How To Be an Impact-Driven VC: 3 Lessons from a Human Rights Lawyer Turned VC

Photo Courtesy of Sylvia Kim

When I was younger, I thought what was driving me was ‘justice’.

But as I’ve matured in my professional evolution as an advocate, I am realizing that it was the elusive, difficult-to-define, concept of ‘impact’ that really inspired me to make some of the biggest career pivots in my life.

Having spent over 15 years as a lawyer and advocate pursuing ‘justice’, I have concluded that it may be more effective and sustainable to be an impact-driven leader. Here are some insights I’ve gathered as I’ve pivoted from nonprofit work and human rights law to the world of VC.

From Human Rights to Innovation

The need for relevance

My journey into VC really started a few years ago — in 2016 to be exact. Ironically, I was at a conference being honored for my human rights work when I distinctly remember the humbling moment where I suddenly realized my irrelevance.

I was in a roomful of entrepreneurs, artists, and innovators; some were working with solar power in innovative renewable energy projects, others were finding sustainable solutions to empower those living in some of the most rural areas on earth. Our keynote speaker was Neil Cross — at the time known as the world’s ‘most disruptive’ Chief Innovation Officer. Neil’s claim to fame was in finding a ‘win-win’ social enterprise solution for his desire to save the orangutans in the Sumatra jungle; he ended up building a 5-star luxury hotel which not only saved the orangutans but economically revitalized the entire region.

Photo Courtesy of Sylvia Kim on Canva

It was the first time in my life that I had heard of ‘social impact’ and the opportunity to find entrepreneurial solutions to complex global problems. It was also the first time I realized that no one in that room was ever going to read any of my policy papers and that I needed to be closer to the world of innovation and technology if I was going to make the kind of impact I wanted to in the realm of human rights.

Since 2016, I have reflected on how to maximize the positive impact I so wish to make in the lives of others — especially the underserved. Time and time again, I have found myself at the intersection of innovation and technology — grappling with how these two forces can be leveraged for the betterment of our society as a whole.

As a human rights advocate, I have been incessantly frustrated by the apathy, indifference, and futility of human rights implementation and enforceability. It is in the spirit of relevance, that I have come to understand that, as advocates who dream and fight for a better world, we must evolve. We must change our tools, we must make strategic alliances; we must remain relevant.

And a big part of relevance is tied to the flow of money.

The need to understand the ‘flow of money’

Once I started moving up the nonprofit management ranks, I quickly learned that my primary duty was to fundraise. Unsurprisingly, this was not a popular task for most employees working at a social justice or civil rights organization.

But to me, it’s always been clear: you need resources for your dreams to come true. The bigger the dream or the bigger the impact you want to make — the more capital you will need.

Perhaps this is why I have always had a certain prowess for raising funds: in high school, I funded my dream of going to Paris for the first time by winning an extracurricular scholarship; in law school, I funded my dream of bringing Indigenous youth together from across the country for an empowerment conference through the generosity of my local church; when I got married, instead of wedding favors for our guests, each guest got a donation on their behalf towards a new human rights organization I had co-founded for North Korean refugees. In fact, I managed to negotiate a ‘2 for 1’ deal at my wedding reception venue which allowed us to throw a fundraiser for the same organization — who eventually raised enough funds to host the 10th international conference on North Korean human rights.

Photo Courtesy of Sylvia Kim

As I advanced in my career, the stakes have gotten higher and the efforts became more collaborative. As a Regional Director, I dreamt of a new office for my organization and so, with the help of an incredible advisory council, we raised the funds, tripling the operating budget, and partnering with Home Depot to make our dream a reality. As a community leader, we dreamt of the country’s first National Asian American Community Foundation and together, with an influential founding advisory board, raised over $1M at our inaugural gala.

I’ve been in my VC role for just over 6 months but, to me, it is ultimately a continuation of my life-long journey on seeking the most innovative and compelling ways to make a positive impact — including the need to stay relevant and to understand the flow of money.

As I continue to evolve and embrace the convergence of my professional identities as both a lawyer and as a VC — here are 3 lessons on how to be an impact-driven VC.

From Innovation to Impact

1. Consider what we are willing to do for our “why”

As a purported expert in North Korean human rights, it was a sobering realization to accept that my efforts were just not making the kind of impact I wanted. I knew that to really make a difference, I had to change my methods; I had to be willing to change for my ‘why’.

Firstly, even being able to find and articulate our ‘why’ — which is essentially an embodiment of our purpose and values in life — will separate those who are called to make an impact from those who simply want it without any action or accountability. Once we know our ‘why’, or at least have some idea of what it is, then we need to go deeper and consider what drives us. What is our natural design, our innate inclinations? What energizes or de-energizes us?

The ultimate question is: what are we willing to actually do for our why?

One of the most influential books I’ve read in my life is Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. To me, Habit 2, “beginning with the end in mind”, was a compelling method to articulate the values and purpose we aspire for in life by developing a personal mission statement. Only once we are able to define this set of guiding principles, can we even reflect on our effectiveness in achieving our personal mission and whether we need to change things up in order to accomplish our goals in life.

Photo Courtesy of Sylvia Kim on Canva

I remember the crossroads moment in my career with human rights when I had to choose whether I would double down on my international human rights policy work and academic career or find a new pathway to achieve my ‘why’; my ‘why’ has always been about being a voice for the voiceless and making a positive impact for communities — especially the underserved. Despite my years of academic training and advocacy experience, I was keenly aware of my growing irrelevance and lack of effectiveness in making the kind of impact I expected of myself. So I pivoted…and started from the beginning.

It became clear to me that, when all is said and done, being a ‘lawyer’ or a ‘director’ is not my ‘calling’ in life; these are simply job titles for my current occupation. Once we realize this, it becomes easier to take the necessary risks in order to find the most effective ways to achieve our ‘why’.

After so many years of conforming to societal expectations, it may take an extra dose of strength to dig deep within ourselves, to explore our natural design, to discover our purpose and true calling in life. However, it is only then that we can even summon the determination to do whatever it takes to accomplish and achieve our purpose in life.

2. Build a powerful ‘Voltron’ for good

Photo Courtesy of Ekizo Mandarake and Clayton Dye on Pinterest

Some of you may not be familiar with “Voltron” — a popular anime cartoon from the 80s about how different space explorers come together to form a powerful ‘super’ robot. To me, Voltron has always been a striking image of how we are much more powerful when we are part of a larger whole.

Unfortunately, I had to learn this the hard way since human rights advocacy is dominated by a ‘savior’ or ‘lone wolf’ mentality’. As I’ve matured and evolved as an advocate, I’ve learned that we absolutely need a team — or an activated and mobilized ‘Voltron’ — if we really want to make a sustainable impact.

As VCs, part of our potential for impact is our access to some of the most brilliant innovative entrepreneurs and influential investors. So it is within our realm of control to build a powerful Voltron and to mobilize this Voltron for good.

A key focus in impact-driven work needs to be on sustainability and, fundamentally, nothing is quite as sustainable when we are working solo.

I recently wrote about what I’ve learned from women in VC and how inspiring it has been to connect with such incredible like-minded, impact-focused VCs. Whether we are considering fellow VCs or our networks of investors and entrepreneurs, we have a multitude of great choices when it comes to choosing the ‘right’ teammates to build a powerful Voltron.

Ultimately, to make an effective impact, both our ‘Voltron’ and strategies need to be relevant, timely, and instrumental in helping us reach our full potential.

3. Embrace our potential for impact

Before considering our potential for impact, we should define what ‘impact’ even means. To me, ‘impact’ or ‘making an impact’ is intrinsically tied to the empowerment of the very community members we are trying to help. Our impact work should never perpetuate the inequities and systemic problems we are trying to solve — which requires much strategy, humility, and thoughtfulness.

Impact work thus has many parallels to VC work which is all about supporting and empowering founders. Perhaps that is why a common mantra for investors is to “bet on the jockey, not the horse” and why ‘founder-first’ approaches are often associated with successful startups.

As VCs, we are strategically positioned to make an impact by empowering the founders within our portfolios. As investors, rather than impose our own viewpoints, may we edify and raise a generation of empowered founders who truly use their skills, talents and ‘voltrons’ for good.

This is amplified by the cultural shifts I am currently seeing in the world of VC. I love that there is a powerful shift in VC culture towards making technology more humane, using technology for social impact, and the call to reform the toxic despotic aspects of Silicon Valley. Most importantly, there is an intensifying movement to support more women founders and founders of color.

Photo Courtesy of Diego PH on Unsplash

As VCs, we work in the intersection of tech, innovation, and the flow of money; to me, this is the perfect recipe for impact! We thus have the unique capacity to leverage these intersecting forces and to invest in the most innovative solutions which positively impact society.

With all of the phenomenal relationships and opportunities we hold in our hands as VCs, if we so choose, we can embrace our potential to achieve tremendous scalable impact. I hope we do — because the world and our society — need it.

An Ongoing Evolution

Many of us, if we take the time to become aware of it, are all in constant evolution. My own professional epiphanies coincided with a major personal event in our lives: finding out about my mother-in-law’s cancer. After spending so many years advocating for others, for the ‘voiceless’ — I realized that this was a special chance to live out my identity as an advocate in the most personal and intimate parts of my life.

As I researched clinical oncology treatments, I reconnected with an old donor and friend who recruited me into my current MedTech VC role. I love my professional mandate to invest in life-saving technologies and in some of the most innovative impact-driven ventures. After years of surviving the scarcity mindset so rampant in the nonprofit world, never did I imagine such abundance! A world with so many ideas, so many people to connect with, so many opportunities to positively impact our communities and society as a whole.

Wherever each of us may be in our personal journeys of evolution, may we be impact-driven VCs or impact-driven leaders who can and will make a positive impact in the communities and world around us — by letting our ‘why’ or our calling be what drives us, by building and mobilizing a powerful ‘Voltron’ for good, and by ultimately embracing our potential for impact.

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Sylvia Kim

Sylvia Kim

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Human Rights Lawyer turned VC investing in impact-driven ventures & human-empowering tech. https://beacons.page/sylviakim