How to Step into the World of Venture Capital in Latin America
From New Orleans to Medellin
After working at a food startup in New Orleans that closed down, Elise Baros started looking for jobs in the U.S. — until she came across her dream job… in Medellin, Colombia. Currently a portfolio manager at Socialatom Ventures, she spoke to us about what led her to the Latin American country.
So, can you tell me about what you were doing before joining Socialatom Ventures?
I went to grad school in Buenos Aires and moved to New Orleans because I met a New Orleans boy. I worked at a startup called Dinner Lab. I was one of the early employees — we started out of the founder’s house. It was a platform for an emerging chef.
During my time there, we went from 6 cities to 31 cities. We raised 10 million dollars in Series A round and we were valuated at a little more than $30 million. I worked in business development and investor relations, and started the licensing department. We were planning to expand to Canada, but right before the closing of our last funding round, two main investors pulled out. Our meeting about how we were going to expand to Canada turned into: “Hey guys, party’s over — by 10 a.m. your emails will be shut off.”
And how did you move on from that to Colombia?
Having been to grad school in Buenos Aires, I wanted to do something that dealt with Latin America. And when I was working on investor relations with Dinner Lab, I always wondered why these investors were sending us these huge checks for a business model that’s so risky. I wanted to be on the other side, the VC world. I wanted to understand why, and I wanted to work with them so that what happened to us… somehow I would help it not happen to others.
I wasn’t looking at Medellin — I was looking in Miami, New York, Houston, and then someone from my old company sent everyone a message saying, “Hey, you should check out Jobbatical.” So I did and saw this “VC in Medellin,” and I thought, no way, I won’t be qualified for that. But I was. Everything I learned from Dinner Lab came together and made this job for me.
So I applied, and I think when you can write a cover letter in 2 minutes from the heart, it means you and the job are a good match. And then they called back.
What was the interview process like?
First it was a basic interview with HR, then a meeting with me, the founder, the director of the firm, the COO and a partner in the firm. So five people on Google Hangouts with a bunch of little faces. They asked a lot of questions that require you to think a bit. They were trying to see what I was passionate about and if that paralleled the thesis of this company. Then about halfway through, they were like, “Y ahora en español.” (And now in Spanish.) Then I had my closing interview with my current boss.
What convinced you to take the leap and join the company in Colombia?
I had gotten married 2 months before, so it was not ideal as my husband is still in the U.S. But I could not have gotten this opportunity in the U.S. To get into the VC sector is extremely difficult if you didn’t graduate from one of the top universities. I didn’t graduate from Harvard or have connections. Plus, this company helps Latin American and American startups go global, and they also help the startups recruit their engineering teams in Latin America. So I just jumped.
What do you do for Socialatom and how are you using your international skills?
I am a portfolio manager. Socialatom doesn’t do huge investments; they do small investments at the early stage. They’re also there to help the startup a lot. I meet with a lot of the startups and help them to not fail. I analyze different co-investors for them as well as the risks involved in investing in them. Half of my work is in Spanish, half is in English. I’m dealing with the culture of what it’s like to do business in the United States and in Colombia, which is mostly older male, stronger personalities who don’t view women as equal. So I’m learning the cultural aspect of doing business in Colombia as well.
Some of our startups are in Latin America, so for them to get an investor in New York is very scary. I’m helping them to understand the U.S. market, and we’re helping our investors understand the Latin American market. Business school in Argentina pays off a lot!
You lived all over the place… what did you learn by living abroad?
I think what I learned is it humbles you. You learn different cultures because you don’t travel like a tourist; you travel more like a local. How people do it there, getting to know different values they have. Also, I think going to a country where you don’t speak the language initially — you have to lose all of your pride and your shame, because you are the weird girl, you are going to speak weird, people are going to laugh at you because when you’re talking about exotic fruit, of course it’s a sexual reference.
So it has made me stronger as a working woman and a person just being able to go into a room with strong personalities and talking to them about whatever. They may laugh at me but I don’t care.
What are your impressions of Colombia so far?
I love Medellin — it’s like a city and a valley but in a tropical climate. Everything is so green. If you go to a plant store in Medellin your mind is blown. I have no idea what anything is. The people in Medellin are so nice. The people in the office take care of you, so it’s an easy adaptation.
And finally, how would you sum up Colombia in one sentence?
I think this was actually a national campaign slogan: “The most dangerous part of Colombia is that you’ll come and you’ll never want to leave.”