Maria is an angel investor and one of the four Partners at Aletta Angels, an angel investment collective investing in early stage start-ups that empower women. Maria and her Partners recognised the need to fund the ideas of female entrepreneurs, as it is often difficult for women to secure funding, particularly at early stages. They all come primarily from tech backgrounds and have experience in working in both start-ups and large corporations. The primary objective of Aletta Angels is to back female leaders in early stage start-ups to
bring diversity into what has traditionally been a male dominated field. They invest in the change they want to see in the world.
Maria has been working in the start-up world for many years. She is marketing executive and the former CMO of Integral Ad Science, a digital marketing company and leader in digital advertising verification. She has worked for a string of start-ups in New York and
is currently completing an Executive MBA at Saïd Business School.
What is your background? What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?
I was born and raised in Argentina and moved to New York in 2000. Being an immigrant in a foreign country really changes your perspective and opportunities. The people who opened the door to me and were most welcoming back then were entrepreneurs. I started working for a small tech start-up that was run by a female CEO. The people working there came from all over the world, and I really enjoyed being part of such a multicultural and diverse environment. This was my first exposure to an entrepreneurial environment.
I was curious about the New York tech scene and left to join another start-up, TACODA, which was acquired by Aol. This gave me a different perspective, as I got to experience this transition from being a start-up to becoming part of a large corporation. It also helped me solidify my desire to work in fast paced entrepreneurial environments. So I left after a few years to join several of my TACODA colleagues at another start-up, interclick.
By then, I had fully realised that I really liked the thrill of the entrepreneurial world. Working in a start-up enables you to explore different roles and develop a broad skillset. It’s a very fast-paced environment that exposes you to many ideas and areas of a business. In large corporations, you tend to go vertical in one subject and specialise, whereas in start-ups, it’s much broader as you have to work across multiple horizons. You truly can impact the outcome of a firm.
I have remained working in the tech and advertising industry since then, helping grow start-ups into multimillion powerhouses.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
Entrepreneurship is a very elusive concept, and the definition you get will change depending on who you ask. I believe that there is no right or wrong answer, as there are a lot of different components to it. I tend to see entrepreneurship as either system-building or system-fixing. We typically see that entrepreneurs either rethink existing value chains or industries or invent completely new solutions or sectors. They put together a system, aggregate resources, infrastructure, and people, and try to either fix a problem or build something new. Even if you’re a fixer, you’re nevertheless building, as you are reinventing solutions. As an entrepreneur, you have to identify where the problem is and believe that your idea can solve it. It’s fundamentally about disrupting the market.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
Firstly, you need a vision. You need to know what you are fixing or building. You are going to face many distractions and changes in the landscape and market conditions in which you operate. You will have headwinds, tailwinds, roadblocks, supporters, and detractors; and people will want to shape you in different ways, there are so many different forces at play. It’s therefore easy to get lost and lose sight of what you’re trying to accomplish if you don’t have a long-term vision of your journey. Even if you might pivot from your original idea at different times, having a vision is going to help you bring in people who will come along on your journey and help you develop that idea.
You need to be driven as well. You must always believe in yourself and your idea, as many moments of self-doubt will inevitably arise. There will be cheerleaders and detractors along the way, but ultimately, you are the commander of your own destiny.
Finally, having grit is very important. It’s not going to be easy. There will be many complicated situations in which you will have to make important decisions about how to proceed. Some people will love your idea, and others will try to rip it apart. Don’t let it become personal, sift through the feedback, and keep going.
What is your favourite part of supporting entrepreneurs?
I enjoy working with these talented people that are looking to disrupt the systems that are in place. This creates a great amount of energy and creativity. It gives you the ability to explore and play with different ideas and requires navigating a lot of complexity in very challenging environments. It gives you the be ability to be very creative, problem solve, and help entrepreneurs build and bring their vision to life.
I like the environment that entrepreneurship fosters. It’s dynamic and fast-paced, everything is in constant movement, especially when it comes to small start-ups. Being part of this dynamic entrepreneurial environment helped me develop a broad range of skills and enabled me to explore what I’m good at. However, it’s typically not a very structured environment. But it’s an incredible opportunity for anyone who thrives in a little bit of chaos.
What entrepreneurial individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
There are a lot of people that I came across in my professional career that I find very inspiring for a reason or another. My partners at Aletta inspire me every day. Kristiina Kansen and Anke Huiskes, the founding partners, had been playing with the idea of creating the collective for a while. They did their homework, and launched Aletta because, even if it’s a small contribution, they want to help create change. Kristiina, Anke, and Elke are busy with work and family, but every day they show up to drive that change, and get us closer to that goal.
Another person is Michael Katz. He was the CEO of interclick, one of the start-ups I worked for. He’s a fantastic entrepreneur, and it’s been incredible to see him grow in his role over the years. Michael is very creative, has a lot of grit, and is very driven. But what inspires me the most about him is how he constantly seeks to self-improve. He is continually reflecting and learning from his mistakes and is very open about it. He is in constant state of evolution and has lifted the curtain for all to see and be part of the journey.
What has been your most satisfying or successful moment while supporting entrepreneurs?
In terms of success, it’s always about growth in marketing, and it’s very satisfying to see how we can drive growth in different organisations. When it comes to start-ups, investors typically want to exit and recoup their investments. I have done three exits in the past 10 years, and it feels like a validation of the work the team and I have done. However, that’s a bittersweet moment: on the one hand, the exit validates the success of your work, but on the other hand, you have to let go of a business and you realise that it’s no longer yours. However, the most satisfying aspect of my job has been seeing people I have worked and engaged with over the years move along their career paths. Particularly those in my teams, that I had the opportunity to coach and mentor. They have let me be part of their journey and it’s incredibly satisfying to see them become successful on their own. That’s the part of the job that has given me immense satisfaction.
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned while supporting entrepreneurs?When you come in to work in a start-up, you are part of that system as well. We’re messing up every single day, the list of mistakes is long!
One thing that comes to mind is that in these entrepreneurial environments, things are moving at a very fast pace and “stopping” is not usually part of the vocabulary. While you might have a roadmap of the potential forks and scenarios, those might change along the way and there is this perception that we need to make decisions on the spot. The problem is that we should take a step back, but that is typically perceived as stopping. My biggest lesson has been to reframe that “stop” as a “pause”, and giving myself time to reflect on how the scenarios I had scoped have changed and what are all the new options. Reframing stopping to pausing is simple, but important distinction that can help make better decisions in fast moving environments.
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?There are so many resources available at the University of Oxford that it’s sometimes difficult to navigate through them and encompass everything that’s at one’s disposal. The Entrepreneurship Centre at Saïd Business School and the team at OUI have great resources. There is also The Liber Project out of Said as well. I’d also recommend talking to other entrepreneurs, potential clients, or even your friends (you never know who will be able to help you polish your idea). There are also many angel networks for women you can reach out to if you are looking for angel investors who are focused in female-led companies.
Have you faced any challenges as a woman supporting entrepreneurs? If so, how have you overcome them?
We live in a system that wasn’t designed by women or for women. It has changed significantly over the years, but as women we nevertheless face situations that can be quite shocking. At times you will wonder why you’re the only woman in the room, and you will have environments where the men feel more comfortable talking amongst each other. Sometimes the team will solely be made up of men and it can feel like you’ve reached a glass ceiling.
That’s one of the reasons why I joined Aletta, to help build a more inclusive business world that resembles us more. Each generation is paving the way for the next one. But there is a lot of work ahead of us to create a more inclusive society. Finding ways to participate and help other women is a simple way in which we can contribute to drive the change we want to see.
How do you think institutions such as the University of Oxford could better support women entrepreneurs?
The University of Oxford has several programmes, including networking programmes and women groups. There are several research projects under way as well. So taking a more coordinated approach and pooling all these resources might be beneficial to female entrepreneurs in campus. I hope the university can make these programs more visible and continue to connect the female student body across its entirety.
Any last words of advice?
Be attuned to the needs of your buyers, make sure there is market/product fit. “Build it and they will come” typically fails, so go talk to your future customers. Branding matters. This is the way you package your company to the world and synthesize for buyers what your product stands for – even in B2B environments. So don’t simply build a company, build a brand.