Lila Ibrahim, Venture Capitalist, on Peeking Into The Future

The NextWomen Career Theme: Venture Capital.

For this month’s theme, we will be interviewing a number of women from around the globe who have reached the top of the world’s most prestigious and/or male dominated professions. This is the story of Lila Ibrahim, a partner at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader.

Lila Ibrahim is currently an Operating Partner and Chief of Staff at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and works across the firm’s digital and greentech portfolios, leading KPCB's business development efforts, key partnerships and strategic initiatives for the firm and its portfolio companies..

Outside of KPCB, Lila is the co-founder of Team4Tech, a non-profit organization established in 2012 to improve education in developing countries through innovative technology solutions. 

Lila studied Electrical Engineering at Purdue University (where she was named the Outstanding Electrical and Computer Engineer 2010) before embarking upon an 18 year career with Intel, joining in 1990 as a design engineer for the Pentium® processor. Whilst at Intel she was involved in a variety of roles including marketing, management and technical. In her most recent role there, she led the startup business of Intel's Emerging Markets Product Group based in China. In another role, Lila led the Digital Village Initiative to deliver technology projects that advanced entrepreneurship, health, education and e-governance from the Amazon to Africa.

Lila has been recognised by the Anita Borg Institute, VARBusiness (Top 50 Most Powerful Women in the Channel, 2008) and was featured on the cover of ForbesWoman for her role promoting women in technology (2009). Lila also sits on the Global Council of the Thunderbird School of Global Management and is on the Board of Directors for Cinequest.

Over the past decade, Lila has established and sustained three computer labs at the orphanage in Lebanon where her father was raised.

We spoke to Lila about working in male dominated industries; how she is inspired by working with entrepreneurs; and how working as a venture capitalist allows her to peek into the future.

TNW: What are the main responsibilities of your current role as a partner at KPCB?

LI: I have three main functions. The first involves defining and developing KPCB’s strategic partnerships and initiatives. Recently, we’ve been working more with corporate partners and identifying market and business development opportunities for our portfolio companies. We build relationships with corporations that can use our help to reinvigorate their companies, or to complement the work they’re doing with work that startups are doing. This role also involves figuring out where the startups in Kleiner’s portfolio have needs and developing those relationships.

My second function is company-building. Kleiner’s approach to venture capital is not just about funding. It’s about how we can help build great, sustainable organizations. Once we’ve made an investment, I use my Intel and management background to serve as a resource to the companies in terms of how they set objectives and achieve results, and how they can build up their organizations — from hiring to staff meetings to thinking about global expansion.

My third function is assisting the partnership with some of the internal processes and operations. That includes everything from helping to organize our investment committee meetings to strategic planning and partner reviews.

TNW: What do you enjoy most about what you do?

LI: I’m passionate about learning and exploring what’s next in the world and being a part of developing that. I’m inspired by the entrepreneurs, the companies, the technologies, and the chance to peek into what the future could be.

The entrepreneurs we work with are amazing — their dreams, their goals and how they want to change the world. Their energy and immense talent are inspiring.

I also love the diversity of content. One minute, I’m talking about enterprise-related technologies, then an hour later, I’m talking about consumer Internet, then greentech, or digital health. I’ve never felt so intellectually stimulated.

I’m also excited about using what’s in my toolbox to help companies make an impact. I was at Intel for 18 years, and I held eight jobs in four countries. I saw and learned a lot, and much of the work I did was entrepreneurial. At Kleiner, I take the best of what I’ve learned about how large companies work and the challenges of navigating and follow-through, and I apply that experience to help our companies and entrepreneurs be strategic.

TNW: What is the biggest challenge you face in your role and how do you tackle it?

LI: Given my background in designing and developing products and technologies and managing an organization, it’s hard not to jump in and do things myself. Venture capital is about finding, funding and helping entrepreneurs, not doing it for them, so I’ve had to adjust my style. I think having the emotional intelligence to read the dynamics, to know when to do a soft push and when to do a hard push, is an asset women bring to business.

TNW: What three pieces of advice would you give to a woman starting a career in venture capital?

LI: First, give yourself time to find the right partnership match and cultural fit. All partnerships are different in terms of how they run.

Your personality, your interest areas and your decision-making style will add value to the firm you choose, and that DNA match is critical.

It’s not just about the partnership interviewing you; it’s also about you interviewing them.

Second, get clear on what you want out of this move. Is it a destination or a stepping stone? Do you want to learn about investing, or learn to be a better executive? Are you hoping to find a company where you might eventually work? Decide what you want, then make sure you’re working toward it.

Third, start building your network and cultivating your desire to continuously learn, because the tech industry constantly changes. Entrepreneurs today can go anywhere to get funding, so make yourself relevant and get yourself connected.

TNW: What’s been the highlight of your career so far?

LI: I can’t point to just one highlight. It has more to do with how I’ve led my career. It’s the fact that I’ve been true to myself and my passion to learn, to explore, to sign up for the hard jobs — from working on DVD standards in Japan in the 90s to leading a turnaround effort for a struggling organization and helping it become a successful growth business. I also took pride in being chief of staff to the CEO of Intel and working closely with him and the rest of the organization.

Those high points had some common threads. One was taking career risks — doing something because it sounded amazing and I thought I could make a difference. Two was embracing every opportunity and making the most of it. In every job I’ve held, I fulfilled the core responsibilities of my role, then I expanded on it to make it what I knew it could be.

lt’s so meaningful to look back at the past 20 years and see a dozen existing projects around the world that I had direct impact on. I’ve helped change the world, with the help of an amazing team.

That’s another attribute my career highlights share: accomplishing things as a team to enable the company, the people, the impact.

TNW: Have you always aspired to a career in investment? If you hadn't chosen investment, which other career paths might you have taken?

I didn’t actively pursue a career in investment. I was recruited from my dream job at Intel. The transition was sparked by my realization that I’m an entrepreneur at heart. Everything I’d done in my 18 years at Intel related to pioneering new projects, programs, technologies and products, and I was excited to see what being a real entrepreneur was like. I wasn’t ready to take the risk of starting a company, but I was ready to work with entrepreneurs and help them build great companies.

As for other careers I might have chosen, when I was young, I wanted to be an archaeologist. Then I wanted to be a translator for the UN. My parents pointed out that since I liked art, math and science, a technical field might be a better fit. And they said it was easier to get out of engineering than to get into it. What’s great is I’ve been able to marry my childhood dreams with the career I’ve built. I remember being at UN headquarters with Intel, and realizing, “I’m getting more done from the private sector, while staying true to my dreams.”

TNW: Is your current role the result of a carefully planned career strategy, or have you made the most of opportunities as they presented themselves?

LI: Definitely the latter. I’ve always pushed myself to learn more, to contribute and to have fun in the process. Over the past 20 years, I’ve lived in five countries, I’ve worked in dozens, I’ve traveled to 74, and I’ve contributed to products and projects that have created jobs, industries and social change.

TNW: Whom do you most admire, both within your own field and as a role model in life?

LI: Within my work world, I admire Craig Barrett at Intel for his passion for education, and John Doerr at Kleiner for his passion for entrepreneurship. From Craig, I learned about the need to always push yourself to do more. He used to tell me, “Pioneers have more arrows in their backs than their fronts. Just stop occasionally and I’ll pull them out so you can run faster.”What I got from Craig at a pivotal time in my career is the strength to believe in myself. With John, it’s all about relationships.

He really believes in entrepreneurs, and he always sees the possibility and the potential in everything. And he’s a storyteller. John has an amazing ability to tell an inspiring story that makes you want to jump on board and be a part of the future.

As role models for life, I admire my parents. They inspired my passion for learning. As Lebanese immigrants who came to the US for education, they’ve defied all stereotypes. My mom was the explorer. She worked at Purdue University running ag research projects, and she’s fluent in six languages.

My dad was the artist, the deep thinker and the engineer. He was a poor orphan boy from the mountains of Lebanon who learned to design pacemakers that changed the lives of millions.

TNW: Venture capital is a notoriously male-dominated field. How (and how much) does this affect your working life, both on a daily and a long-term basis?

LI: In college, I was one of a very small number of women in engineering. And in my first technical job out of college, I was also one of only a few women. The challenge isn’t just in the venture capital field; it’s throughout the tech industry. We need to get more women in engineering. We need to get young girls excited about not just using technology, but designing it and thinking about applications — whether that involves robotics programs or math and science clubs or just encouraging girls to believe that they can do well in those subjects.

TNW: Is there anything we haven't asked you, but you would like to share with our community?

LI: I’m really excited about Team4Tech. After I’d moved to venture capital, I realized that something personally important to me was missing in my work. The job I’d left at Intel involved using technology to make a direct social impact. Through my work at Kleiner, the Aspen Institute honored me with a Crown Fellowship, and part of that fellowship involves doing a project.

Since education has been a common thread in my life, I wanted to find a project focused on education so that kids anywhere and everywhere can have the same opportunity my parents had to make a difference.

One thing we learned at Intel is that NGOs want to do more with technology to give kids educational opportunities, but they don’t know how. For my project, I collaborated with a former colleague to establish a new non-profit called Team4Tech. We’re hoping to catalyze the tech community to send employee volunteers to work with NGOs in developing countries. We identify and vet projects, train volunteers, and coordinate two-week delegations in host countries. Our first volunteers will go to Kenya in May to work on a project that’s focused on scaling technology access to more than a thousand students.

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