Strategy: A woman who’s worked in venture capital for 25 years shares her best career advice — and why it was worth being the first and only woman on her team when she started out

Wende Hutton

Throughout Wende Hutton's career, she's brought her children to board meetings, coexisted with a "band of brothers," and mentored future female leaders.

  • Wende Hutton has been a venture capitalist for 25 years.
  • Throughout her career investing in early-stage biotech companies, she's brought her children to board meetings, coexisted with a "band of brothers," and mentored future female leaders.
  • Hutton shares her career advice with Business Insider, which includes staying curious, and avoiding making investing a solo sport.

It's rare to find women in venture capital. And it's even rarer to find women who've been in the business for more than two decades.

Such is the case of 25-year veteran Wende Hutton, a general partner at Canaan Partners, an early stage firm that manages $5 billion.

Hutton's career in venture started when she joined Mayfield Fund after working at biotech startups. At Mayfield, she was the first and only woman on the team.

"It was a very different environment when I started out at Mayfield Fund. I joined the band of brothers, most of them had been fraternity brothers, they had been business school classmates, or they had worked together at Hewlett Packard," Hutton said. "They had a very strong bond. It was a very collegial, close group."

She came from a much different background from her male counterparts. Getting them to understand why she, as a mother of two young children whose husband was a CEO, wanted to continue working and balance her job with her life was a challenge.

On occasion, Hutton even traveled to board meetings with her children in an attempt to meet her responsibilities to her family and her job, she said. "My son is now a CEO," Hutton said. She left to join Canaan in 2004.

At Canaan, she's able to have different conversations about work-life balance with the women in her office, like principal Colleen Cuffaro. Cuffaro, who recently had a child, said that while she has male mentors in addition to Hutton, having Hutton to chat with about parenthood even before her pregnancy was helpful.

"It's nice to be able to talk to someone in the exact career path I'm on," Cuffaro said. "She's been always able to show that human side of herself to me, which as a woman, as a new mom, means the world to me."

An emotional stake in investments

One of the aspects Cuffaro admires in her mentor is that Hutton isn't afraid to make an emotional connection to an investment. For example, Hutton invested in Labrys Biologics, a company developing migraine treatments that later got acquired by Teva Pharmaceuticals for up to $285 million. While the treatment is facing some delays, it's one of a handful seeking to find a preventive therapy for migraines.

While in the process of evaluating Labrys, Hutton had to check herself, to make sure she wasn't just excited about the company because she knew family members with chronic migraines.

"I had to check my personal passion to make sure the market opportunity was significant," Hutton said. Of the estimated 38 million Americans with migraines, 15 million of them might be eligible for preventive treatment.

Admitting that personal connection isn't necessarily something all investors are comfortable with, Cuffaro said. "I think some people would be afraid to admit that they are driven by those kinds of factors," she said.

Others Hutton's worked with have picked up on that connection to her investments as well.

"Wende could be running a consumer products company if that's what she wanted to do," Steve James, CEO of Pionyr Therapeutics, who has worked with Hutton on a number of companies including Antiva Biosciences, told Business Insider. "However I think people who are interested in innovative science, interested in healthcare, interested in developing new drugs for rare or difficult diseases, they gravitate toward the mantra of 'Do well by doing good.'"

For those looking to make a career investing in biotech, Hutton has a few pieces of advice she's learned over her 25-year career. The first: "Don't make it a solo sport," she said. Especially when it comes to new drug development, it can be helpful to pool expertise from others to vet a potential investment.

The other piece: "I think you have to have a very curious nature," Hutton said. Working with new biotech startups is accompanied by a whole lot of learning, from legal systems around intellectual property to how to get the drug eventually paid for. "You have to love all aspects of learning."

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