The Changing Face of UK VC 2020: Akash Bajwa, Portfolio and Investment Analyst at Cass Entrepreneurship Fund

Born in Germany to economic migrants, Akash Bajwa landed in London at age twelve in 2009, where he attended Bisophshalt school for his GCSE's and A Levels. "I was at a... I wouldn't say underperforming state school, but it was in one of the more neglected parts of west London," he told Techworld during a recent conversation.

There he started out on a career route in accountancy. "It seemed like a safe, steady job and in the environment I was in, that was the ceiling, or so we believed," he said. Then, in his second year studying at Cass Business School he was placed on an internship at Deloitte.

"I realised there's a whole world of possibilities out there that I wasn't aware of. Something switched then, and I started to go after opportunities."

Soon after, Bajwa got onto the graduate scheme in the wealth management department at Barclays and, through a turn of fate, was placed in the ventures team at the large bank, where his interest in the industry was piqued.

He went on to join the new Future VC paid internship programme established by the team over at Diversity VC and soon found himself hooked on venture capital.

We spoke to Bajwa just six months into his VC career, where he is now a portfolio and investment analyst at Cass Entrepreneurship Fund, about his unique and fortuitous route into the industry, where it falls down on diversity and inclusion, and why the kids might just be alright.

What follows is a lightly edited version of our conversation for clarity and brevity.

Scott Carey, editor at Techworld: How did you get interested in VC?

Akash Bajwa, portfolio and investment analyst at Cass Entrepreneurship Fund: Future VC came at the most opportune time because it was around April that they opened applications. I was quite active on LinkedIn, so it came onto my radar, I applied and heavily leveraged the experience I had with Barclays Ventures, as well as another project I'm involved in called Shaper Impact Capital.

Those five weeks were very, very valuable for me and the very first master class that Imran [Tehal] from DN Capital gave on 'how to build an investment case' was the basis for my interview for this role I'm in now.

I was also very lucky for this role to fall into my lap because I essentially cold emailed the director of the Cass Entrepreneurship Fund, Helen Reynolds, on LinkedIn asking if I could come to work on the weekend or do evening work as I really wanted to exhaust all possibilities while working full time.

She, of course, said no, but a few weeks later, in late May, she said that they're advertising a role for a full-time analyst. By the time I submitted my application, I was well into Future VC, using a lot of the knowledge I acquired in my application. I got the role in September and I am still very young in my career, so the learning curve has been immense.

Once you got a taste for venture, what exactly was it that got you interested in that space?

I've always been interested in having both fulfilling work but also, ideally, impactful work. So initially I thought that impact investing and  public markets, ESG funds, is the best fit for me in the long term.

Then as I started to actually meet these startups and meet these entrepreneurs – who are so inspirational – I started to think that this is probably a more powerful vehicle for the impact that I want to achieve long term. So I started thinking about what a big role the [VC] industry plays in actual job creation, changing the way we live our lives.

Also taking an impact lens in the long term, which is my very long term ambition, in the emerging markets, there's so many opportunities for not just an impact focused fund, but opportunities to help that bottom part of the pyramid, as well as generate those commercial returns.

With all of these thoughts in mind I decided that this is something I feel has a big purpose. Then, secondly, it's really interesting to learn about new markets. I'm a curious reader, I really like to learn new things and the fund I am at now is a generalist fund so one week I am looking at a company doing corporate [Power Purchase Agreements], the other week, you're looking at an industry 4.0 hardware solution. It's so incredible the kinds of things you can learn and especially about what's disrupting the status quo.

What would your route into VC have looked like without Future VC?

The master classes were very, very valuable. There were top funds delivering those and it was really explained from the ground up. So for any layman, they explain very technical topics. I hadn't read books like Venture Deals or the Secrets of Sand Hill Road. So it was very early on in my learning.

Alongside that we had the investment panel project, working with an actual startup. Over the five weeks, my team and the company had two calls, lengthy calls, and then a lot of emails exchanged, where we were trying to get this 10-page investment case prepared.

That was the first experience I've had of actually working with the company to really, firstly run due diligence on all the assumptions I've made and it was a company that's doing something very interesting in the loan origination market. That was also again, learning about a new market.

So the combination of the master classes and the investment panel project helped my knowledge base and my skills. The last thing, which I think is just as valuable, is the people I met. I can name a few people who I'm still in touch with on a regular basis who are actually either introduced to others or who have introduced me to others, so building lasting relationships. I feel the future cohorts will be very similar in that. It really does build a strong network and the best thing is, you can vouch for these people, I can vouch for these guys, if I recommend them to someone.

On opening up networks, does that reflect your experience in terms of the networks and the access and that there's still, I feel, those elements of the VC industry which is firmly behind closed doors. Does that reflect your experience?

Very much so. Whilst I sometimes feel privileged to be inside some of these networks, I don't feel too happy about there being so many closed networks. There are a lot of networks I discovered very late. Sometimes from conversations I've had with other VCs, they tell me that there are certain roles that only get advertised within certain closed networks. Some which I wouldn't even know how to actually enter.

Especially for a young person, who's just come into the industry, and especially someone who's not gone to Oxford, Cambridge, Stanford or Harvard universities, and doesn't have that network already.

I have personally brainstormed what are the ways that I can get into each of these networks and truthfully, there doesn't seem any obvious way. Short of going to all these events and actually trying to meet whoever has the most access to these networks. I don't see any route otherwise to penetrate these networks.

I try my best to attend as many events and conferences so that I don't miss opportunities to speak to people who then will open up my network further, but actually with how time consuming the role can be itself, for others who are new to the industry they're facing the same pain point. At the moment there doesn't seem to be a quick fix with this.

In the Future VC WhatsApp group we share roles and I know that if I hadn't been in that group, there are other people who are aspiring to get into industry who wouldn't see those roles. So it's kind of a dilemma, either you're halfway in and feel privileged, but at the same time, you realise that there's so much that you don't have access to and there's people who, like you six months ago, maybe weren't as lucky.

Yes, the building of new networks is a solution, but it doesn't immediately open up the old networks, right? I think what's important is that people like yourself, and people like Check Warner, who's very honest about the privilege that she had getting into the industry, is it's about paying it forward. It's about not getting your foot in the door and then closing the door behind you, but the new generation seems to be a lot more open, a lot more willing to build up new networks and new routes into the industry.

So although you said there's no quick fix, I feel like that might be the only route to opening up this industry and starting to shine a light on some of those corners.

I agree.

Do you see yourself staying in the analyst space or do you want to eventually get more into the investment side of things?

I understand at some funds they are mutually exclusive, for my personal ambitions I think I'd like to have a hybrid role. As much as the research can supplement my decision on the investments, that's very much part of what appeals to me about the industry.

In the long term I'd love to become an expert on a certain vertical or geography or niche. It's something I have been planning for a while to actually start writing a blog and consume all there is to about a certain area. It is easier said than done, everyone says they want to do that, but that would be my goal. Then to use that knowledge – I really like what Atomico says about this where they say they speak to academics and you can see some of the areas they've invested in, very deep tech, where everyone who is looking at it from the outside, without that academic knowledge, would say that's 10-15 years out there, or just very, very risky.

It's that kind of learning curve and that engagement with the most up-to-date literature, which I would aspire to possess as an associate, principal or partner.

Early in your career, what are some of the areas that have really piqued your interest?

Although this isn't a thesis for our fund, personally: financial inclusion. Particularly in Latin America and Africa, the underbanked, certain insurance products, which I think certain regions in Africa and Latin America could really, really benefit from.

As well as that, impact investing, although this is something where I don't have the technical expertise, so clean tech companies, companies that are solving massive problems. Whereas five years ago you could consider that to be a small market, the definition of the word impact has become so broad that really, most companies, if they are solving a problem that comes under the UN [Sustainable Development Goals], you could call that impact.

I feel as well as clean tech something that is solving for poverty and illiteracy in developing countries. So it's those edtech startups that are really widening access to education. Leapfrog has a really good theory of change around this. They're just trying to provide the basic minimum privileges that we have, which is good schooling and good upbringing for people to then come out of their socio-economic status and actually improve social mobility.

Those are obviously very broad themes. I haven't dived deep into which companies are at the forefront of this, but I see those to be very lucrative markets as well. I know that Sequoia and a lot of the big blue-chip venture funds are going into these markets.

What has been your early impression of the VC industry from a diversity and inclusion point of view?

I feel the data is definitely painting a grim picture. My observations are that the data is telling a pretty accurate account.

What I mean is there are certain demo days I've attended, or investor events, where if I was not the only person of colour, there were definitely no women there sometimes. I sometimes have this discussion with my peers who are also in junior roles or are trying to get into the industry. I definitely feel like whilst there's a groundswell of junior VCs discussing this, and I've met them, I haven't had interactions with people at the principal level and above who I could approach and feel confident about sharing my thoughts on this and actually getting a sympathetic ear.

So is there a lack of senior role models?

Yes, absolutely.

I try to be active on social media and see who the thought leaders are in the industry. I look at the top-tier funds: Balderton, Accel, Index, and I look at which partners are speaking out on certain sectors and unfortunately there is a lot of homogeneity educationally and ethnically. Those people are aware that there is a problem and there needs to be change, but at the same time, my feeling is that it's not happening fast enough and that the discourse, whilst it's really gathering steam, it's not actually resulting in actions.

As far as I know, and a few of my friends have been interviewing at different funds, there are many times where they have arrived at an assessment centre and they are the only black person, the team sat opposite them is all-white. So whilst Diversity VC has put this toolkit out and there is all this talk about unconscious biases in the hiring process, the discussion is not actually manifesting in changing hiring practices. That is something which I can definitely confirm I have felt.

If I hadn't got into this industry through the means I have, I would still feel intimidated by the process, thinking that when I ended up at the assessment centre, if I'd gotten that far, I would be surrounded by Oxbridge graduates, who are very bright, high-achievers, but I would feel that because people tend to hire in their own image and unfortunately, this is just a consequence of bias.

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