Alicia Robb | Crain's Denver

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Alicia Robb

Background:  

Next Wave Ventures is a Colorado-based venture capital firm focused on driving diversity in angel investing and high-growth entrepreneurship. The firm’s current fund is Next Wave Impact.

Before founding Next Wave, Robb was a senior fellow at the Kauffman Foundation.

The Mistake:

I tried to do everything myself.

I started my first company when I was 25. It was a social venture called Foundation for Sustainable Development. I ran it for 12 years, then I was on the board for another five, and now I’m on the advisory board. It’s based in San Francisco and operates in a number of emerging markets.

I started the Foundation when I was working on my Ph.D., and I basically worked on scaling it while I was doing my coursework, my dissertation, and then when I was working full-time at the Federal Reserve. It got to the point where I was working full-time, running this company in six countries, and teaching at the George Washington University — all at once.

I really did scale it myself, with a few volunteers on occasion. I didn’t pay myself for a long time, and when I started, it was a tiny fraction of what I was earning at the Federal Reserve. I was so focused on getting money in the bank, having a cushion, and creating security before I hired my first employee. It took a toll on me personally and professionally.

Basically, I didn’t sleep and it put a strain on my marriage.

On top of that, when I eventually hired an executive director to replace me, it wasn’t from within and it wasn’t someone who necessarily shared the same values. This person managed to run through six-figure losses over the first couple years, wiping out the entire cushion I had sacrificed so much for.

It put the organization in a perilous situation.

Luckily, the Foundation has a much stronger executive director now. I think it’s on the road to sustainability.

Basically, I didn’t sleep and it put a strain on my marriage.

The Lesson:

Working with a team of people is a far better strategy than trying to do it all yourself.

One, it allows you to distribute the work amongst a lot of different people.

Two, it provides a team, a community of people working together from different backgrounds and with different skill sets. That allows you to scale more efficiently. Had I built the Foundation with a team of people, we would have had created an alignment of values and purpose, and my transition away would have been much less painful.

At Next Wave Impact, we have a leadership team of 12 women from across the country. I think that’s the key to success: surrounding yourself with people smarter than you are and building something together.

Alicia Robb is on Twitter at @aliciarobb and Next Wave is at @nextwavenetwork.

Photo Courtesy of Next Wave Ventures.

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