Mary Strother: What is Investor Relations & How Can Women Get into the Field?

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Mary Strother is Managing Director of Investor Relations at Athenian Venture Partners, a tech-focused VC firm specialising in IT and healthcare.

Mary joined the Athenian team in 2007 to build and head up the firm's Investor Relations program. This includes IR, fundraising, and marketing and PR functions. She also participates in the deal flow, investment screening, and due diligence process of the firm.

Prior to Athenian, her professional career spanned over 17 years in finance, healthcare, and higher education. She has 14 years of financial sales and marketing experience and 16 years of institutional and high-net-worth-individual Investor Relations and fundraising experience in a Fortune 100 company and with a university foundation endowment.

From 2001-2007, Mary served as an assistant dean and senior director in the College of Business at Ohio University and with the Ohio University Foundation From 1997-2001, she was a regionally recognized commercial sales professional for Aetna, a Fortune 100 HMO. From 1992-1997, Ms. Strother served as an Asst. Vice President and Trust Officer for First Commerce Corporation, an NYSE-traded multi-bank holding company, with experience on both the commercial and the investment side of the Bank, specializing in marketing strategy.

In addition, Mary has been directly involved in the local community with consulting to early stage businesses with patented IP, leading broad go-to- market efforts, as well as seeking and negotiating deal terms with angel investors. She has published and won awards in the fields of commercial banking, finance, sales, and public speaking; and has received awards and recognition for building leadership in diversity in higher education.

She holds a BA in International Politics and English Literature from the University of Mississippi, attended the University of Mississippi School of Law, and received an MBA with an emphasis in Strategic Management and Marketing from the University of New Orleans.

We spoke to Mary about what her role entails; the most common piece of advice she gives when consulting to startups; and her tips on negotiating with angel investors.

TNW: What does your role as Head of Investor Relations at Athenian Venture Partners entail? 

MS: I was brought into the firm in 2007 to build and head up an investor relations program for Athenian. This includes IR, fundraising, and marketing and PR functions. I also participate in the deal flow, investment screening, and due diligence process of the firm.

TNW: What advice would you give women who are considering getting into investor relations? What are the key skills and traits required?

MS: First, women looking to enter a similar field should gain as much knowledge as possible. Talk to others in the field, learn from their career paths and discuss how your experience can be beneficial to the field. Even if your experience isn’t specifically in investor relations, what skills do you have that can translate? Successful investor relations professionals must have a balance of communications, sales and networking skills, so any of these areas in your background will be a plus!

There are also a lot of options in investor relations. Someone who is interested in the field must think about exactly where they want to work as their career progresses.

As I advanced in my career, I knew that I wanted to be an entrepreneur and have a greater direct impact on the business’s bottom line. So this meant transitioning to a small firm, where I was “employee number 10” instead of “employee number 10,000.”

With investor relations, you could work at a private or public company, a large or small firm. Each opportunity comes with its own specific traits and necessary skills, so it’s important to narrow down your desires up front.

TNW: Do you agree that in order to make it easier for female founded businesses to find funding, we need more female vcs? Why do you think there aren't more women in the field? 

MS: I wouldn’t necessarily agree. I think the primary reason for the current imbalance is that there are fewer women than men with educational backgrounds in the hard sciences and technology, who then proceed to start their own companies. Hard sciences and technology just are not traditionally women-dominated areas of education.

I would encourage more women to study these male-dominated industries, and then they will have the background to start their own companies and attract VC funding.

TNW: You consult to early stage businesses. What is the most common piece of advice which you give to founders at this stage? Do you find that male and female founders tend to need the same, or different advice?

MS: When we start working with early-stage businesses, the first thing we do is make sure that the right management team is in place to grow the businesses to its next level. We also encourage them to start taking control of their funding future. They must understand the funding cycle, and depending on the stage of growth of the company, start networking with angel investors or venture capitalists, based on their needs.  This advice isn’t any different for women or men founders, because business is gender-blind.

TNW: As part of the assistance you give to early stage businesses, you negotiate terms with angel investors. What advice would you give to entrepreneurs who are handling these negotiations without assistance?

MS: Too often, we work with entrepreneurs who have tried to conduct these negotiations on their own, with poor results.

An entrepreneur is an expert in their business, but the best executive will know they need a knowledgeable team behind them who have the skills that they might not necessarily progress themselves.

We suggest that entrepreneurs get assistance from people with investment knowledge before starting angel negotiations.

TNW: What was the most useful lesson you learned during your MBA and how do you apply it to your current role?

MS: The most useful lesson I learned is that I wished I had work experience prior to going into my MBA program. Since prior work experience is something I couldn’t change, the next most useful lesson was how to differentiate myself when interviewing for my very first job, a skill that has mapped over to the professional marketing that I do today. If you can differentiate yourself, then you will be able to differentiate your firm to others.

TNW: Athenian Venture Partners is a tech-focused VC-firm. What kind of technology are you most enthusiastic about and why?

MS:

We are most excited about technology that is necessary, and sometimes critically needed.

Our two main areas of attention are IT and healthcare, and we focus on companies that provide real solutions for acute and/or badly addressed problems. Two examples of our portfolio companies that have had some big accomplishments this year and I find particularly exciting are Manta and LigoCyte Pharmaceuticals. Manta provides a one-of-a-kind online community for small businesses, answering the need to bring together these businesses with the customers they need. LigoCyte Pharmaceuticals specializes in innovative vaccine products, and its success led to a recent acquisition this fall.

TNW: Is there anything we haven’t asked you, but you’d like to share with our community.

MS: During the course of my career, I learned four lessons that I think can help women looking to follow a similar path:

  • Network – When entering any field, it’s important to meet experienced professionals, who you can learn from and possibly get offered a job. But, networking doesn’t end once you get your first job, it’s a constant necessity to make sure you continue learning and can offer the latest and greatest ideas to your peers.
  • Accept that your big ideas may not be widely accepted – I had big ideas about why venture firms needed investor relations professionals, and most venture capitalists didn’t agree with me. If you are convinced that you have a big idea that can change a company, or an industry, don’t give up on it right away! Learn from criticism, but also stand by your guns and allow your idea to develop further.
  • Don’t give up on your big ideas; back them up! – Backing up your big ideas can pay off, like it did for me. I found a firm that understood my theory about investor relations in venture capital, and invited me to join them in this role.

Know your own personal risks and goals. Before you start or change a career, understand why you are doing it and how it will impact your life five, 10 or 20 years from now. What are the risks of starting this new career, and the potential rewards?

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