Natalya Vilyavina is the UK Chapter Lead and Executive Board member at the Oxford Entrepreneurs Network. She is also a Venture Manager at the Creative Destruction Lab, where she manages AI startups in areas such as data analytics, legal tech, fintech, and infrastructure. In its present form, Oxford Entrepreneurs Network (OEN) launched in 2018 to take global Oxford Entrepreneurs of the Bay network, which started in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2015. It offers events, mentoring and funding opportunities with a friendly, supportive, peer-to-peer approach. The network has experienced exponential growth, amassing nearly two thousand members across the globe, with six chapters throughout the United States, as well as the UK.
What is your background? What made you decide to get involved in supporting entrepreneurs?
I started my career as a banking and finance lawyer at a global law firm in Ukraine. I was always fascinated by entrepreneurship and entrepreneurs, but I did not find the business climate in my home country ideal to pursue this path. So, I put my aspirations aside for a while, and my journey to entrepreneurship was a long one. When I came to the Bay Area, I joined the Oxford Entrepreneurs of the Bay Area and the Oxford Angel Fund as an Associate. It was at this point that my passion for supporting entrepreneurship really came together. Speaking to entrepreneurs, participating in board meetings, and evaluating startups was fascinating. I found that the Bay Area was the perfect environment to develop my experience in these areas. One vivid memory I have, which solidified the idea that this was the right path for me, was witnessing two remarkable women pitching their ideas. I was amazed by how brave these women were pushing the boundaries of technology. They proposed impressive ideas, both securing funding. After moving to Oxford for my MBA, I was involved in many university-based entrepreneurship initiatives, including Oxford University Innovation, took several entrepreneurship courses, and later joined the Creative Destruction Lab as a Venture Manager. All this helped me to get a good understanding of entrepreneurship, venture capital and technology as well as developed connections to the entrepreneurial ecosystem in the UK and Europe. I think I currently stand at a very interesting intersection of law, artificial intelligence, business and finance. It is a great privilege to be working in the UK and building this great ecosystem of entrepreneurial support.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
For me, entrepreneurship is about connecting the dots in a way that no one has done so before. It is about looking for creative and innovative solutions. Break-through ideas often lie at the intersection of different disciplines, where someone can recognise opportunities and solutions by connecting several ideas.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
Resilience – you fail a lot as an entrepreneur. If you are not optimistic and willing to constantly try again, you will soon lose interest, passion, and may be subject to burn-out.
Relationship-building – more so than simply having a network, building trust within relationships is important. It starts with building trust with employees and colleagues, up to investors and clients. Honesty and being up-front encourages trust, support and interest in your idea.
Execution – entrepreneurship is very much a ‘hustle’. Again, you need to be optimistic and continue to move forward and actively search out opportunities and relationships. Persistence is key in order to execute your final goals, as well as the ability to make decisions fairly quickly.
What is your favourite part of supporting entrepreneurs?
I like seeing entrepreneurs I’ve worked with building something, and it is interesting to see how they grow, develop, and create a product or a service that is valuable and used by other people or companies. To know I have been a part of achieving the end result is amazing, as well as knowing jobs have been created, and individuals have developed through creating startups.
What entrepreneurial individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
This is a difficult question, as I admire so many people I come into contact with through my work. Elon Musk is an interesting character who certainly exhibits persistence, vision and ability. He does not see boundaries and executes on his dreams. These are great qualities, and I encounter people with them often, both within the Oxford Entrepreneur Network, the Creative Destruction Lab and beyond.
If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
I think it would be interesting to have a discussion with any top executive of a large corporation, about how they made decisions, their personal journey and that of the company. It is interesting how some small decision can completely change or affect the trajectory of a company or business.
What has been your most satisfying or successful moment while supporting entrepreneurs?
Again, seeing them grow, hire new employees and have a product used and appreciated makes me feel successful, as I know I’ve contributed to their journey.
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned while supporting entrepreneurs?
From a general entrepreneurial perspective, I have found that a mistake is not to move forward. If you make a mistake, you need to learn a lesson and move on from it. It is a normal and necessary part of any entrepreneurial journey to experience some setbacks. In terms of supporting entrepreneurs, there is a need for prioritisation of decisions and allocation of resources in an effective way, and often you do not know whether your choices were right until they have been implemented!
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
I would definitely recommend coming to Oxford Entrepreneurs Network! It is a very friendly and supportive environment. Our network has many members who love entrepreneurship, encouraging and helping others.
The Creative Destruction Lab is another excellent resource for entrepreneurs. It offers objective-based mentoring, MBA student support, as well as other resources. Oxford University Innovation is another great starting point for new projects, especially the StEP Ignite programme which enables students to start and build businesses from scratch. Another useful resource is the Oxford Foundry.
Have you faced any challenges as a woman supporting entrepreneurs? If so, how have you overcome them?
As someone who works with entrepreneurs, I often approach this topic from their perspective; there are still some challenges faced by women entrepreneurs in terms of fundraising. There is research that suggests that only a small percentage of venture capital funding goes to all-female teams, and even that women and men tend to be asked different types of questions in interviews with some venture capital funds. I think there is currently a lot of great change in this regard, which we can see from women-focused initiatives and an interest in diversity in the industry. Oxford Entrepreneurs Network has certainly invested in many women-run projects through the Angel Fund.
What resources would you recommend for other women interested in doing this?
Oxford is great in terms of supporting women entrepreneurs, for example, the Elevate programme at the Oxford Foundry, though aimed at all entrepreneurs, is a great resource for support and mentorship.
How do you think institutions such as the University of Oxford could better support women entrepreneurs?
I think one of the best ways of supporting women is to tackle imposter syndrome. Setting an example by successful women is a great way of doing this, especially through inter-personal means such as mentoring and sharing personal experiences. Having women-to-women mentorship and initiatives may remove some hesitancy and allow open and frank discussions and advice.
Do you have any advice specifically for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?
I think that you have to believe in yourself and that your ideas are worth the world knowing about. Show up, do what you and focus on being yourself and on your business objectives rather than trying to impress others. When you approach entrepreneurship from the perspective of who you are and your own goals and reasons for following this path, you start caring less about what other’s think.
Any last words of advice?
Be yourself and remember your own reasons for pursuing your goals.