What This Badass Venture Capitalist Has Achieved Already Will Blow Your Socks Off

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14 min read

Allison Baum venture capitalist

Remember that time you were stuck on the tarmac for hours or sitting in a café in Paris, and you struck up a conversation with a stranger? Something ‘clicked’; you felt you’d known them forever and in that moment the walls came down?
For the past four months my mind has kept returning to Tokyo, to a conversation I shared with Allison, a young American expat (and total badass). There was something familiar about her. We had an immediate connection, although we’d never met. She was open and funny. We drank giant mugs of filtered coffee in her living room. We could have chatted for hours.

At one point, Allison said to me, “I want to change the world in the biggest way I possibly can – because I believe it’s possible, that it’s needed, and otherwise what’s the point of being here?”

Such grandiose, clichéd statements typically sprout from the mouths of naive youth and first year law students. Many people resolve to change the world. Few succeed. After our conversation, I have no doubt that Allison will.

Allison Baum venture capitalist
Woman entrepreneur and kickass trailblazer, Allison Baum
 Life of 3.14159
Allison Baum, Managing Director of Fresco Capital, grew up in a mid-sized town outside of Chicago. She attended a public high school, played piano, violin and a load of sports: your typical all-American childhood. But, her thirst for knowledge and insatiable curiosity meant that Allison was far from typical. “It was a great place to grow up, but from a very young age I just wanted to get the f*** out of there. I felt really different. It was hard to relate to people, and I was interested in what else was out there” she explained.
She skipped class to hang out with the popular kids and competed on the Math team; a foot in two worlds. “I always question everything, I always think about new stuff and I’m interested in learning. I didn’t want anyone to know that I was smart, because I was hanging out with some “cool kids”. If you go to a big public American high school, being smart is not cool.” she says.
“I am driven by a strong and sometimes detrimental sense of curiosity, as well as a desire for freedom, growth, connection, and meaning.”
Allison Baum venture capitalist
Allison Baum venture capitalist
A League of her own
College was her escape route, and Harvard University seemed an adequate distance. “When I applied to colleges, I thought, ‘Okay, I want to get really far away from here.’ I never thought I would get into Harvard. I never even knew anyone who went to Harvard, but I decided to apply anyway, and I didn’t tell anyone.”
She got in.
“When I arrived at University, I met a group of girls who were curious and talented and had similar backgrounds to me. I breathed a huge sigh of relief, I thought ‘Oh my God, these people think like me.’ I finally felt like I wasn’t alone, and it was okay to be the way I was,” she recalls.
Trade offs and burnouts
After four years at University, Allison hit the trading floor at Goldman Sachs in New York City.
Fast forward three years, enter burnout, the GFC and Occupy Wall Street, and Allison was looking for her exit. “I needed to be where there was growth, and in 2011 the start-up scene was just taking off. I interviewed with tech companies, but they knocked me back because I didn’t have the technical skills they needed. They didn’t care about Harvard or Goldman Sachs. That was a really low moment because I had invested so much in my education,” she says.
“I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore”
Traditional education had failed to equip Allison with the requisite skills to land these roles. Serendipitously, she met the founders of General Assembly, a company whose raison d’être is to close the very technological skills gap Allison faced. She started working for them soon after.
“Go into startups, entrepreneurship, and VCs, and you find yourself in a 3D world. The depth of conversations you have, the businesses you build, and the type of people you meet is unparalleled here.”
“When I left Goldman and started at General Assembly, the world went from 2D to 3D. All of a sudden, I was thinking about different problems and different ways of doing things. I was very self-aware and willing to learn and willing to be wrong,” she says.
Bringing tech education to Asia
Allison moved to Hong Kong in 2012, for personal reasons, and identified a gap in the market for General Assembly. Initially they weren’t keen on the complexity of building a truly global business, but Allison persevered. “General Assembly said I had three months to break even in Hong Kong, otherwise they would shut it down. I started running as fast as I could. We launched the first classes one month after I arrived.”
The business soon broke even, and grew from there.
However, having met her objective, Allison was ready to try something new. “I’m a very early stage person, I love solving problems. But once the problem is solved and the plan is being executed, it doesn’t feel as engaging for me… at that point, it doesn’t matter if it’s me or someone else doing it,” she says.
A fresh start
Her tenacity and talent caught the eye of Tytus Michalski. Together they launched Fresco Capital, an early stage international venture fund supporting entrepreneurs on their international expansion.
“I really loved what General Assembly did in terms of empowering people through education, so I thought why not empower a lot of different education companies. Asia is a giant market for education, and yet all the innovation is in the US. So, just as I had brought General Assembly out to Hong Kong, I thought ‘why not invest in other companies and then help bring them to the market here?’” she says.
Gender equality in a man’s world
The dearth of women in STEM and finance is well documented. Only four percent of venture capitalist managers, globally, are female. Allison is one of them.
But, success in this arena comes at a price, “It’s easy to feel alone because there are no other women VC managers in Tokyo.”
“I get that you’re going to be into me because you’re an older man and I’m an attractive young woman but that’s not how I’d like this to go.”
Allison is usually the only woman at the negotiation table, and very often the youngest as well. She’s on the receiving end of overt sexism and flat-out ignoring, but more commonplace are the subtle, endless snubs, the manterrupting, the mansplaining. “At networking events, you can tell when people assume you’re not worth talking to,” she says. Although these incidents take their toll, she reframes them as opportunity, stressing that dissatisfaction breeds innovation. “I felt bad about it for a while, but then I decided that I’m not going to sit around and do things their way anymore, I’m going to find a different way, instead.’”
Want to know how Allison responds to such unwanted advances? She shares some crackers, below.
In a nutshell, what does a venture capitalist do?
Being a venture capitalist is finding people and ideas that can change the world and then helping them to be successful. That’s how I see it. Most venture capitalists might see it as a pure investment strategy, but I have a very mission-driven approach.
“Venture capitalists are the gatekeepers who decide which bright, young entrepreneur or new innovation to throw their support behind.” Canadian Business
Being a fervent advocate of the f-bomb, do you ever swear in meetings?

Sometimes. There is a fine line between being yourself and being sensitive to your surroundings. I usually catch people off guard with my four letter vocabulary skills, but I reign it in when I can tell it will be counterproductive in a given setting.

What advice would you give to a woman entrepreneur thinking of going at it alone?
Because the world is changing faster and faster, and navigating change is hard, it is critical to build a network of people that can help you through these changes. People who are equipped to navigate change are going to be more successful. So, if you have a network of people that are regenerative, you’re at a competitive advantage. Invest in your relationships because they are going to help you in the long run.

Allison Baum venture capitalist – what she has achieved already will astound you

Allison Baum venture capitalist
The busiest intersection in the world: Shibuya Crossing, Tokyo, Japan – Allison Baum venture capitalist
Aside from the prospect of coffee, what fuels your innate drive and makes you bounce out of bed in the morning?
I struggle with the answer to this, because no matter what, you either sound starry eyed, selfish, or entitled, but I guess that’s okay. From a practical and selfish perspective, I am driven by a strong and sometimes detrimental sense of curiosity, as well as a desire for freedom, growth, connection, and meaning. Plus, I’m a big believer that life should be fun, and you should do what you enjoy, that always makes getting up easier, too.
So, why is your venture capital fund based in Tokyo?
We are living in unprecedented times, and the ways of building value in the past are no longer working. Our personal lives, our governments, our corporations, our jobs, and our infrastructure are being transformed by fundamental shifts in demographics, technology, and globalisation. Consequently, these key trends are shaping the period in which we live, and Japan is the first country in the world delicately poised on the precipice of these changes, reluctantly forced to navigate this complex but critical new era. (Read Allison’s Japanese Manifesto, here).
What were you like as a kid?
I was relentlessly curious, but also painfully shy (until my parents sent me to acting camp and then I wouldn’t shut up). I was creative – I was always making things and collecting strange objects, and spent a lot of time outside. I had horrible glasses and an even worse haircut, but I totally didn’t realise or care.
So, what did you dream of being when you grew up?
The President, an astronaut, a veterinarian, then a journalist… I also remember wanting to actually be a Dalmatian, so I clearly had diverse interests, and a very confused sense of self esteem.
“Why are we trying to fit into the system? Let’s create a new system. But it takes us saying, “Hey, it’s not our fault that we can’t fit into this; the world has to change, too.” 
Was working for a big institution like Goldman Sachs always on your radar at University?
Nah, I didn’t even know what Goldman Sachs was. I was taking Japanese in school and I really wanted to move to Japan. So I got an email address from a friend who knew someone working in Tokyo. I emailed this guy and said, ‘Hi. My name is Allison Baum. I think I should work at your firm in Tokyo.’ It turns out he was one of the most senior people at Goldman Sachs! I didn’t get a job in Japan because my Japanese was terrible, but I did get an internship in the New York office.
If you could change anything about your career path, what would you change?
I don’t regret anything about my career but I look back to University and I sort of wish that I had considered other options besides Wall Street. But at the time, I felt so lucky to have a job. And it was an amazing job.
It was the tail end of the traditional old school Wall Street. So during my first year on the job, I would learn to carry ten coffees and I memorised my boss’ coffee order, which was ridiculous. I still remember it: a venti quadruple whole milk iced latte, with a small straw. It had to be a small straw. It was a power game.
Working for the bank must have been tough at times, what was the biggest challenge?
Getting myself to care. When I first started on the trading floor, I thought I was special because so many people wanted the position, and I was the one who got it.  But after a very short time, I realised that what that actually meant was that if I wasn’t sitting in that seat, someone else would be there, doing the exact same thing, and the world wouldn’t be any different. So, what’s the point?
“I remember going over to my boyfriend’s apartment, he opened the door, and I started sobbing.”
Sure. Do you recall the exact moment you had this realisation?
I remember going over to my boyfriend’s apartment, he opened the door, and I started sobbing and saying, ‘I’m so unhappy.’ I was having health issues, including eczema in my eyes. I was unhappy and I was stressed and it was taking a toll on my body. That was the moment I thought, ‘I’ve got to do something else.’
What’s been your greatest career challenge and greatest success as a woman entrepreneur so far?
Both my greatest career challenge and success has been making my own path. There’s no ladder I’m trying to climb, I’m building the steps as I go along, and that’s both thrilling and terrifying at the same time.
What’s your biggest bugbear in the corporate world?
People who try to manipulate you, and aren’t even smart enough to hide it well.
What is something most people don’t know about you?
I used to want to be a writer, partially because my Great Great Grandfather wrote the Wizard of Oz. Most people in Japan have never heard of Dorothy or Toto or the Wicked Witch of the West, so I guess it’s even more of a secret now.
 If you could have dinner with anyone, who would it be?
Right now, Donald Trump. I want to understand, I really do.
Having worked in male dominated industries your entire career, have you been on the receiving end of any inappropriate comments?
Loads! My favorite was when I met with a corporate in Hong Kong and we were talking about the Fresco Capital fund. I had just become engaged. One of the managers asked, ‘How are you going to run a fund if you’re planning a wedding?’ And I was like, ‘What?’
Then in New York I met with potential investors. I walked through the door, and the guy looked me up and down and said ‘What do you do again?’ I said, ‘I run Fresco Capital.’ He was floored and asked again, ‘You run a fund?’ I was speechless, and I stumbled on my words. It was so annoying because I could have changed his mind about me if I had the right response. But, I was caught off guard. If someone asked me again, ‘You run a fund?’ I would say, ‘Yeah. What do you do?’
“People don’t know what to do with me in Japan. It takes a lot of time to get them to trust me and see my value.”
I had another situation recently where a much older guy got inappropriate with me. I should have immediately said, ‘I’m not interested in you like that, and this is a professional relationship.’ But I was so shocked I just said, ‘I’ve got to go.’
We need standard responses for these scenarios, don’t you think?
Yup, I think we need repliers. But ones that are productive; because I don’t think shaming people in those situations is productive. But I still want to get what I want. I don’t need to change people’s minds, but I also don’t want to be imprisoned by their impressions of me.
Right now, we don’t know how to react. We will feel empowered in these situations if we have responses ready to go. We’ll feel safe being ourselves. I don’t think it’s right to not be yourself or not do business with people that are like that, because so many people are like that and the world still works in that way. But we don’t have to accommodate them either. We have to find subtle ways to speak up and change minds without compromising ourselves.
“We have to find subtle ways to speak up and change minds without compromising ourselves.”
I’ve starting thinking it’s best to keep it simple and if someone gets inappropriate, we could say, ‘Thank you but I’m not interested in you in that way, I’d prefer to keep this professional.’
Or maybe, ‘I get that you’re going to be into me because you’re an older man and I’m an attractive young woman but that’s not how I’d like this to go.’
I don’t know the answer but I want to find ways we can take power back into our own hands without sabotaging ourselves in the process.
Have you faced any unusual situations doing business in Japan as a female entrepreneur?
Yup, loads. People don’t know what to do with me in Japan. It takes a lot of time to get them to trust me and see my value.
At networking events, I think a lot of people assume I’m someone else’s significant other. They’ll introduce themselves to everyone standing around me, but not give me a business card. I felt really shitty about it for a while. Then thought, ‘That’s just not how I’m going to meet people. I need to find a different way that works for me, that leverages my strengths.’
“I changed dinner meetings to lunch meetings, I started building a community of people I wanted to meet instead, started running more events.”
This way of thinking is useful. If the system doesn’t work for you, try something else. You might find a better way to do it. Take Hillary Clinton, for example. She spent her whole life trying to fit into the system, to get it to work for her. By the time she paid her dues and got to the point where it could have, people don’t like the system anymore.
With the networking issue, I was inspired by the election to say, ‘I’m not going to wait. I’m not going to sit around and do things your way anymore, I’m going to try to find a different way instead.’ I changed dinner meetings to lunch meetings, I started building a community of people I wanted to meet instead, I run more events, and I bond with people through activities like rock climbing or bowling.  It’s easiest to form strong bonds when you’re being yourself, and I feel more like myself when I’m engaged and trying something new.
What is the silliest thing you have ever done?
I usually think of ‘silly’ as ‘pointless’ and I don’t believe anything is pointless. I’ve done a lot of silly things, like leave Goldman for a ten-person startup nobody had heard of; get on an airplane alone to Hong Kong to launch a new business; raise a venture capital fund; or travel to Russia by myself. But I’ve found meaning in all of them.
How’s the dating scene in Japan?
No comment!
Have you always been in tune with your gut? If so, how did you cultivate it as a woman entrepreneur?
No, not at all. It’s a constant struggle to balance intuition with rationality. They should typically converge eventually, but in the moment, it’s a really important skill to be able to discern which is which. Just like any muscle, you have to practice, and allow yourself to get things wrong so you can fine tune the algorithm.
Finish this sentence: female empowerment is…
…the freedom and strength to make our own choices from the same opportunity set as everyone else.
Where will you be in 10 years’ time?
No f***ing clue.
How would you describe your personal style?

Simple with a slight edge.

Allison Baum venture capitalist
Allison Baum venture capitalist
Got any favourite brands?
I do all of my shopping through our portfolio company, Boon and Gable because I hate shopping and I need encouragement to try anything other than what I already own. From there I usually wear a combination of Theory, Club Monaco, Madewell, and J. Crew.
How would your best friend describe you?
Adventurous, self aware, generally confident but often too hard on myself.
When you took General Assembly to Hong Kong, did you ever doubt your ability to pull it off?
Yeah, I remember talking to a friend saying ‘I just don’t know if this is going to happen.’ She said to me, “Allison, there are too many people that want you to be successful; there is no way it’s not going to work, everyone wants it to work too.” I always remember that, because if you have others supporting your mission, you’ll never really be alone.
How do you turn these ‘doubt days’ around?
People pursuing a business venture alone probably think to themselves every hour, ‘What am I doing?’ I do. It’s normal. You’ve just got to get through that day. Go to sleep, wake up, and the next day is usually better.
Burnout is common these days, particularly for a woman entrepreneur, has it happened to you?
I had a big burnout recently. I think when you work with all men, they don’t necessarily understand what you need. Some days, I would much rather feel acknowledged than get paid more (or both!).
In Hong Kong, I was running so hard and I felt unsupported. I wanted someone to say ‘Hey, this is really awesome that you did this. And thank you for the additional revenue.’ That was a very confusing time for me, and I had a lot of resentment built up that was partially self imposed by not knowing how to ask for what I needed. But, in that process, I grew up a lot, and I met my two partners at Fresco Capital. Sometimes you can forge the strongest bonds when you’re particularly vulnerable.
Is there someone you look up to?
It’s hard. There are parts that I admire about a lot of different people, and I don’t think people are worth having around if you don’t look up to them in some way. I’m really inspired by my Mom, by female artists like Beyonce and Angelina Jolie, comedians like Judd Apatow and Trevor Noah and Jon Stewart, I look up to people who are changing the way people think at scale, all the while being themselves.
What does success mean to you?
Freedom, growth, connection, and impact. I don’t think money is the goal of success but it certainly helps with all of those things, so I do think that’s part of it.
Are you a woman entrepreneur with a question for Allison Baum? Go ahead and ask in the comments section below.

Allison Baum venture capitalist

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4 Comments
  1. Laura Waldusky says

    Thank you Allison for your candor. As a fellow fan of the f-bomb and now a business co-owner of a design and marketing company, I have never lived my life like anyone else either.

    Question – how many investor pitch decks do you get sent from startups and if it’s a lot (and I suspect it is!) what qualities are you looking for that make one company stand out from another.

    I ask this because my company has been working a lot on these lately from a branding and design perspective to help these CEO’s communicate who they are, what they do and who they do it for.

    1. Allison Baum says

      Hi Laura -thanks for reading and really glad that it resonated with you! As you can imagine, we get tons of pitch decks from startups (we look at over 100 companies for every 1 that we invest in, which adds up to thousands per year), so it’s hard to define what makes something stand out… but what I can say usually the best companies come from our existing networks, whether they are personal, our existing portfolio, or our co-investors. A strong, thoughtful introduction is the best way to get noticed.

      But first, make sure that you’re approaching the right investors. We have many founders come to us who are not a fit for our model, investment thesis, or investment stage, so it’s important to do your due diligence before reaching out. My partner, Steve Forte, wrote a great post on it here: http://www.fresco.vc/dont-meet-investor-unless-match-three-criteria/…. Hope that’s helpful – best of luck!

      1. Laura Waldusky says

        Thank you for the thoughtful response. Maybe if we spot something in Houston for you that’s worth taking a look at we’ll send it your way. Good luck with all of your endeavors!

  2. […] Be an example. Become the kind of woman you wish you’d had around when you were a girl. Talk to them about other inspirational women, like Jyoti Upadhyay, Marisa Drew, Sarah Agbantou and Allison Baum. […]

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