Zhenni Liu and the Challenges of Being a Woman in Venture Capital

Zhenni Liu is an investor at Commerce Ventures, an early stage VC that focuses on opportunities in Retail Tech, FinTech, and InsurTech. Prior to Commerce, Zhenni was an investor at Peterson Ventures (investors in Allbirds, Bonobos, Hirevue, and more) and had also spent time at retailers including Sephora, Athleta, and Outdoor Voices. Zhenni started her career as a consultant at Bain & Company and is a graduate of the University of Southern California.

Where are you originally from and what brought you to Salt Lake City?

I was born in Xi’An, China, grew up in Silicon Valley, and have also lived in Los Angeles, Jakarta, Paris, and San Francisco before moving to Utah to join Peterson Ventures in 2018.

You recently moved to SF. Tell us about what your role was at Peterson Ventures and what company you're at now and what your role is?

I was an associate at Peterson Ventures. I, along with two partners, Ben Capell and Randall Lloyd, were involved with the day to day investing and management of our venture capital fund.

I joined Commerce Ventures as a senior associate in September 2019. Commerce Ventures is an early stage VC based in San Francisco that focuses on opportunities in Retail Tech, FinTech, and InsurTech. We’re a small team of 4 investors and 1 development partner, which means that while I’m primarily involved with making investments, I’m also pulled into other fund administration and corporate development activities.

What sets Peterson Ventures apart from other UT based VCs and why did you choose Commerce Ventures in SF?

Peterson Ventures is the venture arm of leading alternative asset manager Peterson Partners. Peterson Partners was founded in 1995 by Joel Peterson, who currently teaches a class on managing growing enterprises at Stanford GSB. After years of his students going to him for help (both for advice and funding support) with their startups, Joel started writing angel checks, and from there Peterson Ventures was formalized as a seed-stage venture firm in 2008. Given connections to the GSB campus through Joel, about 40% of deals we did were in the Bay Area, 40% in Utah, and 20% everywhere else. Peterson has a unique portfolio of SaaS and digital commerce companies, such as Bonobos, Allbirds, Hirevue, and more.

Given my background and interest in retail/consumer, I had a desire to continue growing deeper expertise in the industry. While several VCs invest in DTC/retail companies, Commerce Ventures is the only VC fund that has a sector focus of investing in the tech infrastructure for retails/consumer companies.

What has been great, but also challenging about being a woman in VC?

If you’ve read Brotopia or Ellen Pao’s book, Reset, both books do a great job of highlighting challenges of being female in a male dominated industry, like tech. There are a lot of conscious and unconscious bias in culture and society that have made it difficult for women to be a successful investor. Despite this, there are many women who have persisted and have started carving out a path for the rest of us. With so few women in VC, we tend of be quite a collaborative and encouraging community. In recent years, several organizations, such as AllRaise and SoGal, have made a conscious effort to provide resources and access for female founders and funders.

Tell us about SoGal and how women can get involved?

SoGal is one of the largest global networks for diverse millennial entrepreneurs and investors, and has formed the world’s first female-led millennial venture capital firm, SoGal Ventures, to invest in startups in the US and Asia. SoGal is redefining the next generation of founders and funders through a global network of hyper-local micro-communities, global venture networks, and educational initiatives.

I founded the Salt Lake Chapter with the vision of creating a community for founders and funders to gain access to resources and build relationships with the most prominent, ambitious, up and coming diverse founders, investors, and professionals in Salt Lake City and the SoGal global network. Since leaving Utah, I’ve recruited April Weathers to carry on the responsibilities of chapter lead.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Finding peace and quiet amidst the chaos and noise.

What is your greatest fear?

That I allow my self doubt and personal fears to limit my beliefs of who I can be and what I can do.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?

As with many younger investors, especially minorities, I often have imposter syndrome and self doubt.

What is the trait you most deplore in others?

Lack of grace, kindness and self-awareness.

Which living person do you most admire?

Sara Blakely, Founder and CEO of Spanx. Sara had failed the LSAT twice, sold fax machines for 7 years, and was selling Spanx at night (while still pursuing her full-time job) when she was my age. She would go on to build Spanx to be the company it is today and become a billionaire. Her resilience and determination to not allow failure to define her or curb her ambition inspires me.

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