Let’s be frank. Pursuing a career in Venture Capital (VC) is not easy. And even once you’re there you may find out it’s not quite what you expected. So to uncover some of the insights into this sector of finance, we reached out to our friends at SET Ventures, an Amsterdam-based VC firm that’s been around since 2007, to interview the women in their team and shed some light on what you should know before pursuing a career in VC.

Each woman you’ll hear from is in a different stage of her career, has different motivations, and started their career in Venture Capital in completely different ways. But they all share key pieces of information to know before you make the journey into VC!

Emily Mellor

Role: Investment Analyst

Started in VC: February 2023

Background: Oxford MBA, consultancy background at Accenture

Passion for: Being at the centre of measurable impact

First off, what was your path to break into VC?

“After finishing my MBA at Oxford following four years at Accenture, I was ready for a new challenge. I reviewed all avenues to do work that I considered impactful. I was comparing the work environment I wanted to be in, the types of problems I wanted to be exposed to, and the speed of decisions making. The world of impact VC got me curious, so I applied to several firms in Amsterdam and was eventually hired by SET Ventures.”

You’ve been in VC for a few months now, what are some of the critical things you have learned in that short time frame?

“I think getting into VC has three different stages; each stage requiring different ways of thinking that will help navigate the process. 

For the first stage of deciding why one is interested in VC, researching and networking with industry stakeholders is critical. 

In the second stage, applying for a job, you’re expected to know a lot about startup news. And since VC is a small and competitive industry, you’ll be expected to complete a case. Most other entry level positions, you just learn on the job, maybe have some level of interest. But in VC, that competition means you’re expected to rationalise and contribute from day one. 

In the third stage, day 1 there is not much information available on how to succeed, and it is highly dependent on the firm. I wish I had known earlier that the bar is high, and one must be ready for a range of scenarios.”

In a nutshell:

  • Research and speak to people about the industry before applying to understand the norms and challenges in VC.

  • Prepare extensively for interviews. The bar for entry is high and the industry is competitive, so you need to be on top of your game.

  • If you come from a consulting background it’s good to understand that the VC working environment is different. You will have to unlearn some things to be successful. It’s important to figure out which traits will be helpful and take them forward.

Ellen Smeele

Role: Associate

Started in VC: December 2021

Background: MSc London School of Economics, worked in project finance and at 4 startups previously

Passion for: People & company-building

What attracted you to a career in Venture Capital?

“My career hasn’t been linear. I’ve worn many different hats in each role I’ve had. In interviews, I am often asked what the red thread is in my resume. And that was something I struggled to define. Coincidentally, when speaking with people in VC, I realized that a “doing many different things” approach is highly valued in VC. 

The combination of working with innovative people solving problems combined with climate impact, in a fast-paced, international environment ultimately attracted me.”  

You’ve been with SET Ventures for 18 months now. You started as an Analyst and recently were promoted to an Associate. What is some advice you can share?

“Before applying, it’s good to realise there are significant differences between companies (or funds in VC terms). It’s important to know what type of fund you’re joining and what your typical work looks like. There’s a relatively high amount of autonomy in VC, even for juniors. This means you can achieve a lot, but to do so you need to carve out your position and be proactive as there is less of a structure to guide you than say, a corporate. But make sure to prioritise! There’s always more to do than there is time.

Also, in VC you’re appreciated for asking questions. Curiosity and admitting you don’t know something are well-regarded traits. In other industries when you’re junior you’re expected to just execute without question. Not the case in VC. Any firm should value your opinions even when just starting out. So be willing to learn, ask questions and don’t always take things at face value!”

In a nutshell:

  • Network with founders and VCs to learn about the industry and make connections. Message VCs on LinkedIn, the responses you receive can help you navigate where to apply.

  • VC combines different skills in one job, but also within a fund. Funds are a mix of people with specific skills so take time to consider your skills and understand how they contribute to that particular fund.

  • Ask questions and challenge ideas from day 1! This is the best way to learn, to improve your knowledge and your ability to ask the right questions.

Leonie Mekel

Role: Director of Finance & Operations

Started in VC: December 2016

Background: MSc Leiden University, Tax Manager PwC, former WTA Tennis Professional

Passion for: The details

What brought you to the world of VC?

“My path into VC was unexpected. I was approached by a recruiter despite having no experience in the field. I started my career at PwC as a tax advisor. There I quickly realised that this environment wasn’t for me long term. But I stayed a few years to gain more experience. Then, during my time at a startup, (which was the opposite of PwC in every way) I understood that I wanted to feel like I had something accomplished by the end of the day. I wanted to feel like we were moving forward toward a common goal. It also showed me that I missed the legal/financial angle, so I was open to trying a job in VC as it sounded very exciting.”

How did VC differ from your time at a corporate like PwC?

“I immediately loved the short reporting lines in VC and the feeling that I was contributing each day by supporting the investment team. If I compare that to my previous job at PwC, it sometimes took weeks or months before something was finalised, due to so many stakeholders being involved. Clients were just names on a sheet whereas now I know most of our counter-parties and can truly see the results of our team efforts.”

You’re not on the investment team but instead work on the operational side of SET. Can you explain what that role is like in VC?

“I started as the Operations Manager. Which meant (since we were a small team) it was very broad. Essentially handling everything not related to making investments, so the investment team could focus on deals. Eventually, I became involved in the financial side, which in VC, includes a lot of reporting to stakeholders and compliance. The latter has increased significantly in the past years. Things like GDPR, KYC/AML, and sustainable finance are critical now and I love to work on these things. You are really the gatekeeper in this role; the one to pump the breaks to make sure things are done correctly.”

In a nutshell:

  • It is possible to enter VC without prior experience. Talk to people with different roles in VC firms to see the wealth of variety and opportunities.

  • VC is a dynamic sector and therefore offers more variety than other finance roles. To be successful it’s important to be flexible and prepared for the unexpected. Go with the flow!

Julia Padberg

Role: Partner

Started in VC: February 2016

Background: MSc UCL, Corporate M&A at Kempen & Co. 

Passion for: Reducing emissions through innovation

What inspired your move to VC after working in mergers and acquisitions (M&A)?

“In M&A I worked with a lot of investors like SET Ventures. When discussing their portfolio of investments, I realised VC was a sector where you work with companies on a much longer term and strategic level vs only looking at a specific transaction. Within VC you are working alongside the company to help them achieve their strategy and grow. 

For me, SET Ventures felt like a place where I could have a much bigger impact on what happens to those companies and so I joined up.”

You have climbed the traditional VC ladder, going from an Associate to Partner. Can you talk about what that journey was like? Was that always your ambition?

“When I joined SET Ventures, I thought ‘I love this job. I want to increase my impact here and become a partner’. So that was indeed my ambition. 

But when the other Partners actually asked me to become a Partner, I had a reality check: ‘this is at minimum a 10-year commitment’ I thought. And if you then don’t join in the next fund(s), well, your colleagues must explain why that is to new investors. So, it seems like you’re almost locked into a company for life when you become a Partner. And that to me sounded terrifying. 

But after thinking about it for two years (not kidding), I realised I still loved this work so much and wanted to continue creating impact. To do that you need to be able to help your investments become successful, so it was the natural thing for me to do.

Also, as a partner you’re basically an entrepreneur. You can initiate all sorts of things to always keep things exciting and improving. Over the past 7 years at SET I’ve seen that nothing is static here!

In a nutshell:

  • When joining a VC fund, you don’t need to know immediately whether you want to become a Partner. It takes time and you can always switch to a corporate VC (CVC) fund where you don’t have that level of commitment.

  • But! Building a track record is crucial if you want to become a General Partner (GP). If you switch to a new fund every two years, you won’t get to build that track record as you won’t see an investment all the way from initial scouting to deal-making to exit. So sticking at one fund for a longer period is crucial if you want to become a Partner.

  • Being a VC doesn’t only prepare you for becoming a Partner. It prepares you for roles like a C-level position in a startup or scale-up, or in a corporate working on innovation too. It’s a great way to kickstart a career.

Thank you, Emily, Ellen, Leonie, and Julia for the insights! 

Learn more about SET Ventures by following them here on LinkedIn and visiting their website.