, please be sure to mark your calendars for September 15th for the HerStory: Women Founder Empowerment series, an exclusive startup runway program that will celebrate women founders at the Russell Center. This event will kick off at 3 pm and to learn more you can reach out to Mecca at startuprunway.org. Prior to jumping into today’s episode, let’s talk a bit more about some of the happenings going on with the Valor team throughout the month of September. Valor is actively accepting entries for their annual art of commission, which is $5,000. So please share this with the rising Georgia artists who you appreciate. The deadline to apply is September 30. The last stop of the Atlanta unlocked tour is Atlanta Tech Park and this is happening on Thursday, September 22. I will be in attendance and so will some of the other valid team members. So please feel free to drop us a note if you’ll be there as well. Now let’s dive into today’s conversation. Without further ado, Maria, welcome to the podcast. Before we even talk about where you are now and what your focus is for your firm, take us through your journey. How did you get to where you are now?

Maria Velissaris

Well, it all started way back with a lemonade stand in Belgium. I was born in Europe and I lived over in Europe until I was 10. I was just always thinking about businesses to start, it was just the kind of person I was. I started babysitting clubs, lemonade stands, and garage cleaning business, and then I came to Wake Forest undergrad and I was thinking about a business to start there. I started the first student-run business there, a company called College Boxes, which ended up expanding to many, many schools. 50 by the time I left and was acquired by U-haul. I’ve always had a very entrepreneurial spirit and that was a great opportunity, but I knew that at 19, I still had a lot to learn. I spent the next 17 years of my career learning different operating roles, I did consulting to understand how to work with customers and client service, I went to NYU and got an MBA, and I worked in branding, marketing, and finance. I really just wanted to understand how to run great businesses. I landed back in New York where I helped a dermatologist do a roll-up strategy, started with two clinics, and now he’s at over 100. I really had this knack and ability to try to help companies grow. It’s just always been a passion of mine. Then I was able to get to the other side of the table and learn how to invest.

Mecca Tartt

Absolutely. We went from a lemonade stand in Belgium to helping a dermatologist scale their business from two offices to almost 100 offices, and now your passion is really around helping to support entrepreneurs and helping to support founders. Now, tell us a little bit about the funding, your portfolio, what’s important to you, and why it’s important to you.

Maria Velissaris

For me, as a female entrepreneur, and a woman of color, I know how difficult it is for women to get access to capital. When I was working on my journey through all my operational endeavors, I joined an angel group and I started angel investing. I wanted to specifically invest in female social entrepreneurs, people that were changing the world, and people that were doing things for the better. In doing that, I learned a lot about investing. I learned a lot about what was important about how to value companies, how to negotiate with them, and how to support them. After I had grown my angel portfolio to about seven companies, I really found this niche in women innovating and women’s health and they weren’t getting any dollars. They were getting even less of the 2% we hear about innovating and really stigmatized products and services that aren’t the sexiest things to people who want to invest in FinTech or crypto or all of those things. I just thought there was a big market for that and it could really change the world and make the lives of women better everywhere. That’s what was the catalyst for me to start investing, I looked to the market to see if there was a fund that I could invest in that was already doing this work. Portfolia at the time was the only fund that was doing this kind of work and they were closed. My grandmother always told me, that if you don’t see something, you need to build it. You need to be the change that you want to see. That’s when I decided in 2020 to stand up Steel Sky ventures and invest in women’s health care.

Mecca Tartt

I love that. There’s nothing like a praying grandmother. I think we all have sayings from our amazing grandmothers. They’re such precious gifts in this world. Going back to just women and having that support, you said you were part of an angel investment group and that’s how you got started. For those that are listening to this podcast that is interested in becoming an angel but not quite sure where to start, can you give some advice about that?

Maria Velissaris

Yes. First, you have to make sure that you’re an accredited investor. There are a lot of different ways to start your investing journey. You can start on online platforms like Republic.co, AngelList, iFundWomen, there are a lot of opportunities. Now, even if you aren’t a venture capitalist or an angel to invest along these platforms, joining an angel group, you’ll have to qualify to be able to invest in these companies, because they are really risky. It’s important to know the risks. Most of these companies will lose money, few of them will win, and they will return your fund, or they will be the ones that make you a lot of money but angel investing isn’t something where you make five bets and you get five winners. It’s not for the faint of heart. You’re investing usually very, very early, one of the first checks in the door for companies. Just to explain a little bit more about how the lifecycle of funding works, if you’re an entrepreneur, you have an idea on a napkin, you go to friends and family, if you have it. A lot of us don’t have friends and family. We have to go to Angel networks or crowdsourcing/crowdfunding platforms like the ones I named. You’ll get a little bit of money from there, a couple of $100,000, then you can go to an angel group once your idea’s a little bit more fleshed out. They’ll usually give checks between $25-500,000. After Angel, you continue to grow your business, you will start looking at venture capital funding. Venture capitalists from pre-seed all the way up. Pre-seed is your really first institutional round where it’ll be a real fund that is investing money. The beauty of getting venture capital dollars is that you have the support of their network. A lot of resources at their fingertips. They’ve done this before with a lot of companies, they know the playbook. They can really help guide you. Picking the right source of funding or capital is really important to guide you where you need to be in the next step of your journey.

Mecca Tartt

You said a lot, Maria. One of the things that stood out to me was, that being an angel investor is not for the faint of heart, right? How would you describe your risk tolerance? If you think back then when you were in that angel group, what was your mindset?

Maria Velissaris

Well, I had money that I was ready to lose. I was investing with passion and purpose. A lot of times angels, it’s your own money. you don’t have a fiduciary duty, you’re not taking in other people’s money, and owing them something back. It’s your own money. Sometimes, I invested in a company because I really want to see this company in the world. Is it going to be a billion dollars? Are we going to IPO? No, but are they going to change the lives of a couple of thousand people for the better? That was what I was investing for. A lot of times, you’ll find that angels are investing with their hearts and VCs are investing with their heads, because they have a fiduciary duty to the people that invest in them. I still do both.

Mecca Tartt

How do you balance that?

Maria Velissaris

Because there are still things that I want to see. I’m still a part of angel groups and if I just see somebody that has a really great idea, and it’s not going to be a billion dollars, and I think that they still have a very viable business, I’ll invest in them because I want to see them grow, but it’s a very different calibration that I do when I’m investing out of my fund. We have a lot of models that we use because we have return profiles that we’re trying to target. We have to be very disciplined about how much money, what round, and what’s the valuation because we do have other people’s money that we’re taking. Quite a lot of people’s money.

Mecca Tartt

Absolute pressure and they are holding you all responsible. In talking about that, what are some wins you can share that have come through your fund and what was the reason why you decided, “Okay, you know what? This really feels right. This is an alignment for my company and for us to invest in this particular startup.” For the startups as we talked about the potential angels, but for the startups that are listening, what advice would you give to them around where you base your decisions for startups?

Maria Velissaris

We are a late seed, series A investor. By the time you get to us, you have your product in the market, people are buying it usually have about $1-2 million of sales, and we really understand that you found product market fit and you built a great team. What our expertise is, is helping you scale and grow. For us, we only focus on healthcare investments, specifically, companies that create better access to care or outcomes and women’s healthcare. We’ll invest in different business models. We’re trying to bring health care to the future. We’re investing in things like drones that deliver medical supplies that have saved the lives of over 15,000 women because they’re delivering blood to places in Africa that would take four hours to drive through, but the drone could get it there in 20 minutes. And then you can have life-saving treatments and cures on the spot. Those are the kinds of things that we’re looking for. We’re looking for real game changers, things that are really going to move the needle, that what they call our pain pill, solving real tough, challenging problems, rather than vitamins that are kind of a nice to have. While there’s a market to invest in both, we want to solve the most serious issues that face women’s health. That’s really what we’ve dedicated our funds to do.

Mecca Tartt

I think that’s beautiful. One of the reasons why I also love that that’s what you’re investing in is that there are a lot of numbers when it comes to women of color when it comes to healthcare disparities. When it comes to what’s big right now, it’s what everyone seems to be talking about is the maternal mortality rate amongst African American women. There’s a huge disparity there. The fact that you are focused on healthcare companies that are led by women is moving the needle forward to make this world a better place. Now, Maria, I just want you to go on a quick journey with us before we close out. Over the next five to seven years, what’s your focus? What are you passionate about? What gets you excited?

Maria Velissaris

Well, I love investing. It’s really fun working with portfolio companies. It’s basically something I was doing for free before I started a VC fund. I love mentoring startups, I love helping people achieve their vision and their dream, and there’s nothing better than seeing someone thrive. Five to seven years out, I hope that beyond fund five by then, having funded thousands of women’s health companies and made the world better for millions of women or billions of women around the world. That’s really what our hope is and what we want to do at SteelSky, but we’re not only trying to democratize access to capital for women, trying to fund women’s health, but we’re also trying to shift the landscape of investing. It’s really important for us to always have internship programs where we’re training new women, and people of color, and putting them into the VC landscape. Because the numbers are so small, Mecca, it doesn’t take much for us to say, “Hey, guess what? We just put 5% more women into the VC landscape.” “We just minted three more new GPs.” Those numbers seem small, but for our population, they’re big. I hope it continues to grow.

Mecca Tartt

I love also that you have that that gives back and that you are not only growing your fund but that you’re also looking to see, “Okay, who can possibly be the next me? How can we work together to increase this number around investing?” Because people tend to also invest in people that look like them which is why there’s such a disparity as far as the funding and capital that goes into women startups and women founders. I love that you’re doing that. I do believe that there’s such an amazing opportunity. If someone wants to get connected with you because they are interested in becoming an investor or they are a founder that specifically has a company that is in that space of health tech, how can they connect with you? What do you do, specifically in that area, that would be great for them to connect to you?

Maria Velissaris

LinkedIn is always a great opportunity and a way to invest with us or to learn more and connect with us. Also, through our website. We like to take interest from everyone. We’re not exclusive. You don’t have to have a warm intro, any type of medium that you can get to us, feel free. That’s how we get the best crop of companies and we see the most companies because we’re not exclusive. We’re inclusive. We found by being inclusive, we can really cast a wide net and find those great diamonds in the rough.

Mecca Tartt

Absolutely. Well, thank you so much, Maria, for your time today. Do you have last thoughts that you would like to share with the audience that’s listening in?

Maria Velissaris

If you’re out there and you’re an entrepreneur and you believe in your dream, don’t let anybody stop you. Take life as it comes. Be flexible, but don’t let anybody deter you from your dream.

Mecca Tartt

Thank you so much, Maria. Thank you for joining us at the Atlanta Startup podcast and we look forward to seeing you next time. Have a good one.

Maria Velissaris

Thank you.

Lisa Calhoun

We’re thrilled to have you as an Atlanta Startup Podcast listener to help you get the most out of the experience. Let me invite you to three insider opportunities from our host Valor Ventures. First, want to be a guest on this amazing show. Reach out to our booking team at atlantastartuppodcast.com. Click on booking, It’s a no-brainer from there. Are you raising a seed round? Valor definitely wants to hear from you. Share your startup story at valor.vc/pitch. Are you a woman or minority-led startup valor sister program? The Startup Runway Foundation gives away grants to promising startups led by underrepresented founders. The mission of the Startup Runway Foundation is connecting underrepresented founders to their first investors. Startup runway finalists have raised over $40 million. See if you qualify for one of these amazing grants at startuprunway.org. You can also sign up for our next showcase for free there. Let me let you go today with a shout-out to Startup Runway presenting sponsor Cox Enterprises and to our founding partners, American Family Institute, Truist, Georgia Power, Avanta Ventures, and Innovators Legal. These great organizations make Startup Runway possible. Thanks for listening today and see you back next week.