Only 1% of venture capital-backed founders are Black, under 2% are Latinx, and fewer than 3% are run by women. Not only do women and BIPOC receive disproportionately smaller and fewer investments, they’re also rarely seen working in the giving side of venture capital.
Needless to say, there is poor representation in this exclusive space. But two MBA students at the University of Rochester Simon Business School are determined to change that. They’ve gotten a good start on their own campus — and now their ambitions are much greater.
Hawa Sultani and Keenan Heyward have made significant changes to the $2 million student-run Simon School Venture Fund since they became its leaders in spring 2020. They’ve helped to educate minority and female master’s students on how to become better investors and get a job in VC, and they’ve built a team of 33 analysts and associates from the MBA, part-time MBA, EMBA and MS programs in which 52% are women and 29% are under-represented minorities. Sultani, SSVF president, and Heyward, the fund’s chief operating officer, have also invested $25K-$50K — along with resources from the university — in companies founded by women and BIPOC.
With these and other moves, Sultani, Heyward, and their team hope not only to make money for the SSVF. Their aim is to lead by example and help increase diversity, equity, and inclusion in the venture capitalism universe.
“I want to make sure that the mistakes that we’re seeing in the corporate America world — where there is a lack of opportunity, diversity, and equity — doesn’t happen anymore,” Sultani says.
MEET HAWA SULTANI
Sultani grew up in Queens, New York, and was raised by two first generation immigrant parents from Afghanistan. At age 12, she and her family moved to Sacramento, California. Throughout her teens, she had her sights set on becoming a doctor. “My family didn’t have insurance growing up, so I saw a lot of my family members deal with the issues in our healthcare system, especially as part of an underserved community,” she says.
After studying neuroscience at UC Davis, Sultani realized that the problem with healthcare wasn’t that there weren’t enough doctors or money for underserved communities; the issue was much bigger than that. “I took a step back and thought to myself, if I want to see an impact and make a change for future generations, I need to be part of fixing the system, not fixing the people as a doctor,” she says.
Following her Bachelor of Science undergrad, she turned down a full-ride scholarship to go to medical school and had what she calls a Julia Roberts Eat Pray Love moment: She traveled the world for a year and quit her position as Clinical Trials Manager at the UC Davis Hospital upon return. Her soul searching continued when she then approached her mom, who owned a restaurant in Sacramento, with ideas on how she could scale her business.
“It’s a woman-owned business, and we specifically hire refugee women,” she says. “We work with nonprofit organizations to hire even those who don’t speak English and help them become financially independent. Those from war-torn countries are often disempowered in their rights to education, and it’s more difficult to get work.”
Sultani’s mom was skeptical.
“She said, ‘Hawa, you don’t even know how to cook. You did not leave med school to come and work with me.’ But somehow I was able to convince her to let me help and I turned her business into a local chain,” Sultani says. “I loved every bit of it, but I quickly realized the difficulties in being a woman — and a woman of color — in the way you’re treated by banks, landlords and people who can’t relate to you. Plus, if your English has an accent, it’s really difficult.”
While working at her mom’s business, she felt connected to these women’s stories, especially after going through similar struggles as their children and overcoming many hardships just to get a college degree. She says, “I don’t want that for the next generation of girls from my community.”
As Sultani worked with her mom, she saw firsthand the amount of struggle just to be taken seriously in her business. Motivated to help make a change for women like her and her mom, Sultani applied to business school with the intention of merging finance and accounting with her science background to eventually build her own company. She applied and was accepted to University of Rochester’s Simon Business School and was introduced to the SSVF by one of the students. Beginning as an analyst and then moving into leadership as the Fund’s President, Sultani’s winding path has helped clarify her mission and purpose: To one day become a partner at a venture capital firm investing in startup healthcare technology for women and low income communities. “Turning down med school and going in this new direction has been a roller coaster ride. But I’m glad I went along with it and trusted my gut because I’m so happy with where I am today,” she says.
MEET KEENAN HEYWARD
Keenan Heyward’s passion for business began as a child. His dad was the first in his family to get an undergraduate degree followed by his MBA. “To me, that was always the path I wanted to follow. My dad spent a long career at Johnson & Johnson, and I remember him coming home from traveling all over the world with amazing stories. I thought, ‘I want to do that,’” he says.
Heyward began studying business as early as high school, wanting to learn all of the intricacies of how business worked because of how exciting and impactful it seemed. Continuing on to study supply chain and technology management at Indiana University Bloomington, he began his career as an Analyst at an office supply wholesale company. “I was not traveling the world doing that, but it taught me a lot and I got a chance to grow as a professional.”
Realizing he wanted to transition into a role he felt more passion about, he decided to apply to Simon Business School to get his MBA. He says, “I always thought back to the perspective of my mom. She would always ask, ‘What are you doing for others? How are you supporting the people that look like you and the people that can gain inspiration from what you do?’ To feel fulfilled in my career, I needed to be doing work that uplifts others. I needed to be in an industry that helps create opportunity for people who look like me to shine.”
Once Heyward began working as a Senior Analyst for SSVF, he began thinking about the power of money. “Business can uplift people and create opportunity. Everything that I do will go towards improving human lives.”