“We deduce founder characteristics from the smallest observations. Founders should take the same approach with us.” So says Millen Wolde-Selassie, a recent recruit to the Octopus team.
Here Millen compares her experience of being hired by Octopus – putting our self-proclaimed ‘unbiased hiring process’ to the test – with her civilian-eye view of European VCs in general. It’s clear, from Millen’s observations, that actions speak louder than words.
Millen starts with the personal. She applied to Octopus just before lockdown from a background in finance and as a bootstrapped startup founder (a story we’ll tell in a forthcoming blog). “I’m a pattern matcher,” says Millen. “I spent a lot of time surveying the European VC landscape and the uniformity I saw is almost comical.” The typical pattern for a VC, she found, runs like this: three years in M&A, ideally a year or internship at Deliveroo / depop / BlaBlaCar before the final move into ventures. A generalisation, of course, but a pattern none the less. “I came to VC with rather different experience and a much longer work history.”
Millen’s next observation was the nature of most of the meetings she had with various VCs. “They involved coffee, chatting and – pre-Covid – handshakes. They were very enjoyable but there was little formality.” Meetings ended with a “stay in touch” rather than definitive yes/no/next steps, let alone formal feedback. (This behaviour, she observes, mirrors many funds’ approach to founders where a clear ‘No’ is rarely given.) It’s not an official interview so there’s no official response. Options are left open – for understandable reasons perhaps – but the casualties are clarity and transparency. It’s this blurriness that undermines any claim to meritocracy, Millen says. “Although I experienced the ecosystem to be very helpful, I got many of my meetings with VCs because of certain brand names on my CV and my network. Anyone without a network is unlikely to even hear about vacancies in VC because most funds never publicise them.”
A different experience
“The Octopus Ventures process was refreshing by contrast. At every stage I knew who I’d be talking to and the purpose of each meeting. There was a structured, transparent approach all along the way, with specific exercises and case studies – but most importantly, the first two stages were blind. Octopus Ventures used an online portal, such that only my essay responses were visible and little more.”
The real test, however, was the response to Millen announcing her pregnancy before accepting the job offer. “I would not have chosen this sequence of events but was also in the privileged position to not have to worry about an adverse reaction. Instead, I viewed this as the litmus test of the Octopus proclaimed culture.” “I also didn’t go in unprepared: I talked to a number of women who had been through a similar experience, which helped level my expectations.” Fortunately, the response was not only positive, but informative. Particularly given the many other highly qualified applicants for the role. “Octopus didn’t flinch – their positive, committed response demonstrated to me that the outlook here was for a long-term career. It also indicated an attitude of support for the issues that balancing childcare and a fast-paced career could bring up in the future.” During nearly a decade on a trading floor, Millen had witnessed less supportive attitudes towards the inevitable trials of parenthood. Millen joined the Octopus team in September and is now on maternity leave.
A work in progress
Millen understands, of course, how unique her experience is. The overall hiring process was drawn out – not only due to the added challenge of the Covid pandemic. All in all, from first application to first day on the job more than 6 months had passed. “This dedication to unbiased hiring comes at the cost of filling vacancies quickly. Multiple calendars must be coordinated internally for each stage of the process.” At the same time, she recognises the luxury she had to be able to wait for the eventual positive outcome. “This might not work, if you needed a paying job to cover bills in the meantime.” So even with its commitment, Octopus Ventures sometimes still needs to resort to the more prevalent referral-based hiring when time is of the essence. Yet Millen remains optimistic that unbiased hiring will remain a core tenant of the talent strategy, too.
The tide is changing. But Millen’s experience does give a view of the work still to be done. The European VC landscape retains attitudes, patterns and practices that counter transparency and the desire for diversity. Fortunately, as one of Europe’s largest VCs, we know we’re not alone in our commitment to change this, and hearing Millen’s experience, we hope, encourages the good and reminds us of the bad. Our aim is to attract the brightest and best – to our team and our portfolio. Along with many others in our sector, we’re getting there, one hire at a time.
*Millen is now on maternity leave