By Sam Dore • Apr 18, 2024

Serial entrepreneur Mia Lewin on how her commitment to equality manifests in her leadership philosophy

Sam Dore, Head of Talent for MVL, spoke with Mia Lewin, previously Founder and CEO of Style Genome (MVL spinout company acquired by Wayfair), board member of Climb Credit and Wescover, and advisor and investor to various early-stage vertical AI start-ups. They discussed how Mia’s cultural identity and values influenced her leadership style as a founder, the unique challenges faced by entrepreneurs from underrepresented backgrounds, and which future trends in technology excite her.

Sam: Hi Mia! Thanks for joining us today. I’d like to kick things off by getting to know you better. You're originally from Finland. How does being Finnish define you?

Mia: Well, historically, Finland is a country that shares the world’s longest border with and fought (and won) a war against Russia, which instilled “sisu” in us. It roughly translates into determination, acting rationally and forcefully in the face of adversity. Sisu can be helpful in a startup founder environment, too. Founders face challenges with few resources. You have to be focused and make decisions quickly to overcome obstacles. You have to find a way through.

As a Finnish woman, I was raised to believe we are equal to men. This value of equality is reflected across Finnish society. Finally, in Finland, we believe in equal opportunity: access to the best education and health care are human rights, not a privilege. We care for people around us, which is reflected in the startup cultures I built.

Sam: You began your career in investment banking and VC. You then came to the US for business school. Tell me more about what motivated that decision and how you pivoted into entrepreneurship.

Mia: My thesis was that for me to be a great venture investor and a board member and add value for founders, I wanted to take a stab at doing it myself. I chose Stanford for its entrepreneurial focus. Now that I've founded three venture-backed companies as Founder CEO, I'm an even bigger believer that to be effective as a venture investor, board member, or an advisor; you need to have experience doing it yourself, especially in the 0-1, pre-seed and seed stage.

Sam: Why did you partner with MVL to launch your startup, Style Genome, in Seattle? What was most valuable to you as a serial entrepreneur in the partnership?

Mia: I spent ten years in Silicon Valley and three years in New York, but my husband and I realized we were more of West Coast people. Seattle was right for our quality of life and professionally, to tap into the growing startup community and AI / engineering talent pool here. When I moved, Tim Porter, whom I’ve known for years at Madrona, introduced me to Mike Fridgen, the Managing Director of MVL. Coincidentally, I learned that MVL was looking into ideas in the home and design space and had a strong AI focus. Given my background, it was natural to join forces with them to build a start-up at the intersection of AI, eCommerce, and home and design industries.

What I love about MVL is that the partners have also been founders, so they know what it is like to build a start-up. As a newbie in town, it also helped me tap into the ecosystem to validate the concept, build my team, and fundraise through our mutual connections. It was truly an equal partnership.

Sam: The Style Genome team prioritized diversity among your full-time staff, investors, advisors, and board. Why should startup founders focus on building a diverse culture from day one of their company? 

Mia: Diversity allows you to build the best products and position you to win by serving your complete consumer base. At Style Genome, we were in e-commerce, design, and home furnishing space, where most purchasing decisions are made by women and people identifying as LGBTQ. Having a team that spanned those identities was critical to creating a more inclusive product.

Diversity provides differing perspectives so that there is more than one way of thinking within your company. Diversity should exist amongst the operators, executive team, board, and investor base. I even talked with my lawyers about providing opportunities for the women in the firm on the partner track to participate in our board discussions to give them that exposure.

Beyond being a smart business practice, I firmly believe that prioritizing diversity is the right thing to do.

Sam: You fundraised for your first startup, DesignStory, while pregnant and then went back on the road to close the round shortly after giving birth. That was especially difficult in the late 2000s when women founders needed more dialogue, infrastructure, and support.

Mia: As a Scandinavian woman, I was always told that men and women are equal. My experience as a first-time entrepreneur in the US was quite a culture shock for me. I would have promising meetings over the phone with investors. Then, I would show up pregnant in person for pitches. You could see from the investors’ faces that the conversation was over as soon as they noticed my pregnancy.

Ironically, my husband was simultaneously meeting investors for his startup. When they learned he was expecting his first child, he would get huge congratulations and a pat on the back. I would get crushed with questions about whether I was committed to my startup and whether I wanted to even work after having a child. That was disappointing because I am an ambitious person who loves working. After my experience, I'm hyper-conscious of how some of these biases continue in our industry and my role in combatting them. I want to be able to support women in similar situations. I don’t want them to encounter what I went through. 

Sam: You've accomplished a lot and overcome many professional and personal difficulties. How should founders know when to keep pushing and prioritize their mental and physical health? 

Mia: Currently, I'm an advisor for various founders working through strategic issues such as fundraising, AI/product strategy, and M&A exits. But, at the end of the day, 70 percent of my job in this role centers around coaching how to navigate the ups and downs of the start-up journey including providing support against founder burnout. I want founders to prioritize self-care because founder burnout doesn't help anyone, not the team, the customers, nor the investors.

I am so glad there is more awareness about founder mental health and burnout these days, which is encouraging. When I see some of the signs I recognize, I say, “Spend an extra day off to be with your family and friends. Do things that bring you joy.” For me, hot yoga was (and still is) my passion. It was my way of compartmentalizing things, refreshing, and moving on.

Sam: You've worked in consumer products for almost twenty years now. What's exciting you right now? 

Mia: I'm excited about vertical AI transforming consumer and climate sectors where startups (and diverse founders) are uniquely positioned to disrupt and win. I look for ambitious founders taking on big problems the world needs solving for and building unique products that have a unique data moat, often combining personalization with an innovative UX. These are opportunities that are hard for existing gorillas to do because they have so much revenue at stake to protect. 

Sam: Where is your focus in this chapter of your career?

Mia: I'm focused on the culmination of my commitments from the last couple of decades: supporting the most ambitious and diverse founders. I do that as an advisor, founder coach, and venture investor. I serve on three boards of directors and work on advisory boards for venture-backed startups, VCs, and venture studios, and I invest in the best founders.

It's my absolute pleasure to coach founders reach their full potential. When you go through it for the first time, you don't know what the roadmap looks like. It's different from a structured corporate environment where there is a clear career path and decision-making structure. Once you've done it three times, like I have, you start seeing the patterns and best practices. I assist founders in finding the right answers within themselves to make decisions faster and with higher confidence and navigate the 0-1 journey to find product-market fit to scale all the way to a successful M&A exit.

Spotlight is a blog series by Madrona Venture Labs showcasing the diverse and impactful contributions of our limited partners (LPs), technical advisors, and network leaders in the investment landscape. To learn more about MVL, read our manifesto, and let’s build a company together..

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