Adam Dawkins is a venture capitalist and founder of the Emerging Venture Capitalists Association (EVCA). Adam was born with the spirit of an entrepreneur. In high school, while his peers were working the typical after-school job, he was already experimenting in the business world, buying and selling gold on eBay despite not meeting the age requirements in the marketplace’s Terms of Service. Shortly thereafter, barely out of high school but stricken with entrepreneurial fever, Adam launched a startup in the media streaming space as a college freshman at Texas A&M University. After securing multiple patents, he wound down the business and sold the intellectual property for a tidy sum of money for a scrappy nineteen-year-old. Soon after, Adam became interested in taking a seat at the other side of the table where the venture capitalists played. His first role after college was at a small seed fund, followed by an investor role at Sierra Ventures, where he stayed for over three years. In the course of this, Adam, newly arrived from Texas in Silicon Valley, wanted to figure out how to effectively navigate the new world of venture capital. He founded the EVCA in the summer of 2017 as a way to spark new connections and create a supportive network across the emerging generation of VCs. While Adam recently left Sierra Ventures to forge ahead on a new opportunity that is currently in stealth mode, he continues to lead and operate the EVCA.
For someone who has made his name helping connect others, it may come as a surprise that Adam is a self-described introvert. Yet in speaking with him, it’s easy to discern a deeply compassionate nature, one that seeks out long-lasting, meaningful connections that go beyond the business transaction. When asked about his role and vision in founding the EVCA, he naturally drifted away from using the first-person “I” in favor of the pronoun “we” to discuss his work. Adam characteristically prefers to shine the spotlight on those around him rather than himself. He is the type of friend you can rely on to remember your birthday or unexpectedly send you a gift at your front door with no expectations of reciprocity. While investing in great companies remains his primary passion, he is driven at a more fundamental level by the philosophy of creating positive social impact. For Adam, the spheres of work and philanthropy are inextricably intertwined. He’s on the mission to change the world, and, for now, the world of venture capital is merely his current instrument to effect that change.
Sam: What is your origin story? What was your path into venture capital?
Adam: I was interested in entrepreneurship from a young age. I did a variety of things to earn a buck - including selling elementary school classmates gum and candy, running a lemonade stand, operating a landscaping business, hosting garage sales, and selling gold and silver on eBay.
Unfortunately my eBay reseller dreams were cut short after they called my home only to find I was in class - at my middle school. Apparently I violated their terms of service as I was under 18.
My love of entrepreneurship continued into college where I founded a media streaming startup my freshman year. We filed a couple patents that were granted providing us with the exclusive ability to cast content from multiple devices to a single, unified screen. The company didn’t go far, eventually selling in my sophomore year to RPX Corporation (Nasdaq: RPXC).
Despite being a very modest exit by venture standards, it was relatively meaningful for a nineteen-year-old. While the experience solidified my love of entrepreneurship, I couldn’t help but wonder what the other side of the table was like for investors.
I began learning about venture and came across the University Venture Fund, a student-managed fund in Utah. I realized a handful of universities had student-run venture funds, and thought students at A&M would benefit from a similar experience.
I proposed the concept to the business school faculty, then began working with them my junior and senior years to bring the concept to life. As I approached graduation, I was determined to work in venture full-time. I looked for firms that had just raised a fund as I figured they’d have the need, and management fees, to hire an analyst. I cold emailed 100+ firms and fortunately Eric Benhamou at Benhamou Global Ventures (BGV) took a chance on me and invited me out to Palo Alto to work as a summer analyst.
After BGV, I worked as an analyst at a seed fund in Sunnyvale for slightly under a year, then joined Sierra Ventures where I was an investor for the past three and a half years. At Sierra, I was fortunate to support many world class founders and invest alongside phenomenal VCs.
Sam: You founded the EVCA back in 2017. Could you share more about the story behind how and why you started the organization?
Adam: The reason I had to cold email 100+ VC firms was because my venture and tech networks were nonexistent at the time. When I joined venture in 2017, there were 7 Texas A&M alumni in venture capital.. For context, the undergraduate enrollment at that time was over 50,000 students. The SF alumni network, inclusive of tech graduates in tech, had less than 100 active members.
Suffice to say, I knew - maybe - 3 people when I moved to the Bay Area. Not only did I want to make friends, but I also quickly realized that a junior investor’s job is pretty difficult. Unfortunately, these VCs typically don’t get the mentorship they need from their partners, for a variety of reasons, but particularly due to their partners’ limited bandwidth.
I searched for an organization that essentially functioned as a support group for pre-partner VCs. When I couldn’t find one, I decided to create my own. There were seven of us at our first meet up in September 2017 at The Old Pro in Palo Alto. We had all just graduated college and moved from different parts of the US to the Bay Area. It was exactly the group I was searching for.
A couple weeks later, we hosted another happy hour with roughly 15 VCs attending. We followed that up with a fireside chat with Nikhil Basu Trivedi, MD at Shasta Ventures at the time and now co-founder and GP at Footwork. About 30 VCs attended that chat.
As our in-person events grew, we realized we had something unique and saw the spark of a community beginning to form. We moved our members onto Slack and instituted an application along with other community frameworks. The community took off from there, and now we’re the largest, curated community of emerging (pre-partner and partner-level) VCs in the world.
Sam: With over 1,200 members covering over 95% of firms in the U.S., the EVCA has become the most active organization for pre-partner and junior-partner VCs. In launching the EVCA, did you expect the organization to grow to where it is today?
Adam: Interestingly, I never wanted the EVCA to become big. When an organization grows too quickly, you lose the intimate feel and purpose of the community. A community is meant to connect strangers who have not just shared ideals but also shared challenges and/or positions in life.
A community is successful if it enables its members to commiserate with one another and build each other up. I believe the communities with the strongest bonds, and engagement, are ones that are formed to address challenges its individual members are struggling with.
In the case of EVCA, the shared challenge is that it’s difficult to progress in this industry (for a variety of reasons that are too long for this post). This addresses the “shared challenge” element with the “shared position in life” being in the junior investor role. The challenge and role must be similar among members; otherwise, the cohesion breaks.
This is why we have strict membership criteria - only admitting analysts, associates, VPs, and principals at institutional and CVC firms. The role/experience/challenge of someone at an accelerator, or family office, or on the operations team at a venture firm have some distinct differences from our members. Cohesion among members is everything, as it, along with high-quality programming, are the primary drivers of high engagement.
We’ve talked about “shared challenges and positions” but how does size affect cohesion? When a group grows very large, you can lose the connective tissue - if you’re not really thoughtful about how you scale.
That’s actually the reason why our membership application isn’t public. The application must be sent to you by an existing member and to be considered for admittance, you need to be nominated by two existing members. This artificially slows community growth while naturally filtering applicants to map back to “shared challenges and positions” - analysts at institutional VC firms have a greater likelihood of knowing analysts at other institutional VC firms opposed to someone in operations at a family office.
The key to scaling a community from 120 to 1200 members, while retaining the intimate feel, is establishing sub-communities within the larger community. EVCA hosts 25+ communities based on industry, geography, and personal interests. Members can join as many communities as they’d like, such as attending Boston-specific events or connecting with blockchain-focused investors. Each community has multiple leaders building programing and creating resources for their community members.
Ultimately, our 60+ community leaders are what have made EVCA successful. It’s these 60 leaders, working in concert, who have shaped EVCA into what it is today. To be a true community, the community founder(s) must give up control to the community and let them self-govern. Communities outlive their founders and the ones that are organized around a central figurehead are doomed to fail.
Sam: SVB has been a major partner of the EVCA ever since you founded it back in 2017. Could you share more about that relationship?
Adam: We really think of SVB as our founding partner. The relationship first began when we only had a handful of members and a couple channels on Slack.
We met them at the perfect time as we were just getting kicked off and really needed a partner to support the scaling of the community. Up until that point, all the expenses were coming out of pocket from me and some of our early members.
We give SVB a lot of credit for seeing the community’s potential and putting the faith in us that we could grow into what we’ve become today. It’s very clear they’re dedicated to fostering the future generation of venture capital leaders. Given the clear mission alignment between our organizations, we’re fortunate to build this community with them and call them partners.
Sam: What do you view as the big challenges facing emerging VCs today?
Adam: Emerging VCs face a number of challenges.
It’s difficult to build your reputation and brand among a sea of a few thousand other VCs. If you’re a SF-based realtor, you’re just worried about winning deals and building your brand in SF. If you’re a geo-agnostic, enterprise SaaS & Infra-focused VC in SF, you’re tasked with winning deals in an endless number of geos. For many VCs, there’s immense pressure to stand out.
This is one challenge EVCA addresses - enabling our community leaders to build their network and brand off the broader EVCA platform. If you lead the blockchain community, the community members look to you as the blockchain VC.
Another challenge is building your track record. You may see great deals that aren’t a fit for your firm and deals that you can’t get across the finish line due to firm dynamics (i.e. partner preferences). However, those deals are often getting done by other great firms. I want to be the enabler of the future generation of GPs and am working on something to solve this challenge for emerging VCs.
Sam: What advice would you impart to the emerging generation of VCs as they embark on their career?
Adam: Focus on building relationships in a non-transactional manner. You might never get a deal out of it, but you’ll hopefully develop a great friendship. I have a few close VC friends who I’d see practically every weekend for a year before we began sharing deals. But now that we do, many of the deals we’ve done together have been my best investments to date.
Sam: Where do you see yourself in a decade or two decades from now?
Adam: I’ll still be investing in founders who are bending the world to their viewpoint. However I’ll increasingly spend more time making the world a better place than I found it, with an emphasis on animal welfare.
We have a very exciting social impact mentorship program that we’re developing within EVCA and working with Epic Foundation as our first partner. I’m very excited to share more in a few weeks.