Silicon Valley Investor Tina Sharkey Returns to Her Entrepreneurial Roots

June 2, 2016, 8:30 PM UTC
Courtesy of Sherpa Foundry

Tina Sharkey, an investor with Sherpa Capital, says she isn’t like most venture capitalists. That’s because she’s less excited about finding the next hot deal and more passionate about the actual work of building a company.

“Instead of hunting for deals, I’d rather be spending time with entrepreneurs, helping them grow their businesses and brands,” Sharkey admitted, sitting in a conference room at Sherpa’s offices in San Francisco.

Perhaps that’s because Sharkey originally cut her teeth as an entrepreneur by co-founding early online women’s community, iVillage, and then serving as its chief community architect and head of programming. NBC Universal acquired iVillage for $600 million in 2006.

Now as a venture capitalist at Silicon Valley venture capital firm Sherpa Capital, Sharkey is helping entrepreneurs like YouTube star Michelle Phan and HomeAway co-founder Brian Sharples develop their startups into the next Fortune 500 company. She’s also a rare woman in an industry overwhelmingly dominated by men, that is increasingly under attack for its gender imbalance.

Sharkey’s career started by helping the Sesame Workshop, the creator of Sesame Street, set up its first websites. She then jumped to AOL in 1999, where she helped oversee the Internet portal’s homepage, Sharkey’s next developed the online community for new moms, BabyCenter, which was owned by healthcare giant Johnson & Johnson.

It was her experience of creating online brands inside corporate behemoths that attracted the attention of early Uber investor Shervin Pishevar, and former Goldman Sachs banker Scott Stanford, when they were creating their new investment firm Sherpa Capital. While one side of the firm would invest in the next Ubers of the world, Pishevar and Stanford’s vision was to create another part of the firm, called Sherpa Foundry. It connects startups with big corporations to help large companies learn how to innovate and move fast, and for startups to get their foot in the door for a possible partnership or even an acquisition.

Sharkey took over as CEO of the Foundry, and quickly enlisted movie studio Dreamworks, eBay, media giant Conde Nast and Salesforce as clients. “Tina has a sixth sense around brands and connecting these brands to startups,” explained Sanford. With companies like Conde Nast and Salesforce, Sharkey helped incubate businesses, collaborate with startups, and help form strategies around the design of their mobile apps.

For example, Sharkey helped spin out task management app from business software giant Salesforce because the company closed down the app. She also served on the board of HomeAway, an Airbnb competitor that went public in 2011 and was recently acquired by Expedia for $3.9 billion. “You’d be hard pressed to find a board member more engaged than Tina,” said HomeAway founder Brian Sharples. In particular, Sharkey helped Sharples recruit and hire his first chief marketing officer.

More recently, Sharkey has been shifting her role at Sherpa, and has been rolling her sleeves up with entrepreneurs. Earlier this year, she hired a new CEO of Sherpa Foundry, and became a venture partner at Sherpa Capital, where she will invest in new companies and take board seats at these companies.

With her more recent role on the venture side, Sharkey joins a rare group of women who invest in startups in Silicon Valley. Fewer than 6% of all decision-makers at U.S. venture capital firms are women, according to data compiled by Fortune, showcasing the glaring gender inequality issues in the investment industry, and Silicon Valley as a whole.

Last year, former venture capitalist Ellen Pao pushed the issue into national attention when her gender discrimination lawsuit against former employer Kleiner Perkins went to trial. Pao lost the case, but it cast a light on the male-dominated culture that continues to permeate the venture capital and tech industries.

As a venture capitalist, Sharkey has invested in a number of female entrepreneurs including Brit Morin, the founder of DIY craft site Brit & Co., as well as in Michelle Phan and her makeup startup Ipsy.

Sharkey, of course, isn’t the only woman in venture capital. There’s also Aileen Lee of Cowboy Ventures, Mary Meeker of Kleiner Perkins, Rebecca Lynn of Canvas, Theresia Gouw and Jennifer Fonstad of Aspect Ventures, among others.

In the case of health tech startup Cue, a company in which Sherpa Capital is an investor, Sharkey has already had a “dramatic impact” on the company’s future as a business, according to founder and CEO Ayub Khattak. After seeing the Cue’s technology, which is supposed to measure saliva or blood for testosterone levels and Vitamin D in a matter of minutes, Sharkey immediately called her old colleagues at Johnson & Johnson. Within months of meeting Cue, Johnson and Johnson signed a partnership with the startup to develop a specialized HIV test that determines how advanced the disease is in an individual and that could be used in developing markets.

Sherpa is still relatively young compared to the legacy venture giants on Sand Hill Road such as Kleiner Perkins and Sequoia Capital. But the firm has invested in a number of recent Silicon Valley successes including Uber, Slack, and Airbnb.

Up next for Sharkey is actually swapping seats with the founders she helps, and start a new company while also investing for Sherpa Capital. She’s partnered with entrepreneur Ido Leffler on a secretive consumer startup called Dhosi, which is a working name that could change by the time of launch, according to Sharkey.

Leffler and Sharkey declined to reveal details about the new company other than to say it’s focused on e-commerce and will help consumers “live better through the stuff they buy and how they buy it,” explained Leffler. The startup, which is expected to publicly debut next year, will also create and sell its own physical products.

Of course, Dhosi will face the massive challenge of all e-commerce startups in competing in a world where Amazon is dominant. But Sharkey seems optimistic about this new venture, despite the lack of public details.

“This is a new chapter for me,” said Sharkey.

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