From Runway to Venture Capital: Karolina's Unconventional Journey
Ahoj, Karolina. Thank you for your time. Please share a bit about your professional journey and the experiences that have shaped you.
Ahoj:) My journey to where I am today has honestly not been very conventional. While at high school, I got an opportunity to sign with a large fashion modeling agency and so after graduating, I decided to take a gap year and give it a shot. My career ended up exploding so a gap year turned into four years of full-time modeling before I managed to combine it with college in 2014. I graduated from NYU Stern in 2017 and since then I’ve been in VC. I started my career at a fund in NYC called White Star Capital and after 5 years there, I got an opportunity to join Credo Ventures as a Partner and go back to my roots in Europe (and more specifically CEE).
You started your career as a model—a profession similar to entrepreneurship in many ways. What are your thoughts on this comparison, and how did your modeling career prepare you for your later professional pursuits?
Yes, although modeling and business do sound like an oxymoron, you can draw some parallels. Modeling is a high-pressure, 168-hours-a-week-type of job, that becomes your life if you want to be great at it. You have to hustle, accept rejection and failure, and still show up the next day and try again. At the top level, like any job, modeling requires a lot of emotional maturity, consistency, and discipline. And what did I transfer to my current job from modeling? It’s mostly those soft and interpersonal skills (at the end of the day you meet new people every day), pursuit of goals seemingly out of your reach, sense of humor/humility, discipline and thick skin.
Rejection is an inherent part of both modeling and venture capital. How have your experiences with rejection impacted your professional growth? Can you share any insights you've gained on handling personal criticism and turndown?
During my modeling years, I’ve heard it all– you are too pretty, not pretty enough, too thin, too big, too opinionated, not enough of a personality - and so you realize that a lot of rejection or criticism is just one’s opinion and not some irreversible, unsurpassable reality. It doesn’t become easier to hear, and it doesn’t mean one should ignore all criticism (some is valid!), but I learned to use it as an opportunity and fuel to get better, instead of a barrier.
You made a significant decision to pursue modeling full-time in New York. What key factors led you to this decision, and how did you find the courage to face this challenging environment?
I don’t know how much of a conscious decision it was at that time, over just taking full advantage of all the opportunities that came my way. It was scary to give up on a more conventional path of just going straight to college, especially for a career that can be so unforgiving and fickle. I maintained sanity and peace by creating optionality. I applied to different colleges between London and New York and when I got in, I kept deferring my enrollment, which is not possible to do into infinity so after two years I applied again, got in, and deferred again. Having this in my back pocket and knowing I am not wasting any time or opportunities helped.
You later attended NYU Stern and embarked on a new academic journey. In your perspective, how does long-term planning and foresight play into making decisions that might mean earning less now for potential future gains?
In my view (and experience) short-term gains are never worth it in the long run. It’s needless to say I took a meaningful “pay cut” when I returned to school and ultimately VC. First few months I worked for free and after that, my starting monthly salary was (by New York standards) ridiculous and equal to what I would sometimes make in a day as a model. But 1) I knew that this was only the starting point and it was only upward from there, while with modeling it was most likely the other way around, and 2) I was pursuing something that ultimately fulfilled me much more day-to-day, I felt challenged in new ways again.
You've expressed a desire for more intellectual stimulation. How did you go about choosing your new industry? Furthermore, you've noted that determination and effort are key factors in this new journey. How do you define luck, coincidence, talent, and hard work, and how have they played into your own career trajectory?
My dad started and sold a few businesses and I always looked up to him. This is also why I was set on taking the business route, but my initial plan was to start my own business in retail, very traditional, like my father. With time, however, I got more interested in finance, in part just by being in New York, where finance is such a dominant industry, and in part by majoring in finance and being in that student community.
I don’t remember exactly when I first heard about VC, but it quickly caught my interest because it’s such a great intersection between entrepreneurship and finance. The reality is that, for an outsider, VC is a pretty small and closed community and this was true even more in 2014 on the East Coast. I was lucky to have a few friends who were in VC, so I could ask a lot of questions.
I think that effort and determination are essential to any journey and I would expect there to be a high correlation between what we call luck and hard work. My definition of luck is just that some number of random events in your life turn out the good way, but to be lucky, you have to create those opportunities. And I tried. VC hiring is super unstructured compared to let’s say IB or consulting and during my college years there was close to zero on-campus support to get into VC.
I heard “VCs don’t hire right out of college” all the time. So I went to Google, typed “best VC funds in NYC” and began cold emailing anyone and everyone. And, even to my own surprise, it kind of worked. Of course, a lot of them did not reply, but some did and I met Partners at USV, Lux, Greycroft, RRE, Founder Collective, and more just by doing this. Slowly I started building a little network that finally helped me land an internship at White Star my junior year (and a little shoutout to Harley Miller, founder of Left Lane, who was super helpful in that process). I spent 5 years at White Star, starting as an intern and leaving as a Principal to join Credo as a GP in the fall of 2022.
You were part of a dynamic and evolving environment at White Star Capital. Could you expand on the primary focus of your work there?
I joined White Star just at the close of Fund II ($180m) and a total of $250m in AUM. We were a team of around 10 people across Montreal, New York and London. The focus was Series A and B, generalist, across North America and Europe and later also Asia. I was on the investment team focusing on the US market and primarily businesses targetting consumers and SMBs.
During my time there we grew to $1bn under management, a team of around 40 people, 2 new markets (Paris and Singapore), and 2 new products (vertical crypto and gaming fund and venture debt fund). This is a LOT in 5 years and we felt it. It was a great learning. I was on the investment team, but as it is in a small team you have to be a jack of all trades– investing, LP relations, reporting, marketing… As we scaled we had to change a ton of internal processes, and as we grew our fund size and went through some crazy market dynamics, we had to also adjust our investment strategy.
Having such a multitude of exposure as well as always having been given larger shoes to grow into has been an incredible base for my career and probably the key accelerator to becoming a GP relatively soon.
What were some of the key learnings and experiences that have shaped your approach to venture capital?
You learn a lot with every deal of course, especially in the years of working with the company after the investment. But the biggest learnings came out of the recent macro events. One of them is that when things don’t feel right, then they probably are not right, regardless of what everyone else is doing. Not getting swept away by the collective fomo requires patience. Another learning is the destructiveness of too much capital and lack of discipline in the VC ecosystem. And the damage is on both sides - startups and funds.
Management fees, although necessary, create an incentive misalignment between LPs and GPs and because capital was available, many funds started playing the AUM game. This market really shaped my opinion on fund structuring, focus, and investment strategy and process. At Credo, we all share a similar thesis, which played a big role in my decision to join the fund.
Can you share a notable challenge or hurdle you faced during your tenure at White Star Capital? How did you navigate it, and how did it impact your professional growth?
I already mentioned that because of the growth we went through I was always given bigger shoes. Our team in New York was quite small and I was pretty much given all of the deal-sourcing responsibilities and a big chunk of the investment process. We were a relatively new fund with not as much brand visibility so I had to do a ton of outbound and just hustle to get in front of things. That is typical analyst work, but I was almost alone in generating a big chunk of our deal flow so it was tough.
Our partners also gave me a lot of trust in running the investment process and I remember my first big investment in Parsley Health, which is a digital care delivery platform for chronic conditions. We invested $10m, a large check for us, and our team let me run with the diligence and the whole process. It was an amazing learning, but I also felt a lot of pressure and anxiety to not mess it up.
Returning to Europe, you joined Credo Ventures—a firm with an impressive portfolio. What drew you to this firm and inspired you to return to Europe? Can you discuss some of the key learnings from your experience at Credo and how it's shaping your understanding of venture capital?
I spent 12 years in New York and I love the city, it shaped me in my early adulthood, but I can’t get excited about the idea of growing old in New York.
I loved my childhood in Europe and the variety and cultural depth it provides and I would like my kids to grow up that way too. But more importantly, I was given the opportunity to join a platform with an incredible brand, focus, value, and culture I deeply subscribe to. Our North Star is the fund’s performance and we are very disciplined about our fund sizes and investment strategy.
We continue playing into our strengths, which are being very plugged into the CEE region and having a local brand, presence, knowledge, and network, instead of giving into the temptation of expanding, but ultimately doing things that in our view make no sense just because we can (larger funds, opportunity funds, larger portfolio, etc.).
We believe that our biggest asset is our team and we want everyone to feel ownership and responsibility. For that reason, we have five equal investment partners and almost everyone on the extended team has carry. And finally, we have a deep respect for the human and emotional side of the partnership we create with our founders.
Being a “founder-friendly” fund may sound like a marketing tagline, but I am impressed by our team’s commitment to delivering on that promise.
Credo Ventures aligns with your discipline, focus, and sector-specific expertise values. How important is it, in your view, for firms to maintain a focused approach, particularly in a competitive landscape?
With only a little exaggeration, I believe that focus is all that matters. The reality is that in VC returns concentrate heavily between a handful of the best funds. I believe that successful funds have access to, pick, and win the right companies and build the right ownership.
At any stage, in any niche or geo, you have to be among the top five funds/GPs that come to mind when founders think of raising capital and that is very hard to achieve without focus and a concentrated brand.
What motivates you in your current role? What excites you about the work you're doing now?
Together with my partners and team, we want to be the best CEE early-stage fund that’s ever been and will be. Building a brand is only part of the hard work, maintaining it over time is the rest. Credo has had an incredible start and our main and toughest job is to not f* it up and build on top of that. It’s also about not getting too comfortable with the status quo, we want to keep experimenting and stay agile because things around us are changing quickly. I also love that I can give back to my home and share the same cultural background, humor, and even language with the founders we back.
Eastern Europe is experiencing significant growth in the venture capital space. How do you see the region evolving compared to the rest of Europe and the world?
It’s slowly converging with Western Europe. This is true not only for the quality of companies that we’re seeing but also in terms of the number of successful outcomes, companies graduating beyond Series A, and ultimately an exit.
Today we see more and more repeat founders, people who have been part of another success story and/or lived or studied abroad a got inspired by what’s possible on the scale of global success. As part of that trend, we’re also seeing a gradual increase in round prices and round sizes, which is not necessarily a bad thing as long as it’s within a healthy range.
Given the current macro environment and the evolving landscape in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), could you discuss the verticals and founders that particularly pique your interest in this region? Why do you believe now is an opportune time for investing in these specific areas and entrepreneurs?
To be honest, it’s really hard to generalize this into a single statement about the CEE. CEE is a cluster of smaller and very different countries and ecosystems. These differences are cultural, regulatory, economic, and, in tech specifically, shaped by local education, the presence of big tech, and/or past local successes.
Let’s take the Czech Republic as an example - a small country of 11 million people or so, but with relatively high economic development and good education (and great technical universities such as CVUT or Matfyz at the Charles Univesity). Some of these factors as well as the country’s geo position motivated big tech companies like IBM, Cisco, Oracle, and Microsoft to set up relatively large local or even regional offices. IBM recently picked Prague as their AI hub. Moreover, two of the early tech successes in the Czech Republic were Avast and AVG, both large cybersecurity businesses and so the country continues to be strong in cybersecurity.
This framework in different variations applies to other countries in the region. But one is true across - compared to my experience in New York, the founder profile in CEE is much more technical, and given the high-quality technical talent in the region, we see CEE emerging as a pretty strong player in the AI field as well.