A conversation with Laura Schewel, Founder and CEO of StreetLight Data, who started her company as a graduate student at UC Berkeley.
Laura Schewel, Founder and CEO of StreetLight Data. Dr. Schewel, an environmental engineer, is the founder and CEO of StreetLight Data, the first company that made it easy, affordable, and efficient to access real-world transportation data. Before founding StreetLight in 2011 as a graduate student at UC Berkeley, Dr. Schewel worked on transportation sustainability issues at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and Rocky Mountain Institute.
Please tell us your background story on how you ended up starting StreetLight Data.
Laura: I was getting my PhD at Berkeley in a climate orientated area, and I had worked at non-profits before that on electric car policies. It was clear from my work that there were a lot of data gaps. During my PhD, smartphones started to be used as a mechanism for capturing data, so I thought I could make the smartphone into a sensor. Then there was the California financial crisis. NSF funding became more important, and I was told to get creative with funding sources. I needed more money for the lab, so I entered the NSF business plan competition at Berkeley with a fake business plan and ended up with a $40,000 award.
Were there specific scientific or career milestones, such as tenure, that you achieved that made you believe that now was the time for you to pursue entrepreneurship?
Laura: Having flexible NSF funding gave me the time and space to do the entrepreneurial work. It is hard to pursue side projects if you are teaching, and my whole life I thought I would be a professor, but being an academic would not have allowed to me to have a direct impact on the climate. My advisor passed away suddenly, which allowed me to finish my PhD in a nontraditional way and feel less attached to academia. Working in an applied science field in the Bay Area seemed like the thing to do. A non-profit board member from my previous career had said he would fund a company if I ever started one. For a while, I was doing both academia and running my business, treating my business as a side gig.
What are the biggest differences between your role in academia and your role as an entrepreneur? Was there anything surprising?
Laura: I have been CEO for nine years, originally starting the company with just me, and now we have over 100 employees. The difference between the first two years and now is greater than the difference between the first two years and being a grad student. In the same way you are hustling for graduate funding grants, you are hustling for angel funds. No one tells you how to do it, so that is similar, and you have to like that part of it. The rules for raising money for a startup are less clear than when you are raising grant money for an academic project. There is no playbook. There is no secret to raising money. You should read blogs and business books, but don’t just follow those. However, in academia, there are more clear indicators of success. In a startup, you have to be comfortable defining your own success metrics and learning to cope with failure. The first few times of VC rejection was upsetting. I probably got rejected by a hundred VCs before one said yes. You get comfortable learning from the rejections and have to respect what they say. If they hear the wrong thing about your idea, it is probable that other VCs will hear it the same way. You are playing the game, and the only goal is to get that million dollars.
Do you have entrepreneurial mentors or sponsors? How did the relationship start, and what has it brought to you?
Laura: Ruben, the board member of a prior non-profit I worked at, gave seed funding, time, and some advice. I am skeptical of people who want to be my advisor without having a clear stake in what I’m doing by getting paid or stock.
Other mentors are my co-founder Paul who has prior entrepreneurial experience, and our Series A investors brought in a useful board member who has been a terrific advisor.
What differences have you noticed in your experience as an entrepreneur versus those of your male colleagues?
Laura: You are so in it; you do not always see what others experience. In the early days of the company, people assumed that Paul was CEO, but that could be attributed to age as well.
It can freak people out if you are a young women CEO. When people ask what I do, I don’t say I am the CEO of a tech company. It makes people uncomfortable and more competitive with you. The competition and advice seem a bit more gendered when they know you are the CEO of a startup company.
Did you encounter many female investors?
Laura: Of the first 100 VCs I pitched, I encountered one female partner. Later on, I focused on firms that had more women (and one ended up leading our Series C round). People tried to introduce me to VCs who only invest in female entrepreneurs, but my concerns is that by “othering” yourself the perception is that you’re not a “prime time” investment.
How do you achieve work-life balance to pursue entrepreneurship? How has the current COVID crisis affected this balance?
Laura: One of the benefits of starting younger is I don’t have kids yet. At first, balance was more of an issue, because I could not stop thinking about StreetLight. I needed to compartmentalize it as I got older. I have academic friends that work 13 hours a day. My time is more structured which is more conducive to a work-life balance compared to academia. The one part that is hard is travel. COVID has led to a lack of business travel, so I have so much more time. We are working remotely very successfully, and I am still in meetings all day, every day.
What life hacks had you put into place pre-COVID to allow you to pursue entrepreneurship?
Laura: Don’t let your time bleed out. When it is 7:00, it is dinner time, and no more work is happening.
What was your experience in fundraising? Do you consider it any different than that of your male colleagues?
Laura: I was warned by some men ahead of time about a few firms that were particularly chauvinistic, which helped. I came up through engineering, so gender imbalance is not new, but in my experience gender discrepancy is much more pronounced within VC firms. The diversity issue spans both gender and racial areas in VC firms.
What was the best advice that you received? And to counter that, did you receive any advice that you would not pass along to another aspiring female academic entrepreneur?
Laura: Many people told me you need an “experienced CEO” but I’ve learned not to agree with that. You need someone in your company who has done this before, but it does not need to be the CEO. Some good advice I received was that our initial business model was too complicated; you can only have one business in a startup. If you can’t say exactly who is going to pay you and why they are going to pay you a reasonable amount of money, then you do not have a business yet. You need to understand how the money flows.
What do you think deters women from pursuing entrepreneurship?
Laura: Entrepreneurship is very vague and ambiguous, and if you are a structured scientist, you may not like it.
What are some of the biggest takeaways from your experiences? What advice would you give a current female academic trying to commercialize their technology?
Laura: If you are just trying to start a company because you want to start a company, don’t do it. Sometimes universities over encourage entrepreneurship. If there is another way to commercialize your tech, that may likely be the better way. Starting a company is risky; you are risking your financial future. You need to make sure that you can afford to do so or hedge the financial risk. You need to understand the intellectual property and be clear on any grants that funded the invention. You need to have an external lawyer, especially for software. The benefit of being an academic is that a lot of people have created the space to reduce the risk.
You can’t pretend that you have entrepreneurial experience. Lean in to who you are. I was CTO for the first few months and had an older external CEO, because people said VCs would not take me seriously because I did not have the experience. It was not a good idea, because no one has the depth of knowledge and passion for what you are doing except for you. In the medtech world, it might be different. The impact I have had with StreetLight is greater than what I could have done in academia.
What haven’t we asked you about that you think is important for women academics to know when delving into being involved in a startup company?
Laura: In leading a startup company, I have had to curtail a lot of my perfectionist tendencies.
I have concerns about working with incubators, investment groups, or entrepreneurship programs only for women as it “others” you, which can be perceived negatively (whether or not that perception is fair is another conversation). I think it’s better to work with programs that work to maintain a high ratio of men to women leaders in their portfolio.