Maryanna Saenko is Co-founder and Partner at Future Ventures, an early-stage venture capital firm that invests in founders pushing the boundaries of frontier technology. Maryanna was born in Western Ukraine. When she was young, her parents had the foresight to see the eventuality of Russia’s invasion into their country and undertook the decision to leave for a more stable future abroad. For years, they bounced around Poland, Sweden, and Canada, until they finally settled in Connecticut, United States. Maryanna, bright and precocious as an adolescent, excelled academically and managed to receive a financial scholarship to attend the very prestigious Hopkins School, a college prep school in New Haven where the east-coast elites liked to send their offspring. At Hopkins, Maryanna saw for the first time the “entirely different plane” those from the top socioeconomic stratum were playing. While at times feeling like an “interloper” among her new classmates, she determined that if she could perform well enough academically and athletically, she would not be “lesser.” That translated to a general policy of working hard and “putting one foot in front of another.” The result was a career arc of rapid advancement: B.S. and M.S. degrees from Carnegie Mellon in the fields of materials science, engineering, and biomedical engineering; a stint working as a researcher an engineer after securing that notorious badge of honor as a PhD-dropout from MIT; a research role designing and running experiments to develop novel materials in the lab, followed by a move into consulting at Lux Research; a meteoric breakout into the venture capital world, first at Airbus Ventures, then at top firms including DFJ and Khosla Ventures; and finally, the founding in 2018 of Future Ventures, which cemented Maryanna’s reputation as one of the few VCs across the industry with the skill and willingness to take bets on truly visionary founders pushing the frontiers of technological innovation.
Maryanna today lives in Pacifica, a coastal town in the Bay Area known for its sandy beaches, rocky bluffs, and staggering panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean. You can often find her there with her husband in the outdoors, skimming the swelling waves atop a surfboard or hurtling down some unforgiving hill on a mountain bike at neck-breaking speeds. In the winter, you might find Maryanna zipping by on two skis, a blur of kinetic energy amid an endless field of gleaming white backcountry. A competitive swimmer in her youth, Maryanna has not lost her hunger for movement and speed but makes sure to find “moments of stillness in between.” She remains a prodigious reader, with an eclectic taste that covers surrealists like Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino, on top of Buddhist texts and various works of nonfiction. When we chatted, she was in the middle of Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, a prophetic book written in 1985 about the destructive impact of television and modern media on public discourse and society. Highly articulate and with a charismatic calmness, Maryanna is someone who thinks deeply about society and the future of technology. When asked where she saw herself in the future, Maryanna couldn’t see herself anywhere else but at Future Ventures, investing in entrepreneurs pushing the boundaries of what is technologically possible.
Sam: What is your origin story?
Maryanna: I was born in Western Ukraine. I grew up as an immigrant child. My family left Ukraine in the early 90s because my parents feared the country’s rising political tensions during the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Given the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, they turned out to be correct, which is heartbreaking. I’m so grateful for their prescience and fortitude in leaving when we did. For some time, we bounced around Poland, Sweden, and Canada. We finally landed in the United States, and I spent my formative years in Connecticut.
I went to Carnegie Mellon for my undergraduate education and studied a mix of material science, engineering, and biomedical engineering. I also obtained my Master’s in Materials Science from Carnegie Mellon. Afterward, I was in Boston, one foot in a PhD. program at MIT and one foot in a startup called Ferro Solutions. The startup won out but quickly flamed out, and I found myself torn between finding another job and returning to school. I felt uncertain about my path as a scientist, so I decided to explore what that would be like before trying to finish a PhD. I went to work as a research scientist and engineer at Cabot Corporation, a large chemicals and materials company. I quickly became frustrated by the nature of our operations. We would make all this scientific progress across engineering, but then every six months or so, management would hire some McKinsey kids to tell us what to do essentially, and there was (what I felt to be) a maniacal focus on near-term shareholder value. We seemed to be constantly trading the long arc of progress for near-term gains. This construct deeply perturbed me. I also didn’t understand the constraints of the system. I decided that if you can’t fight them, join them. So, I made my way into consulting.
I joined a small consulting shop called Lux Research, an organization adjacent to Lux Capital but operated as an entirely separate business by the time I got there. My work focused on supporting how Fortune 500 corporations should think about startups and emerging technologies, specifically addressing how startups would disrupt the incumbents, our clients, in their industries. We used to write these big reports on the state of the market, though I realized very quickly most of the clients wouldn’t do much with the research. Occasionally, I’d get a venture capitalist contacting me and asking thoughtful questions in our reports. Then, some months or years would pass, and I would hear about the various investments these venture capitalists had made, possibly emboldened by our reports. I admired how they were progressing these industries forward through their investments, and I was curious to learn who these cats were.
Sam: How did you ultimately transition from consulting to entering the world of venture capital?
Maryanna: Every step of my career was just about putting one foot in front of the other. I didn’t have a plan, in the sense that I hadn’t conceived then to start my own firm. I was just walking the path and trying to understand the next most interesting move for me. I got lucky more than a handful of times. After a couple of years into my tenure at Lux, I was offered a job at Airbus to lead an early-stage venture capital group there. They already had Airbus Ventures and wanted to carve out Airbus Seed Ventures as an independent entity. Airbus ultimately recombined the seed entity back into Airbus Ventures, though the experience gave me my first taste of venture capital. I learned the basics of term sheets, cap tables, and equity financings. I soon realized, however, that my interests perhaps spanned too many technology fields outside Airbus’s core focus as an aircraft maker. I quickly found myself pushing the boundaries of what Airbus was willing to invest in.
I was fortunate enough to meet my current co-founder, Steve Jurvetson. At the time, he was at DFJ. They wanted to bring a new senior associate to work alongside Steve. “Steve Jurvetson deals” had a very particular aesthetic, essentially anything off the deep end in terms of novel technology. It was far afield from what the rest of the firm was doing, and I was completely enamored with it as a construct. I joined DFJ and formed a little two-person unit with Steve, which we ran adjacent to not just the rest of the partnership at the time but, in some ways, the whole venture capital industry. We were looking at and investing in peculiar things on the edge of the venture landscape. When we got it right, seeing the entrepreneurs we had invested in obtaining traction across other large firms and general recognition across the industry was validating. I left DFJ shortly after Steve departed the firm, knowing my interest was in deep tech investing.
I was fortunate enough to meet Sven Strohband and Vinod Khosla at Khosla Ventures along the way. When Vinod puts a sales pitch on, he’s a very hard person to say “no.” I joined Khosla Ventures as a principal. I’d probably still be there today were it not for the fact that Steve and I in late 2018 went for a series of walks. It started as a conversation about what it would look like for me to stay at Khosla Ventures for a long time, and what arose out of it was my realization that I missed being part of a smaller team, which fit my personality better. After several conversations with Steve, I realized I missed working with him. I was also curious to start a different venture fund. In late 2018, Steve and I co-founded Future Ventures, where we focus on investments in frontier tech. We’ve been on a learning journey for five years, which I still delight in.
Sam: What do you view as your favorite part of being a VC?
Maryanna: There’s a lot. I love the varied nature of the experience. I love the partnership aspect of the role and the fact that I can bounce ideas about the future of different industries back and forth with Steve, my partner at the firm. I also relish that sense of continual and iterative learning. It’s a thrilling experience to work with so many brilliant minds trying to push humanity forward. Sometimes, I feel that having my role is frankly unfair because I get the opportunity to look ahead into the future; my job is like playing a game of blackjack, but I’m in the position where I get to rifle through the deck and see the cards that are going to be played next. It’s an incredible gift, and I’m very grateful for my role.
Sam: What do you view as the hard part of being a VC?
Maryanna: We’re facing a bleak macroeconomic environment, which means that we, as venture capitalists, will have to make hard decisions about making cuts to the teams at portfolio companies that need to stay lean during the downturn. These decisions are intended to ensure the company’s longevity and are the right things to do. Still, I recognize that they result in economic hardship and undue stress on individuals. That human consequence is not lost on me, and I feel it. It hurts my heart.
Sam: If you were to look back at your career, what lessons would you extract from it that you would impart to the next generation of VCs?
Maryanna: My first piece of advice is to trust your intuition. Pay attention to that sense when you meet someone and it flows easily. You’re excited to work with them, and you’re excited to have the next conversation. You’ll find yourself more likely to lean into those moments and build longstanding, meaningful relationships.
My second piece of advice is don’t get discouraged. Venture is a cyclic industry. If you haven’t done a deal in a couple of months or the better part of a year, you might start casting around, looking for something to get involved in. However, you should trust your intuition and never lower your standards.
Sam: Where do you see yourself in a decade or two from now?
Maryanna: At Future Ventures, we have a 15-year venture fund and are on our third fund now. I expect a twenty-year ride here at the bare minimum, which is very strange for a person who moved every two years growing up. I hope that in a decade, I will still live in Pacifica, surfing, mountain biking, meeting incredible entrepreneurs, and hopefully raising a family.