EVCA Spotlight
September 6, 2023

Meet Marie Thompson, Partner at Powerhouse Ventures

Samantha Huang
Principal at BMW i Ventures

Marie Thompson is a Partner at Powerhouse Ventures, a seed-stage venture capital firm that invests in entrepreneurs building the digital infrastructure for rapid decarbonization. Of all the things that could have changed Marie’s life trajectory, it was her ability to run. If you could see Marie in her youth on a cross-country race, you might have mistaken her as a blur of lightning passing beneath the leafy boughs of the hardwood forest, a human machine of muscle and energy. She was a master of self-discipline, a straight-A student with the resolve of a high-performing athlete. The university recruiters were quick to notice her talents. When Rice University offered her an athletic scholarship for cross-country and track and field, Marie couldn’t turn it down and so there she went, a kid from the suburbs outside of Philadelphia to Houston, Texas. At the time, Texas was coming off the era of “peak oil” and entering into the dawn of the fracking revolution. One of Marie’s favorite classes turned out to be a course called ‘Politics, Risk, and Energy’. Her professor from that class worked at a big upstream oil and gas company called APA Corporation, and Marie decided to join his team after college. She stayed at APA for four years before matriculating into UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, which was the ideological antithesis to just about everything the conservative world of Texan oil and gas represented. At UC Berkeley, Marie stayed true to her roots in the energy industry but also caught the fever for startups. ClimateTech investing wasn’t a big thing back in those days, but Marie landed an internship at Powerhouse Ventures, which was one of only two climate-focused VCs she knew. The internship turned into a full-time role after college. Four years later, Marie became partner at the fund.

Most people, when staring straight into the face of adversity, would retreat and struggle to regain a sense of purpose. Marie isn’t one of those people. In 2019, newly graduated from Haas and only a few months into her role at Powerhouse Ventures, Marie was diagnosed with late-stage esophageal cancer. That was the moment her life imploded. Everything she had been working towards over the last decade--the countless hours spent pouring over her textbooks, the back-breaking days in the office, every single notch of achievement on her resume--all seemed for naught. Marie endured six months of chemotherapy and underwent major surgery to the extent that she today effectively lives without a stomach. To go from a specimen of extreme athleticism to what Marie calls a “disabled introvert” was an emotional struggle as much as it was a physical one, but Marie, with her athlete’s focus, never gave up. She set about retraining her body and mind, and, with time, she adapted to what became the new normal. Today Marie still finds time to do the things she loves: spending time with her two old dogs, hiking in the California wilderness, and adding to her ever-growing collection of indoor plants. As someone who prefers “quiet things,” she is a prolific reader and has an inclination for nonfiction though also enjoys a good novel on occasion. Looking toward the future, Marie hasn’t lost any bit of her ambitious self. She says that there is still too much work to be done to combat climate change, so Marie, like an unwavering tree, remains determined as ever to change the world, one investment at a time.

Sam: Could you share some insights into how you started your career and your trajectory into venture capital?

Marie: I grew up outside of Philadelphia and moved to Houston to attend Rice University, partly because it’s a great school and partly because I had an athletic scholarship to compete in cross-country and track and field. I majored in political science and economics, and my big goal in school was to solve big societal problems. After a few internships, I realized that my results-orientedness honed by a lot of distance running didn’t exactly align with the world of policy.

At Rice, I took a class called ‘Politics, Risk and Energy’ and it was one of the most interesting classes I had ever taken. At the time, it was the end of “peak oil” and the beginning of the shale boom in the US. The professor of that class worked at APA Corporation, an upstream oil & gas company based in Houston, so I interviewed to join his team after undergrad. I started on the Risk & Special Projects team, which entailed above-ground risk assessment for new country entry as well as supporting the gas and oil trading teams. From there I joined the Corporate Planning & Strategy group for several years. It was a very exciting, fast-paced role that required me to pull in a ton of inputs from different departments, extract insights, and support executives making decisions under uncertainty and on intense deadlines. While I loved the urgency and importance of the work and the energy sector broadly, after several years I started to struggle with the work-life balance, the role of the oil and gas industry in context of climate change, and with the company culture. So, like many twenty-something-year-olds looking for a change, I went to business school. 

In 2017, I was fortunate to attend the full-time MBA program at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, which was the farthest away I thought I could get from the conservative oil and gas world in Houston. At Haas, I spent my time on all things climate and energy – from internships to classes to projects to clubs. But while I was energy nerding there, because I was at Berkeley and in the Bay Area, I couldn’t help but notice that startups are everywhere and became interested in what went on behind the scenes in entrepreneurship. Towards the end of my MBA, I cold-outreached to the only two climate funds I knew of and I was very lucky to get a call back from Powerhouse Ventures about interning (thanks Alex Harbour and Emily Kirsch for taking a chance on me!) I interned at Powerhouse Ventures during my last semester of my MBA and have stayed ever since. I am grateful that the information gathering, critical thinking, deep analysis, and quick decision making skills from my oil and gas days translated surprisingly well into early stage investing.

Sam: You are one of the rare VCs who were interested in ClimateTech before it was the “it” thing. What got you first interested in ClimateTech investing?

Marie: I honestly wish I had a better origin story, but there are two reasons climate tech resonates so much with me. One is that I grew up as a happy, privileged, suburban kid in the US which meant safe neighborhoods to walk and bike and play in, lots of local sports leagues, and by middle and high school, running outside year round. To me, being outside and being in nature is a freeing experience, and is something everyone on this planet deserves to do without polluted air, flooded streets, or scorching temperatures. Secondly, while working for APA, I lived near Baytown, Texas which is east of Houston and one place among many along the Gulf Coast where oil, gas, and chemical refineries are sited. In the course of one day I would wake up and see gas flares from our front porch, drive my gasoline powered car 35 miles one-way, then work all day for a company extracting even more oil and gas from the ground. This experience was foundational in two key ways: understanding just how critical oil and gas, and energy more broadly, is to our way of life, as well as how important it was for me to find a way to work towards a different energy and climate future. 

Sam: What would be your lessons from your career that you would impart to the emerging generation of VCs?

Marie: One lesson is to be cautious about spreading yourself thin and losing sight of the things that are most important or well-suited for your skills. In venture, many of us are always hustling and working. It’s great to work hard and put in the hours, but busyness can be a false proxy for productivity; being busy doesn’t necessarily mean you’re working on the things that really matter or progressing in a way that aligns with your professional goals. For me, this means I am taking time to engage deeply on strategic projects, portfolio company support, and later-stage diligence, sometimes at the expense of my inbox and networking events. 

Another lesson that I would share is that there is no right way to be a great investor. Especially as a woman, you may look around and see amazing partners who are mostly men, and you may have certain assumptions about what it takes to succeed. You might think you have to be super confident or outgoing or charismatic. I was frankly worried when I got promoted. I’m a disabled introvert – not exactly the stereotype most people think about when they hear “venture capital partner.” I hope emerging leaders in the VC space know that you don’t have to be a certain type of person to succeed at your role in this industry. You can be a great investor by leaning into your unique strengths and doing great work.

Sam: What’s your favorite part of your role as a VC?

Marie:  One of the things that I love about this industry is that you get to work with really incredible, high-caliber people – from founders and other investors to industry experts. Almost every day I’m on a call or in a meeting and cannot believe that I got to talk to and work with certain people. The passion and motivation of the people in the industry, especially in climate tech, is very energizing.

Something else I’ve relished about VC is just the breadth and depth of things you get to learn. I’m talking to so many different founders and their teams, constantly learning and challenging notions and theses I might have about a given space. Something I learned early in my career was to always have a point of view on the market, and in VC it’s like that on steroids - my point of view is always shifting with the market and with emerging technologies, and it’s fun and challenging to constantly adjust my view of the world.

Sam: What is the hard part of being a VC for you?

Marie: The lack of representation - overall and especially at senior levels - is difficult. When I read about the industry (like The Power Law) or successful deals (like Super Pumped), these are stories that are completely dominated by white men, some of them who behave badly and yet still succeed wildly. It’s not hard to trace these things to today, where men are making partner at VC firms more than five times the rate of women, and those abysmal stats fall farther off a cliff if we’re talking about Black, Latina, or Indigenous women. Culturally, Powerhouse Ventures worked hard to build an inclusive culture, so I don’t feel this as intensely on a day-to-day basis. But as I am increasingly out in the world and in more senior settings, it can be a lonely experience.

Something else that I’ve found challenging is the power dynamics and biases that exist in interactions across venture capital because of the power differential that is baked into founder-VC relationships. We can do the work to counteract these biases, but there’s an unfairness inherent in our world that can be difficult to navigate.

Lastly, I mentioned one benefit of this job is being able to be so broad and see so many things, but the downside to that is occasionally missing the mastery that comes with being an operator. There’s something gratifying about being in an Excel file for 10 hours doing a single thing, but that’s not what my job is like today.

Sam: Where do you see yourself in a decade or two decades from now?

Marie: As a cancer survivor, being here and healthy is always the first goal! Professionally, there is still so much more work to do in climate, and venture capital has a pivotal role to play over the next few decades. I have had so much fun and have found so much meaning in helping build climate funds and investing in climate tech companies, and I’m excited to continue doing just that.