Sarah Kunst is a force. As the founder of Cleo Capital, Sarah’s resume reads like a who’s-who of the venture capital and startup world (she’s served as a senior advisor to Bumble, an editor at Marie Claire, and a scout for Sequoia, among many other impressive career milestones). Recently, we sat down with Sarah in her Northern California home to learn more about her work, her take on mentors, and her best advice for new founders. Read on for some inspiration and be sure to check out Sarah’s go-to Nette candle, Spring 1998.
For those unfamiliar, tell us about Cleo Capital.
Cleo Capital is a pre-seed venture capital fund. We invest in founders who are building companies in the future of income, complicated consumer, and decentralized enterprise spaces. We invest at the earliest stages, often we're the first investor into a company. and we get to help founders launch and grow from day one. It's very fun and rewarding.
You’ve served as an advisor for some pretty impressive companies — including one of our faves, Bumble — and have been recognized by everyone from Business Insider to the Wall Street Journal. Can you share the career highlight that you’re most proud of, so far?
I'm fortunate enough to have been given some great awards and honors in my career but I'm most thrilled when I get a note from someone telling me that my help or advice was pivotal to their career development — getting a new job, raising funding, or finding their calling. I am always reminded of a great Toni Morrison quote in those moments: "Just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.”
Tell us more about your dedication to advocating for diverse founders and investors.
At Cleo Capital we invest in founders of all races, genders, abilities, nationalities. We know that women and people of color are underfunded and we are so very proud that the vast majority of our companies have diverse founders. In my philanthropic life I also work hard to help increase funding for diverse founders and to get more women and people of color into tech investing. The funding gaps are stark, with the vast majority of all venture capital dollars going to men, and making a dent in that is how we build a more just, fair world. We also know that diversity drives better returns so I get to do good while increasing my fund's odds of success. Can't beat that combo!
Explain Chrysalis and how it has helped launch new concepts and businesses during the time of COVID-19.
Chrysalis was a program we launched in 2020 for laid off tech workers so they could learn how to come up with startup ideas, find cofounders, build their first iterations of ideas, and really learn how to go from zero to one in startup building. It was thrilling to see multiple companies emerge, with at least three that have gone on to raise venture capital including one soon-to-launch women's health company that Cleo was able to invest in!
Tell us a little more about your career journey — how did you get to where you are?
I started my career in marketing working for brands like Apple, Red Bull, and Chanel, then I made the leap to startups in 2009, working for Cameron Winklevoss and Rachelle Hruska's startup Guest of a Guest. From there, I worked for a venture capital fund and numerous startups including one I started and raised money for, Proday. I also was a senior advisor to Bumble, on the board of the Michigan State University foundation, an editor at Marie Claire magazine, and a scout for Sequoia. I started Cleo Capital in 2018 to fill a gap in the market for really early stage startup funding.
How important is mentorship in business these days?
I think mentorship is important but not the “cold email people asking them to mentor you” variety. I learn from so many brilliant people I've never met and may never meet — I listen to their speeches, read profiles of them, follow them on social media etc. There is so much great content in the world that helps me navigate tough times and learn about amazing opportunities without ever having to meet my “mentors” in person. So much of what I learned about venture capital investing was from reading blogs for years before getting the chance to work in the industry. We live in an unprecedented time of free, open information and I encourage people to take advantage of it!
What advice would you give founders who are in the process of starting their own projects?
Pick a problem you're passionate about and well poised to solve, and pick a market that is big enough that there could be multiple billion dollar companies built in it. Those two ingredients sound obvious but so many founders build companies they're not deeply passionate about or build in niche areas that aren't big enough to support a billion dollar company. If you optimize for both something you'll be excited about building for decades to come and a market big enough to build something huge, your odds of success go way up.
What new businesses are inspiring you these days?
I'm really excited about the relationship economy: how we meet and relate with others from dating to couple's therapy to divorce. Relationships are what give life meaning and yet there's so little money deployed into helping us understand how to make our relationships healthier and more nourishing.
What categories do you see blowing up in the future?
The future of income space — people don't have one full time job for 40 years before retiring with a pension anymore. We will have multiple income streams and gigs and roles so knowing where to go to find work, how to get paid for that work, and how to pay our taxes, insurance and other things will continue to be incredibly important.
At Nette, we advocate for taking good care (of yourself and the world around you) — what are your tried and true self-care rituals?
I'm a very active person so I love using my body for self care. I have an amazing Reiki practitioner and I also love going for hikes, weight lifting, yoga, and using a grounding meditation that a friend taught me recently. Even small things like drinking more water, loading up on greens and cutting back on coffee and wine make a big difference when I'm stressed. I also don't mindlessly consume news and other content that might be stressful, rather I like to do things that make myself happy like listening to fun music, using a gratitude app, or making at-home lattes. The joy I get from nut milk froth really can't be overstated :)