The room is silent. Four student Rebel Venture Fund (RVF) associates and one director, all dressed in business professional attire, stand solemnly still. Their hands are crossed formally and their lips are pursed.
Before them lies a room of industry professionals who make up the fund’s advisory and management team board. The student associates are to present their investment recommendation report on a company they’ve been talking to for months. For some of the associates, this is their first time presenting to the board - an extremely nerve-racking experience.
I sit in the audience and begin to look around.
There are deans.
Presidents, vice-presidents, and serial entrepreneurs of tech-savvy startups, law firms, and business consultancies.
This is going to get intense.
By the end of the meeting, the RVF members look beaten, chewed up and spit out by the board members’ pointed questions and critiques. But in the end… they secured the deal.
The board members soften their looks as the meeting comes to a close. “Well that wasn’t bad, was it?” one of them laughs.
Although the Rebel Venture Fund is a student-led fund, there’s always a need for advice and guidance from experts in the field. Leith Martin is one of them.
Martin is a serial entrepreneur and investor who now serves as executive director of the Troesh Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, an administrative unit at the Lee Business School. The center provides opportunities for students, faculty and the community to learn about entrepreneurship. For the past three years, Martin has also been a management board member for RVF, advising and connecting the fund with startup companies for potential seed funding.
I spoke with Martin about the importance of professional mentorship, growing entrepreneurship on campus, and the value of experience.
How does the professional community engage with RVF?
The Rebel Venture Fund has industry professionals engaged in two ways, a management board and an advisory board. The management board was set up as part of the fiduciary arm of the fund because we knew that there would be a need for some experienced investors to serve on the board to ultimately approve the deals.
The advisory board is an expansion of the management board, where we bring in industry experts or service professionals. We might also engage attorneys, as well as people who know a lot about a specific space, such as medical, biotech, or gaming. If students are working on a deal that might fall into one of those categories, the advisory board member is there help them understand the industry.
My engagement with RVF occurs typically through meetings a few times a month with the directors and the board. That’s by design. I ultimately want the students to have the responsibility for the fund’s success because I think that’s where they get the most benefit. RVF exists primarily for student experience. If we as board members readily approve every deal or generally make the decisions, then we don’t provide that benefit to the students.
How do activities within the Troesh Center support RVF?
In the Troesh Center, we are attempting to grow entrepreneurial experiences across campus through workshops, events, and speakers. We’re also expanding the entrepreneurship curriculum by moving some of it online, which will help us engage with more students across disciplines. These efforts are all slightly different ways to introduce students to entrepreneurship, which I believe has broad-based benefits for business and life.
RVF will benefit from this growth. More students will gain the opportunity to engage in entrepreneurial activities as a result of the growth in our programming. In a perfect world, I would like to see RVF funded with enough capital to continue to make investments on a regular basis and maintain a growing student base.
I’d also like to see a student venture conference in Vegas. We can leverage our location in Las Vegas and on campus to host a conference with students and funds across the U.S. to support existing efforts and grow new ones. We may even be able to start to syndicate the deal flow across student teams, or student funds.
What makes RVF unique?
The number one reason that RVF exists is for student experience, which is quite different than funds at many universities. Some funds are set up as a student fund, but the reality is that while students may work on the fund in some way, they’re ultimately not responsible for it.
RVF is very different in that the students take leadership roles and drive every aspect of the deal. In doing so, they begin to understand and operate as a fund would.
How can students learn from the highs and lows of investing?
If you put 10 investors in a room, three or four may think, “This is going to be a billion-dollar opportunity.” Just as many will think it won’t work, and a few more will want to wait and see.
The point here is that for investors, many decisions are based on personal preference. I’m not sure what you can learn from the successes outside of just knowing you picked a deal and it’s doing extremely well. Sure, that’s gratifying, but I think you learn a lot more from failed opportunities than from successful ones. The mistakes or the failures actually help students identify what not to do in the future, and how to change.
Board members will often ask RVF students to explain what they were most focused on in a certain deal. The purpose there is to try to help students identify if they fell in love with the entrepreneur involved or the deal itself, both of which can be important factors for success. Many times, investors invest in teams, meaning the quality of the entrepreneur determines the quality of the team. Conversely, market research shows that the number one reason that companies are a success or a failure is based on market timing.
How does RVF help students build professional confidence as investors?
In almost any industry, those with limited experience can struggle with impostor syndrome – meaning they’re worried about how they’re perceived because they have a lack of experience. They feel like that shows. This exists for entrepreneurs as well at times. They may be pitching their company, and they’ve never raised money before.
My advice for both is to just stick with it. The reality is that the experience will come, and with it the confidence. We’ve had entrepreneurs tell us that the students did a better job in due diligence than any other group they’ve ever worked with. Some of the directors that I’ve worked with at RVF are some of the best students I’ve ever seen on campus.
I recently had a call with another university starting a fund and they asked me, “How do you get the students to do it?” And I said, “Well first of all, I don’t have to get them to do it. I don’t even run the fund.”
The students run the fund and they’re self-selecting into it. And then once they’re in, they’re holding each other to a standard that they created among themselves. It’s a fantastic thing.
The RVF is one of the only organizations in town that I’ve ever seen that can get 100-plus people at an event around topics such as event mobility, artificial intelligence, or esports. They have tons of people at those events. Students with experience in this space are more likely to start companies, which can ultimately have a positive impact on our community.