A lot of people who’ve been working in the venture industry — even for many years — haven’t seen a true down cycle.
Somewhat ironically, Priti Youssef Choksi, a newly minted VC, knows very well what one looks like. The newest partner of the multi-stage investment firm Norwest Venture Partners has been working in tech since before the last boom and bust — and she has lessons to share about both good times and bad.
It started in her native Mumbai (“Bombay to me!” she says). Choski didn’t tell her parents when, as a teenager, she applied to the University of Pennsylvania in the U.S. to study architecture and business. “I couldn’t study both back home,” she says, not very sheepishly from Norwest’s glass-lined new offices in San Francisco’s South Park neighborhood.
She didn’t wind up at an architecture firm. Instead as a young graduate, she was lured to Broadview Associates, an investment bank in Foster City that advised many dozens of tech companies during the go-go dot.com era, and that ran into trouble when the market nosedived. (In 2003, it was acquired by bigger rival Jefferies.)
By then, Choksi had already joined one of the bank’s sell-side clients, an internet marketing company called USWeb, whose CEO apparently asked to to work for him despite having no discrete job description in mind. Looking back now, Choksi remembers the experience fondly, saying she ran strategy projects and competitive analysis of what others in the industry were doing and ultimately helping the company grow the from a 200- to an 8,000-person operation.
In fact, USWeb was famous for rolling up companies, absorbing about 40 smaller startups over a two-year period before merging with another company. This being the dot com era, however, the combined company went bankrupt soon after.
Choksi had again left before the company’s demise. This time, when a partner at USWeb left to start an early streaming media company, she went along for the ride. This was early 2000, though, and the broadband connections didn’t yet exist to support the vision and, well, you can probably now guess what happened to that company — or nearly. (It didn’t go out of business. It sold instead to another early web company called Inktomi that was already trading publicly and around that time and selling shares for $240 apiece, or 1,700 times its expected annual earnings per share. Two years later, Inktomi sold to Yahoo for just $1.65 a share.)
If Choksi felt ready to throw in the towel, she doesn’t say so today. Instead, she plowed forward, attending a one-year program at the Kellogg School to burnish her “soft skills and negotiating skills and things you don’t have time to practice” when at a startup, before heading back to Silicon Valley.
Her return would begin a sector chapter for Choksi. Indeed, like a lot of people who came to the Bay Area in the ’90s and who have stayed, Choksi’s turned around quite meaningfully after the detritus of the bubble’s burst had begun to blow away. First came a job at Google when it had just 800 employees (and was still privately held). Choksi would wind up staying for six years, holding roles in both strategic partnerships and, later, distribution partnerships, where she says she helped convince management to bundle the company’s search bar with other products like Apple’s as a means of getting it into the world more widely.
She must have been doing something right. In 2009, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg — a former Google exec who’d seen Choksi’s work — reached to Choksi to ask if she would help run business development at Facebook.
Facebook, too, was still privately held at the time, but Choksi so enjoyed working at the company that five years later — two years after the company’s employee-enriching 2012 IPO, notably — she moved to the “dark side, doing M&A at Facebook” for four years. (She notes notes now that Facebook had “moved beyond acquihires to doing big tech bets” like WhatsApp and Oculus, but she says the company never publicly announced some of the deals she locked up.)
Of course, she wasn’t able to strike a deal with every interesting founder she met. In fact, her fascination with compelling founders and startups are what eventually led Choksi to work with a recruiter earlier this year. At first, she imagined she would take on yet another operating role at a small but growing company. Instead, Norwest managing partner Jeff Crowe raised his hand and asked for a meeting with her. It was apparently a match from the start.
Says Choksi of the move: “[Jeff and I] were just very direct with each other. The culture and people at Norwest feel like the right fit; there’s not the eat-what-you-kill mentality here that you see at many other venture firms.” Not last, says Choksi, Norwest was the “only venture firm that invited me to a partner-and-pitch meeting.” It was a “lovely way to get to know the partnership.”
Crowe suggests the firm sees Choksi as a big win as the firm’s continues to build out it consumer-facing investment practice. He admits that he’s particularly appreciative of Choksi’s ties to Facebook, and to the many people who’ve spun out of the company to work on their own projects. But he also recognizes her ability to identify a good opportunity when she sees one, and to support founders as they grow their companies.
“Somebody who has been in the industry a long time, knows a lot of people, seen a lot of technologies, and worked with entrepreneurs both inside of out of companies like Facebook, including during their awkward teenage phase — it’s pretty exciting for us.”