Deena Shakir is a mastermind of adding value. Whether spearheading partnerships for an international development agency or spearheading connection for early-stage products at Google, she understands the power of building a dream network.
Championing authentic relationships from the White House to Google, Deena continues to lead with a refreshing level of transparency and realness as a partner at Lux Capital.
Financially independent since the age of 18, Deena is no stranger to hard work. She self-funded her undergraduate and graduate degrees through a variety of merit scholarships and side hustles, including co-founding her first internet company while still in college. She was a Presidential Management Fellow at the U.S. Department of State under Secretary Clinton and an Aga Khan Fellow at The Aspen Institute.
While at Google she directed social impact investments at Google.org and supported a portfolio of more than 300 companies to achieve business development and growth opportunities. She uses her expertise in cross-sector collaboration and community building to advance human-focused ventures that prioritize ethics and have a positive impact on society.
Her Agenda sat down with Deena to discuss her nontraditional path to venture capital, how to navigate pivots across different sectors, and the power of relationship building.
Her Agenda: How would you describe your career path and the influence of working under President Obama’s administration?
Deena Shakir: My career path is definitely not traditional. When I graduated college in 2008, I had absolutely no idea that I wanted to be a venture capitalist. I didn’t even intend on going into the private sector or technology. I have always optimized for impact, which sounds cheesy, but it’s truly something that’s driven my trajectory. This has been true from even the earliest days growing up as a Muslim and Arab American who was in high school during 9/11. It was a really pivotal moment for me where I felt these two parts of my identity were seemingly at odds with one another. I knew that they weren’t and that they shouldn’t be. That is what impelled me academically to study what I did in college, Middle Eastern Studies focused on Eastern languages and civilizations. From there, I thought I was going to do a Ph.D. in Anthropology. I thought that changing the narrative was the way I would make an impact and that would start with academia. That is not something I was cut out to do and I’m glad that I decided to do a master’s program instead.
I happened to be completing my master’s at Georgetown in D.C. when President Obama was inaugurated, which was an incredible, historic moment. I was briefly working as a journalist and helping to cover the speech President Obama gave in Cairo in 2009, “A New Beginning.” The speech was about new beginnings with the Muslim world and identified education, technology, and entrepreneurship as a way of stimulating the economy and advancing livelihoods. This was really compelling to me so I abandoned my nascent career in journalism and made it my job to find out who in the administration was going to be turning these lines from a speech into policy and action. And that’s what I did.
I worked at the Aspen Institute for a year and then ended up at USAID during my second year of grad school. The agency was launching the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, which is what I ended up working on.
Her Agenda: You believe in humanity-focused venture investing and how technology can have a positive impact on society. Where does this belief stem from and when did it develop?
Deena Shakir: After graduation, I became a Presidential Management Fellow with Former Secretary Hillary Clinton. For a couple of years, my focus within the administration was on technology and entrepreneurship through assisting with the summit and also launching the Global Diaspora Forum. The forum was an effort focused on communities within the U.S. who were seeking opportunities to give back to their countries of origin and doing so by creating new businesses and supporting entrepreneurs there.
One of the biggest challenges that we are beginning to face related to the human side of technology is our attention to technology and the implications of that from a neurocognitive perspective for young children and adults.
I was in the administration during the Arab Spring. This was another watershed moment for me when I realized the power of technology products and companies to actually create change on the ground. I’m not necessarily a believer that the Arab Spring was a Twitter revolution. However, I saw before my eyes early on, in 2010 and 2011, that we were in the midst of this fourth industrial revolution and how these technologies were changing not only political movements but every industry around me. I became obsessed with the impact that could be made through startups and technology.
Her Agenda: As an ex-Googler working to support early-stage products what piqued your interest and influenced you to continue working to support founders?
Deena Shakir: I ended up joining Google after my time with USAID. I was working for what was at that time the Technology for Social Impact team, which used to be called Google.org. It is not the same Google.org that exists today. I worked on helping to create some of our civic-oriented products and then transitioned into early-stage products for about five years working on everything from fiber to healthcare. In my role, I was the first to come in whenever a PM or engineer had a crazy idea they wanted to turn into a product or business. It was super fun but after a while, it became clear to me that big tech was not going to solve some of the more challenging problems.
I was seeing young companies with one or two founders and very little resources be able to do much more than teams of hundreds of engineers.
I was seeing young companies with one or two founders and very little resources be able to do much more than teams of hundreds of engineers. This is what brought me to venture because I spent the better part of a decade working on so many different types of products across so many sectors and industries. I have always been a generalist, although some focus areas were more interesting to me. Being able to apply that knowledge to early-stage companies to help them grow and scale is the calling that I found after all of these different steps.
Her Agenda: What do you see as one of the biggest opportunities and challenges for how we as humans experience technology in the next few years?
Deena Shakir: One of the biggest challenges that we are beginning to face related to the human side of technology is our attention to technology and the implications of that from a neurocognitive perspective for young children and adults. What an interesting time it is to be thinking about that when all we all do all day is engage with people online.
Another challenge is AI as it becomes more and more sophisticated and is able to do things that were previously unthinkable. We are going to have to be very critical and introspective about the ethical challenges that emerge from there. That is something I spent a lot of time thinking about. There are so many opportunities.
Her Agenda: Social impact has become a common language for businesses and investors looking to align their values with their ROI, as a pioneer in the space, what is one significant change in the industry?
Deena Shakir: The biggest change I have seen is the movement away from this dichotomy of for-profit and social impact. That has been happening over time, but I think even more so now, it is something that is baked into the ideas of companies. The most impactful products or business lines are also generating meaningful revenue and they are not thought of as separate goals. We are seeing more of this.
Her Agenda: As an individual who successfully transitioned from a career in public service into the world of investment, what would you say to women looking to follow in your path?
Deena Shakir: As I mentioned, social impact and business are merging and that dichotomy is becoming less relevant. I think the same can be said for a lot of other sectors. The traditional, if you want to call it that, path into tech isn’t necessarily the path that most people are taking these days. I’ll give you a very clear example. When I wanted to leave the State Department and joined Google, it was one of the hardest transitions I ever made in my life. It is hard enough to get into tech period. But jumping from a policy role in public service working on development and diplomacy into a product role was almost impossible. Even if I could get opportunities, it was easier to put me in a box and recommend the public policy team, which is not what I wanted to do. I realized there is a bit of a misconception among many people that direct experience doing exactly the same role is what leads you into your next role. [But really] it is more about the skills, the network you develop, and the curiosity that you have. Most of the things that you will end up doing in your role you really can’t necessarily train for prior to. You can learn it on the job if you have the exposure.
I realized there is a bit of a misconception among many people that direct experience doing exactly the same role is what leads you into your next role. [But really] it is more about the skills, the network you develop, and the curiosity that you have.
I had to think deeply about what I had done in my roles in public service and how those experiences could translate into being good at my next role on the product side. Although I wasn’t working on opening up APIs, I was working on opening up budget lines for entrepreneurship programs. I was leading teams and bringing together different folks across the entire agency, which is a cross-functional skillset. I was never somebody who had a 10 or 15-year plan.
I was humble enough to know that I was young and every experience that I had was going to open up, not just doors, but also questions that would enable me to realize what was next. A lot of people are too often thinking about what their career is going to be like? Your first job is not your career and your second job is not your career. A career happens over time. I couldn’t have imagined 12 years ago having this conversation now.
Being a journalist is what impelled me to join the Obama administration. Being in the administration and watching the Arab Spring is what pulled me to join Google on the product side. Being on the product side of Google is what impelled me to join the VC world. Each experience we have is going to help us refine what will eventually over time look like our career.
I was able to grow a network that was far above my pay grade and certainly above my years of experience by just asking.
Her Agenda: In a Forbes article feature, you discuss the power of being an operator and connector, what are the key skills that have allowed you to be successful in carrying out those roles?
Deena Shakir: Hustle and tenacity. You could call both a skill, they are absolutely critical to anything that you do, in my opinion. I was able to grow a network that was far above my pay grade and certainly above my years of experience by just asking. So many people are actually afraid to do that. I had no business at the age of 24 or 25 having the kinds of meetings that I was having with the CEO of Coca-Cola, for example, and heads of major foundations. Being tenacious and just hustling is what allowed me to do that.
I had no business at the age of 24 or 25 having the kinds of meetings that I was having with the CEO of Coca-Cola, for example, and heads of major foundations. Being tenacious and just hustling is what allowed me to do that.
Her Agenda: As an advocate for innovation around digital health, how do you think the healthcare sector can take advantage of the technology at this time in light of COVID-19?
Deena Shakir: There is so much on the regulatory adoption sales side that has just been compressed from literally years into a matter of weeks. A lot of these technologies that might have been perceived as nice to have previously are all of a sudden critical. It is also a challenge though, because particularly now, a lot of hospitals are dealing with financial crises of their own. They may not have the capital to become a customer of a lot of these technologies. It’s a bit of a Catch-22.
Her Agenda: What company would you say you are most excited by at the moment and why?
Deena Shakir: There are so many but I’m going to choose Shiru, whose seed round we led. This company is one that is a bit counterintuitive. What does a global pandemic have to do with alternative proteins? If you have been following some of the news, the pandemic has put a lot of global meat and dairy production at risk. Many companies are shutting down their meat production sites and factories. As a result, there is a need across the board for alternative proteins. Not to mention my own thesis around this prior to COVID, which has a lot to do with the environmental impact. I am excited about applications of AI to different industries like computational biology in the context of food.
Each experience we have is going to help us refine what will eventually over time look like our career.
Her Agenda: There is a lot of dialogue around supporting underrepresented founders in investment. What has been your experience in doing so in your current role?
Deena Shakir: I spend a lot of time thinking about this, I don’t necessarily go out there saying I’m only going to be talking to or looking for those founders. Still, it is incredible how much of my deal flow has come from other underrepresented VCs and how much of the founders are from underrepresented backgrounds. While I am not intentional about going out there and only looking for underrepresented founders, I think we need to have more folks, not just women and people of color, but people from all different backgrounds in venture because their networks are going to be helping to fund and create these new companies.
Her Agenda: What is a book you are reading right now?
Deena Shakir: I’m currently reading Oh, the Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss to my kids, which is ironic because we’re all stuck in our house. I am also reading eBoys: The First Inside Account of Venture Capitalists at Work.
[Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]