Inspirational Woman Interview: Victoria Fram

Victoria Fram is a Co-Founder and the Managing Director at VilCap Investments, which is the for-profit investment fund of Village Capital, a venture capital firm that identifies, provides training for, and invests in early-stage ventures seeking to address issues in agriculture, education, energy, financial inclusion, and healthcare. Victoria has worked at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on the Program Related Investments team, where she analyzed opportunities in global health and development. Prior to that, she was an Investment Associate at Metropolitan Real Estate, a global private equity real estate fund-of-funds. Previously as an Insight Fellow, she designed and implemented projects focused on international development and conflict resolution in China, the Netherlands, and East Africa. As a graduate fellow and research assistant, she has contributed to projects in innovative social finance with Acumen Fund, Investors’ Circle, and RSF Social Finance. Victoria received an MBA and a Certificate in Public Management from the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and a BA in International Relations with a minor in Mandarin from Stanford University.

Can you share your experiences with Metropolitan Real Estate and how that experience helped you transition to Village Capital?

Victoria Fram: My first year out of college, I spent living internationally as part of the Insight Collaborative Fellowship, focused on contributing to economic development-focused initiatives in a non-profit or NGO context. I was passionate about the work and end goals we were driving towards, and really overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problems we were trying to solve, and the limited resources and tools that the non-profit sector had to apply towards them. Particularly during the segment of my work that focused on post-conflict development in Kenya and Uganda, I was struck by how much community fatigue there was for many aid interventions, and how much more effective private markets might be in building businesses to support longer term economic development. Having no skills in traditional investing up to that point, I thought I’d probably need to build some if I wanted to figure out how to move capital markets to build businesses that could solve big problems. So I moved from Kampala to New York City, to try to learn how to invest. It wasn’t easy to find an investing role out of this transition, but I was lucky to eventually find the team at Metropolitan, who took a chance on me having no prior investment background, and believed that I could learn what I needed to on the job. It turned out to be the greatest entry point to investing – not only was the founding team a really smart group of investment professionals who were willing to teach me as part of a small team, but we primarily invested in commercial real estate private equity – and a hard asset like real estate is a great asset class to begin learning about how value is assessed and created in an investment. The timing of that role – right at the start of the financial crisis – was also a tremendous learning experience that taught me a lot about capital markets more broadly. While investing in global startups is very different than investing in global funds buying and selling office buildings, the investing fundamentals I learned in that role, and the operational experience of learning about how funds operate and how to engage with investors have been invaluable.

Can you tell us the story of how you came to found Village Capital?

Victoria Fram: After Metropolitan (and a subsequent brief stint again back in East Africa working on an agriculture fund), I went to business school to think about applying the investment skills I had learned back to global challenges I really wanted to be a part of solving. Coming out of business school, I knew I wanted to be in a role where I could invest in businesses whose success would help address real problems – things that are essential to the health of our society and planet, like economic inequality and environmental sustainability. I considered going back to do that at the Gates Foundation, where I had been really lucky to briefly work during business school on their Program Related Investments team, or to try to go back into a traditional investing role at an endowment or foundation that would dedicate returns from their investments into a larger corpus to fund their mission. During this time, my co-founder Ross Baird and I met through a few different mutual friends. He was passionate about many of the same goals, and had been working on them with very early-stage entrepreneurs in the pilot stages of Village Capital, and was looking for a co-founder to run the investment side of our business. Creating our own fund that would work so closely with founders – the real heroes of this work that are building businesses that will not just be profitable but really seek to change social and environmental health – has been a dream (and a lot of hard work!).

What are Village Capital‘s key initiatives and resources?

Victoria Fram: At Village Capital, we have three key initiatives: we discover, develop, and invest in the best entrepreneurs addressing real global challenges. We do this by sourcing entrepreneurs from diverse regions and backgrounds – particularly places or profiles that we think are undervalued by other early-stage investors, by operating venture development programs that offer intensive training for founders to build their businesses, and by deploying investment from a fund backed by investors that are looking for both financial return and a positive impact in sectors like education, healthcare, financial inclusion, agriculture, and energy.

In your opinion, what are some high-potential areas within agriculture and energy investing?

Victoria Fram: In both agriculture and energy, we’re focused on ventures that are thinking about long-term sustainability and efficiency as competitive advantages. Companies focusing on precision agriculture technologies that help growers know more about their farms so they can better manage resources and labor, apply only what they need and when, know when to harvest, and think beyond just one season or cycle to manage their land and resources for long-term success are interesting to us, and we’ve made investments in companies doing this like Spensa TechnologiesArable, and IUNU. In addition, we think there’s high potential for brands in food and agriculture that are managing more sustainable supply chains as a competitive advantage and are able to tell a compelling story to consumers who want authenticity and high-quality, healthy food or inputs in what they buy, like Kuli Kuli FoodsMasiendaFin Gourmet, and Stony Creek Colors. In energy, we’re interested in companies in emerging markets that have innovated to make cleaner energy more affordable for consumers on a pay-as-you-go basis like Simpa Networks and PayGo Energy, and in the US we’ve focused on companies that are discovering efficiencies in energy generation, delivery, or transportation like Emrgy is with small-scale hydropower, M-Trigen is with micro combined heat and power systems, or IdleSmart is with long-haul trucks.

Can you tell us about Village Capital‘s due diligence and deal making process?

Victoria Fram: At Village Capital we have a different approach to identifying opportunities and selecting investments. We think the fact that 75% of US venture investment goes to just three states (CA, NY, MA) and that female founders only receive 17% of seed-stage funding, with founders of color receiving only 1% of venture funding demonstrates that we are missing a lot of opportunity outside of the market segments where capital is currently concentrated. It just doesn’t make sense to us that all of the good ideas and people to execute on those ideas are in such limited pools. So, we look for potential in other places (with the help of data), with founders who have lived experience of the challenges they’re addressing, and we work with them in sector-focused programs where they are able to work on their businesses with customers, investors, partners, and advisors – but also other founders who are building ventures in the same sector, and who understand the same customer and market challenges. And because we think this market intelligence is so valuable, and that entrepreneurs’ own understanding of how hard it is to build a business is key to evaluating another team’s ability to do so, we have founders in our programs evaluate each other against our investment criteria to determine how we’ll invest. This peer-selection method is a core and innovative aspect of our model and putting entrepreneurs in the investors’ seat has yielded different, and better results for us: 86% of our portfolio is outside of those top-three states where capital is concentrated, 38% of our portfolio is female-founded, and 12% of our companies has founders of color.

Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?

Victoria Fram: There are so many. Reading Anne Marie Slaughter’s book Unfinished Business and hearing her speak a few times has really stayed with me over the last few years as I’ve become a parent and spent more time thinking about the responsibility both women and men have to how they show up as people, parents/caregivers, and professionals. I am so motivated watching women in my life who I work with or went to school with who are doing things they are really passionate about (generally work that is really hard!) and are also really committed to being parents or now caring for their parents.

What are your favorite books, websites, films and resources related to social impact and entrepreneurship?

Victoria Fram: Impact Alpha is a good source of current news on impact investing. On the recommendation of members of our team I recently read Our Kids, which emphasizes the inequality of opportunity in the US–a challenge that will clearly not just take the private market work of investing in great innovation and new business ideas, but also a lot of thoughtful community and policy development. The Hard Thing About Hard Things, while not focused on impact, is a must-read for any one starting a business or working with entrepreneurs. The Third Wave by Steve Case (one of our partners and investors) talks about many of the themes that have also informed our work about why we think the sectors we focus in are vital for our future and also present great investment opportunities, as well as why it’s important we think about finding investments in other “Rise of the Rest” markets. And stay tuned for The Innovation Blindspot that my co-founder, Ross, is releasing this fall, which talks a lot about our work!

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