Lauren Stephanian is a Partner at Pantera Capital, an asset management firm focused exclusively on investments in blockchain technology. After graduating from Columbia University with a degree in Computer Science, Lauren began her career as an engineer at Fidessa, an equities trading platform, in New York City. She attributes the experience to sparking her initial interest in the world of trading. From there, Lauren was determined to move to the middle office, the center of action of a financial institution where the traders roamed and could move markets with a click of a button. She architected the jump into finance with ease. She first landed at the Muni desk at Deutsche Bank, and, one year later, she was at the trading desk at Bank of America. At the time, Lauren had begun learning more about the cryptocurrencies Bitcoin and Ethereum. She often found herself enthralled in research on the topic. As a trader and an engineer, she comprehended the disruptive potential of a technology that enabled the transfer of value across two parties without the need of a clearinghouse to mediate the transaction. She recalls going so “deep down the rabbit hole” of crypto that she knew she had to make her next career move into the field. She ended up joining Pantera Capital, which was then one of only a handful of crypto-focused funds around at the time. After four years at the firm, she was promoted to partner.
While today she lives in Los Angeles, Lauren spent her childhood growing up in Indiana. Lauren was always competitive by nature, a rare mix of athlete and intellectual. By age 11, her tennis abilities earned her a spot in the state rankings, and, by the time she went off to college, she had already taught herself the basics of computer programming. From a young age, she showed early signs of the entrepreneur’s drive. Lauren recalled that she would make extra money on the side by selling rings that she had forged out of metal and wire to the local jewelry store. It was her creative way to amass the extra pocket change necessary to purchase the Abercrombie clothes that her parents would not buy her. Now a partner at one of the top crypto-focused firms, Lauren has not lost any of her competitive spark. For all her successes, she is the type of person who remains unrelenting on herself, always striving to accomplish more. In conversation, she is her authentic self: logical and to the point, with the affability of a collaborative spirit. When asked where she saw herself in the future, Lauren answered with an engineer’s conciseness. She loved her role as an investor, and she could not imagine doing anything else.
Sam: What is your career origins story? What was your path into venture capital?
Lauren: I studied computer science in school and planned on being an engineer. I started off my career as an engineer for a trading platform in New York City. After working there for some time, I started learning about finance--more specifically trading. I realized the only way for me to get closer to trading was to make a jump to the middle office, so I worked for P&L briefly for the Muni desk at Deutsche Bank. From there, I was able to make a swing to working in trading at Bank of America. These first few years of my career gave me a firsthand view of the entirety of the trade lifecycle--from when the trade decision is made all the way to be cleared by the DTCC. That was back in 2016. Around the same time, I started hearing more about Bitcoin and Ethereum. I started researching both of them. When I learned about Ethereum, I just thought the idea of programmatically transferring value from one party to another was interesting, especially because you didn’t need a clearing house, as you do in traditional trading. Back then, I was just focused on the theory of crypto. I eventually just got so deep down the rabbit hole that I wanted to work full-time in the space. I ended up applying to Pantera Capital, which is my current fund. There were very few crypto-focused funds at the time, and Pantera was one of the few. I ended up getting the role at the firm. I joined as an associate five years ago and have since become a partner.
Sam: Could you share more about your path from associate to partner at Pantera Capital? What lessons did you learn along the way?
Lauren: I didn't come from the traditional Silicon Valley culture, so my knowledge of venture capital was somewhat limited when I first joined Pantera. I primarily had entered into venture capital more as a way to gain a more comprehensive view of the crypto industry. Starting out in venture capital, I came to realize that expanding and cultivating my network was crucial, and that sourcing high-quality deals was paramount. I also was incredibly fortunate to start my venture capital journey alongside a group of other women who were also associates at the time. We learned and grew together, sharing deals and insights along the way. That was basically my support system that I learned from and leaned on. That got me to the level of principal. As a principal, I ended up leading some deals. That was what helped me become more confident, as I had to build conviction in the investments I was making from start to finish. It’s what ultimately enabled my promotion to partner.
Sam: What’s your favorite part of the role of VC?
Lauren: I think my favorite part of the role is just all the interesting people I get to meet. Number one, you got the founders from whom I’ve just learned so much in terms of what it takes to build a company. Second, especially in crypto, you have the people deep in the weeds from a technical standpoint. Finally, there’s just a lot of smart, very accomplished people who work across venture capital more broadly. It’s been great building a network across all of these different personas and perspectives.
Sam: What's the hard part of being a VC for you?
Lauren: Perhaps it’s not specific to VC, but I would say the hard part is around this feeling that I could always be doing better. That could be in terms of the deals I’m sourcing or the allocation that I’m fighting for or the network that I’m growing. I always strive to be better, though I admit that’d probably be true for me no matter what industry I might be working in.
Sam: While things seem to be getting better, venture capital is still very much a male-dominated industry. What’s it like as one of the few females who have climbed the ranks to partner?
Lauren: I came from industries that were very male-dominated, and I knew venture was also very male-dominated. As such, when I entered the field, I was pretty intentional about finding women with whom I could relate. Everyone has different experiences as a woman in venture capital. That’s what I’ve come to learn from my friends who are in the industry with me. You can approach investing differently, approach working with your teams differently, and approach networking differently. There’s no one experience that is generalizable across the industry, though I would say that working in venture capital is similar to working in any other male-dominated industry.
Sam: How do you as a VC stay differentiated in a crowded market?
Lauren: First and foremost, you need to find your niche. It should be something that you’re passionate about. My niche is obviously crypto, and within crypto, it’s infrastructure and DeFi, which I’ve managed to hone in on over the last few years. I would say taking this focused approach allows you to stand out, especially when you need to connect with founders who are operating in those spaces.
The other thing that I’ve thought about recently is the idea of staying true to who you really are and how you operate. I’ve always asked myself questions like: “Do I want to be someone who has a massive network but with superficially held connections or am I somebody who forms really deep bonds with a person and has maybe a slightly smaller network of people who are going to go to bat for me?” I think there are different ways to go about venture capital, but you should strive to do it in a way that is authentic to you. It will help you be more likable because people are naturally drawn to people who are more authentic. In the end, I think such an approach just allows you to be happier in the role, as you can stay true to yourself.
Sam: Where do you see yourself in a decade or two decades from now?
Lauren: I love investing, so I don’t see myself doing anything else.