With a passion for all things tech, Silicon Valley experience, relentless curiosity and an incredible drive to see Kiwi founders succeed on the global stage, meet Vignesh Kumar…
Why venture capital?
“Venture capital was never the aim, but rather the unintended outcome of my background in engineering and general love for tech. I started my career as a biomedical engineer designing neonatal resus medical device tech for Fisher & Paykel Healthcare. This is where I discovered the ‘magic’ behind successful product design. I learnt about technology ideation, design transfer and worked cross-functionally to bring gold-standard products to market for niche but meaningful customer bases.
While I learnt a lot in this hands-on role, I was keen to equip myself to be a leader at a more strategic level. This ambition took me to the US where I embarked on an MBA at Wharton. That exposure taught me to ‘zoom out’; and look ‘across’ (as opposed to just ‘into’) multiple issues within a business when it comes to strategy. A later move to Silicon Valley saw me work at Apple where we were creating new hardware products every 3-4 months. That kind of cadence is unmatched in industry and helped set me up to understand what successful, fast-moving consumer tech looks and feels like. It is one thing to work at a corporate, but entirely another to be rapidly moving at pace to develop global best-in-class tech products. I developed a critical eye for assessing technology as someone tasked with weighing up nascent and emerging companies to absorb into Apple and its projects. That experience taught me to value things that cannot be valued against traditional metrics. While the work was all-consuming, it was highly rewarding and gave me deep insight into building world-class technology.
It’s alluring to be at the pointy end of innovation, and when I returned to NZ my interest in tech organically led me to VC. I love what I do, but I’m never tempted to act like I know everything. In fact, that’s the beauty of VC – you’re always learning. I’m confident of the fact that I don’t know what I don’t know – which is the very reason that being in a fast-paced job where you learn about new companies and new tech daily appeals so much. Learning – that’s the definition of VC!”
More importantly, why GD1?
“Long story short, my personal journey with cancer (which I’m thankful to be on the other side of) saw me make a conscious decision to cut my time in Silicon Valley short and move back to New Zealand to focus on things that mattered to me. This happened at a time when the NZ early-stage tech ecosystem was still relatively young (that sounds crazy, but the last three years have ushered in HUGE changes).
There’s a lot of ‘sameness’ when it comes to NZ VCs and their approach to investment. GD1 appealed to me because it was a ‘global style’ VC fund in which the firm makes a concerted push for outcomes. Every interaction we have with a founder/portfolio company is weighed against the value it adds to the founder/company. We don’t just look for investments; we encourage those same investments to scale in global markets with deep expertise and support. I supported GD1’s Fund 2 as a Venture Partner and loved their approach. Going on to support the firm and help grow it as Co-Managing Partner for Fund 3 was an obvious next step when I was asked to join the leadership.”
What do you do at GD1, 9-5?
“I wear all hats across all functions, doing whatever it takes to help founders and their companies; build strong leadership and a great culture within GD1, and nurture a successful collective portfolio. This includes assessing potential investments; managing our investment teams and understanding how we fit into the local and global early-stage ecosystem. My ‘job’ is about helping founders believe bigger and achieve better; but I’m equally passionate about helping people internally and externally realise GD1’s grand vision, which stretches beyond investing in companies: we make outsize success possible!”
What makes you a good Partner?
“That’s easy! It’s a willingness to learn. At GD1, we’re not precious about what we do and don’t know. As an investor, there’s no way you know everything and it’s arrogant to assume you do. You are always learning. An ability to listen and to learn trumps a lot of other things. At GD1, we’re looking for a confluence of skills – like puzzle pieces – so that we can all learn from these rich and varied perspectives.”
What’s your superpower?
“My superpower is that I’m willing to accept when I have made a mistake. I believe that sets me up to engage well with others and win their trust. You can’t enjoy what you’re doing while harbouring misgivings like ‘Am I good enough?’ or ‘Am I doing this right?’ That creates unnecessary pressure. Go ahead and try unencumbered; own your mistakes and learn from them if you do make them; and then repeat this process whenever you work on something or with someone.”
What gets you up in the morning?
“Supporting people’s vision for what they want to build is my ‘why’ and is the reason I do what I do at GD1. For many founders, this vision is tied to their life story or their ‘why’. Cancer put into perspective for me how important it is to work on things that matters the most to me like family and personal interests; and how important it is to enjoy work for the challenge and sense of accomplishment of it, not the brand, prestige, or economic value of it. It’s supporting people’s visions and dreams that makes me happiest. It’s all about founders uncovering what they are called to do and me being able to plug in and help.”
If you won the lotto, what would you do?
“I would plough the money back into GD1 to build up the firm and our capabilities. I’d also work to create an equal playing field for those coming into VC from non-traditional backgrounds, including different ethnic and minority groups. I think NZ has made meaningful strides recently with respect to gender diversity (still a long way to go though), but I also think it’s time we started embracing diversity in terms of other lenses such as ethnicity. In 2018 when I returned to New Zealand, GD1 was quite literally the only fund with any ethnic diversity. Mercifully, things are a little better now, but there’s still a lot to do. To contextualise this point, I grew up in the pacific islands in Papua New Guinea, and would love to help seed a grassroots effort for a VC/tech ecosystem in those sorts of regions and build up a pipeline of diverse individuals across thought, experience, ethnicity and gender. This is what I’m super keen to start seeing incorporated into the wider APAC VC ecosystem.”
What would you say to someone wanting a career in venture capital?
“You don’t get into VC, by wanting to be in VC. Find what you’re passionate about and develop yourself in that area. My strength and interest was in hardware engineering and operations. VCs need individuals with broad knowledge and experience; an ability to contextualise investment against real-world experience. Becoming someone that can add value and a point of difference to a VC is a great natural entry point into VC.”