Jocelyn Goldfein is Managing Director at Zetta Venture Partners, a venture capital firm that invests in AI-first startups with B2B business models. Jocelyn’s someone who has one of those fabled, illustrious Silicon Valley careers that you hear about in the news but don’t really imagine can materialize in human form. Joining VMware when it was just a 300-person startup, she’s responsible for building some of the fundamentals of modern cloud infrastructure back in the early days of the internet. After rising the ranks of VMware to become VP of Engineering and then General Manager of Desktop Products, Jocelyn then joined Facebook back in its pre-IPO days, where she first cut her teeth on machine learning problems and was the person behind turning Facebook into a mobile-first company.
From the first moment Jocelyn speaks, you know you are in the presence of someone who is wickedly smart. Throughout her interview, she reflected on her life with thoughtfulness and structure, and, at moments, I saw the younger version of her before the success: an exceptionally gifted, high-achieving kid, who loved reading science fiction and fantasy novels, playing Dungeons and Dragons, and excelling at the mental sport of speech and debate. She is refreshingly authentic, a relic of her still being an engineer at heart--highly logical and lacking any compulsion to embellish. When asked where she saw herself in 15 years, Jocelyn, who is already an active philanthropist, replied without hesitation that she wanted to spend her last career arc “giving back.” Her determination to fix the world’s greatest problems--hunger, disease, poverty, and every other form of social inequality--derives from an authentic anger and bewilderment at the injustices that stand in the way of others reaching their full potential. Jocelyn’s on the mission to change the world, and, with that same determination and ingenuity that led her transformation from a clever, high-achieving kid to a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, she’s not going to let anything stand in her way.
EVCA: What is your origins story? How did you start your career?
Jocelyn: I was an engineer my whole career until venture. I studied computer science in undergrad and started out as a software engineer, mostly working in small startups. I actually grew up in the Bay Area and went to college here at Stanford University. For my first job out of college, I went to Austin, Texas to work at a startup. Following that, still in my early 20s, I co-founded a venture-backed startup that eventually got folded together with another startup in the dotcom bust when everything was imploding. I left that startup when we were pivoting after failure to find product market fit. The startups did eventually get acquired by Dell for $150M, but that was around five years after I left.
EVCA: After leaving your first startup, you joined VMware when it was still a startup in the spring of 2003. What was the experience of joining a rocket-ship startup like?
Jocelyn: After coming back to the Bay Area with my husband, I joined VMware as a tech lead in the device virtualization team. Back then, VMware only had around 300 people, but it was a rocket ship. The company doubled headcount and revenue every year in the next four or so years in a row. My career grew along with it. I got to build some of the fundamentals of modern cloud infrastructure. I rose to director, then senior director, VP of Engineering, and then General Manager of desktop products. Along the way, VMware became a really big company. By the time I became General Manager, it had around 10,000 people. I had always thought of myself as a small company person, and when I left, I meant to join something small. I had offers from a number of startups, but the company I ended up joining in 2010 was Facebook, which was really a mid-sized, high-growth tech company. They had 1800 employees and had just crossed half a billion users when I joined.
EVCA: What was it like working at Facebook during its formative years?
Jocelyn: I joined Facebook in 2010 as a Director of Engineering. Facebook was the place where I first cut my teeth on machine learning. It was absolutely one of the best places to do machine learning work back in 2010 outside of academia. My first really big product launch was leading the newsfeed team when we adopted machine learning. I also managed the photos team right around when we started to get serious about computer vision applications.
I eventually ended up running the mobile engineering organization. Back then, Facebook had at least two different attempts to pivot to mobile-first. I am proud to say that I led the mobile engineering team for the third and finally successful attempt. If you’re a mobile-first organization, you don’t actually have a mobile team. So the crown of that success was actually reorganizing my team out of existence and decentralizing it across the product groups and a core infrastructure team. At that point, I took a sabbatical and tried to think about what I wanted to do next.
EVCA: After leaving Facebook, how did you ultimately end up in your current role as Managing Director at Zetta Venture Partners?
Jocelyn: After leaving Facebook, I had two years of what I call my “Silicon Valley dilettante” phase. I started making angel investments and advising startups. I really fell in love with early-stage startup investing, where I could take the insights I had from throughout my career and leverage them to be helpful across many different startups, not just one of my own. What I concluded was that I really wanted to be a seed investor.
Most seed firms have exactly the amount of capital to support their current partners so you can’t really just join one. I thought I would have to start a firm, and spent a lot of time co-founder dating with potential partners. I also had a few conversations with larger firms that didn’t go anywhere. In hindsight, I’m glad about that because I know that seed-stage investing, which typically is not the focus of larger firms, is exactly what I should be doing. I eventually decided that I would raise a little micro fund on my own--something like a $20M fund just to start. So I started raising. One of the first people I called was the founder and former CEO of VMware, Diane Greene. She was wonderful and she introduced me to Mark Gorenberg, who Diane thought would be a good mentor for me, as he had recently founded Zetta Venture Partners. In our first meeting, Mark was so generous with his time, walking me through his fundraising deck, talking about different types of LP’s. It was maybe the second conversation that Mark asked me if I would be interested in joining his fund as the third partner.
My initial reaction was, “No, I’m raising a fund. I’ve got commitments.” But my second reaction was, wait a second, joining a seed fund was my original plan and raising my own fund was the fallback. So I just spent the next few months really getting to know the partners at Zetta very well. In the end, it was clear they were the kind of people I wanted to work with. I joined them in December of 2016, and here we are over four years later.
EVCA: You had many evolutions across your career. You started off as an engineer, founded your own company, led engineering and business teams at VMware and Facebook, and are now a venture capitalist. What was the catalyst behind each evolution?
Jocelyn: I like to say my ambitions changed as I achieved them. I was always one of those kids who did well in high school, who gets good grades and performs well on the test. Choosing software engineering as my career, I really just wanted to excel at that and be as good an engineer as I could. I became accomplished as an engineer at the individual level, and then, as I grew into more management positions, I strove to be that person on whom my team members could rely. When I founded my first startup and later at VMware, it became about my customers depending on me, my company depending on me. At Facebook, it became about the billion or so users around the world that depended on me to have a compelling experience. Now, at Zetta, it’s my investors and founders depending on me. Whether it’s my team members, customers, or partners depending on me, I’ve always wanted to come through for them and not let them down, so that’s a lot of what drove me.
But another important motivation for me has always been the thirst to keep learning and to keep growing. If I'm not growing, I feel like I'm rotting, getting stale.
EVCA: You have a deeply technical set of experiences that sets you apart from other VC’s in the field. How has your engineering background impacted how you approach investing?
Jocelyn: I really hoped when I became an angel investor that my technical experience would be a big edge--that it would enable me to understand at the seed stage whether something was a good idea or whether something was going to work out. I was mostly disappointed. To be honest, I don't think technical experience gives a big edge in picking the winners. I do think my technical expertise has given me an edge in sourcing though. There are definitely technical founders who want to raise money from technical VCs, and so my background helps on that dimension. Something I hear from founders is “Look, lots of VCs are interested in investing, but you are the one who really got it and is investing for the right reason.” If you’re a technical founder, being understood at the technical level does matter to you. So I think my technical background can be an edge in bonding with founders.
EVCA: Where do you see yourself in 15 years?
Jocelyn: I'm 45 right now, so in some sense, this question asks me to speculate about my longevity in VC. I do feel firmly that before I die I want to have a career arc around backing the world’s greatest AI companies. At the same time, I also feel that I've been given so much that I owe the world a service--that in my last career arc, I should devote myself more fully to philanthropy. What does that look like for me? What makes me mad are things that prevent people from living their full potential like war, poverty, and disease. I’m also concerned about social justice issues around bias and discrimination, including issues of diversity and inclusion in tech. Today I work with some really high-quality organizations that back local nonprofits in the emerging world. I’m a huge fan of the American Jewish World Service (AJWS). As I did speech and debate in high school, I support the Urban Debate League in the Bay Area, which creates opportunities for students from lower income areas to participate in debate. I love Codepath.org, which is creating on-ramps and access to the tech industry for more people, and incidentally expanding a much needed talent pool! And I sit on the Board of Trustees at Harvey Mudd, which is a phenomenal STEM college that has done a great deal of work on making its student body diverse and promoting a pedagogy of inclusion.
I love working with my phenomenal team at Zetta Venture Partners, though the time will come when I pass the baton to my partners—maybe not in 10 years but perhaps 15 years and certainly in 20 years. I do feel firmly that my last hill to climb must be giving back.
Jocelyn Goldfein is a Managing Director at Zetta Venture Partners where she invests in AI-first startups with B2B business models. She's particularly excited about the potential of AI to optimize infrastructure, security, supply chains, and worker productivity.
Jocelyn is a widely recognized industry expert on product strategy, infrastructure and organizational scale. Her career as an engineering leader spans from early stage startups to high-growth years at Facebook and VMware.
During her tenure at Facebook, she helped convert News Feed to Machine Learning and spearheaded the transition to a ‘mobile first' product organization. As an early engineer at VMware, she built core virtualization technology and ultimately created and led VMware’s Desktop Business Unit. Jocelyn also held engineering and leadership roles at startups Datify, MessageOne and Trilogy/pcOrder.
Jocelyn has a passion for STEM Education and serves on the board of Harvey Mudd College and lectures at Stanford University, where she received her BS in Computer Science.