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Annelie Ajami

10.02.2024

From the Ring to the Boardroom: A Champion's Journey in Venture Capital

How a Former Boxing Champion and Venture Capitalist Merges Lessons from the Ring with Startup Success

Early Influences and Boxing Career

At 17, your coach ambitiously declared he'd make you a champion. What do you think about this? Did you believe you had the potential to be a champion? How did he know? What do you think?

 

My coach Dave has a great eye for talent. This is his gift. I was hungry, resilient and competitive. I think I was just lucky to be at the right time at the right place. I’m not the first woman he coached who became a champion. He would have never said he would make me a champion in the beginning. He would never risk anything going to my head! I remember once, when I became relatively good, I did a very fancy move when they announced my corner. He lost it. I probably shouldn’t say here what exactly he told me. Many swear words. Humility is always at the core of his teachings.

 

The moment I agreed to compete it became very serious. He would not tolerate anything but full commitment. This was non-negotiable. You don’t like it, you get out. Dave was always very clear about this. If you want to compete, it has be your life. He always said – to be the best, you have to live and breathe it. I just did what I was told.

 

He was always very sober about my wins. I never heard him very happy or excited. He would say, it was good but you can do better. He was always pushing me. I remember our weekly sparring sessions in a gym in south London. The girl there was really good. One time she hit me so hard my legs turned to jelly. Dave took one look at me and said to her coach – she is fine, we will go 2 more rounds. Later he triumphantly told me – you see, you held your own. He really believed in me and my abilities. Like in anything, you need someone to believe in you and take a chance on you.

 

Your achievements in boxing, including becoming UK and Netherlands champion in different weight categories and your professional fight record, taught you about life's highs and lows. Winning, losing, and sacrificing. How have these experiences shaped you personally? How was and is this related to life?

 

One of the most important things I learnt in boxing is that the fight is won outside of the spotlights. Muhammad Ali said this once. I used to spend so many hours before dawn, in the freezing cold, on abandoned roads doing sprints. Much of the work you do to win is invisible. I think about this often when I’m on planes and feeling tired. No one sees you put in the miles but it is probably your most important work. Another lesson is to keep finding ease in discomfort. It the only way you grow. To keep challenging yourself. Or, and this is the most obvious one, when you fall, you get back up. This is how you win. Learning how to deal with failure.

 

In venture, these lessons all apply too. Of course, we are only getting started with Anamcara but I know where I want to go. So I try to tap into these learnings whenever I can.

 

Cultural and Educational Influences

Growing up with the ethos that 'education is everything,' you chose not to continue in boxing. How did your Indonesian heritage and your mother's immigrant background influence this decision?

 

My mum was born in West Papua, New Guinea. She fled to the Netherlands when she was only 9 with a tiny suitcase and her doll. She is an extraordinary woman. Strong, kind and unapologetically funny. Shrewd businesswoman too. Her parents lived under Japanese occupation. My grandfather was imprisoned three times and sent to concentration camps. Education was always key for her. She would always say – they can take everything away from you but not your education.

 

Your mother advised making 'big decisions' that shake up life. How have you applied this advice, perhaps stepping out of your comfort zone or embracing challenges?

 

She always says, whenever you feel stuck you need to make big decisions so that you may land elsewhere. And, also, to always take opportunities when they present themselves. Never to miss chances because you never know where it could lead you. Moving to Jordan was inspired by this advice. It was bold but she told me just to go for it. Doors are always opening. You just have to go through them.

 

Entrepreneurial Journey in Jordan

"Starting working in an accelerator in Jordan was a bold move. How did you source startups and build a community there? What inspired this decision? Why Jordan?" 

 

The Arab Spring had only just settled in 2016 and the situation in many countries in the Middle East was somewhat unpredictable. Jordan was still considered safe. It was a decision made by deduction! Having never been to the region, moving to Jordan was challenging. It took time to adjust to new social and cultural norms. Everything was foreign to me. Learning the language, albeit just the basics, really helped get more integrated into Jordanian society. It brings a deeper understanding. The accelerator I worked at was one of the very first accelerators in the Middle East. Venture and entrepreneurship were still very new concepts. As a team we used to spend a lot of time raising awareness and educating people about entrepreneurship. Back then, for example, entrepreneurship was not considered a viable career path for newly graduated students. Our goal was to inspire and motivate talented people to start their own businesses so that they would apply to our program.

 

Venture into Lebanon

"In Lebanon, you helped build a fund with BY Venture Partners. What were the unique challenges and learnings from establishing this venture in Beirut? You did everything from Platform, Branding, and Sourcing to Fundraising.  What did you learn ultimately? 

 

Building a fund in an emerging market always bring its very own unique challenges. The timing, however, was great. In 2017 Lebanon was at the forefront of a new regional tech movement. The government freed up significant capital to help back venture programs, from funds to coding schools. It was a very exciting time. Nowadays, the UAE is the tech hub of the Middle East. But we used to have UAE government executives come to Beirut to learn from us! In that time, no one thought the region was of any significance. You wouldn’t see Michael Moritz of Marc Andreessen in Abu Dhabi for example. Now all this has shifted. Countries like the UAE have become increasingly important players in the global tech ecosystem and big sovereign wealth funds are making long term bets on tech in important areas such as AI and healthcare.

 

The learning here is that investing time in unique networks early helps differentiate your positioning as an investor. For Anamcara our access to the Middle East is core to our value proposition. This was built over almost a decade of working in the Middle East with governmental bodies, funds, individual investors, and strategic partners. It is one of the things that sets us apart from other Europe-focused funds.

 

Venture Capitalism Insights and European Ecosystem

"As Europe's first female solo general partner in venture capitalism, what do you believe sets the European ecosystem apart, and how do you envision its evolution?"

The European ecosystem is quite fragmented with incredible talent in cities spread all over the continent. These conditions give an edge to people who are willing to hustle and put in the miles to go find them. This is not like going up and down the 101 in Silicon Valley. There are clusters of talent and you are now seeing capital come together in novel ways. For example, the AI energy in France but also big US firms taking stakes in European firms like GC did. At the same time you see a depth of talent in more peripheral cities like Amsterdam and Tallin. Mind you, DeepMind came out of London. So, there we definitely have the talent, ideas and capital. Regulation tends to be a challenge compared to the US. But the best founders figure out ways to navigate around it. We, as VCs, need to play a role in helping founders grow in Europe and then scale globally. And be able to engage with regulation in a pro-active way. Overall, I’m very optimistic !

"It must have been scary to become a Solo GP - to me it was - how did you decide on this and why this journey?"

 

I never really thought about becoming a solo as a goal. I just had a vision of the type of firm I wanted to build, and I got started on it. So that label came naturally and not intentionally. When I discuss this topic with other solo’s I think there is a general consensus that it’s easier to get started when you don’t know how difficult it actually is. Sometimes it’s better just not to know. I watched Million Dollar Baby before going to my first boxing session. Also not smart! 

 

I’m not truly alone now though. I have an incredible operations manager, Aakriti, who makes the Anamacara engine run. Everything from compliance, to audit and fund admin. She has an immense attention to detail and foresight. Aakriti is also a master negotiator. I just steer the ship. We also work with a dedicated network of world class B2B operators who support our portfolio companies. Our Venture Partners include Philip Reynolds (Fmr VP of Eng. Workday), Namrata Ganatra (CPTO, Pipe) and Gary Turner (Co-Founder, Xero UK). I’m very lucky to work alongside them!

 

"In your venture fund, focusing on SaaS (fintech, commerce, vertical, I believe?), what key insights or strategies have you gleaned? And how does your fund model operate? We talked about more considerable reserves. What are the learnings so far? What do you plan for the future? For fund two?" 

 

Anamcara is pre/seed stage fund that invest in B2B companies across Europe. In the past we have done quite some fintech, commerce and vertical B2B. Our strategy is to invest $200-500k angel sized checks. That means we never lead or take board seats and always work very collaboratively with other investors. We currently have 15 portfolio companies, and we are targeting a total or 30-35 companies by the end of our investment period. We also have reserves for follow-on. We have now made a total of 3 follow-on investments.

 

In challenging macro-economic conditions, syndication matters. Of course capital is important but I’m really looking for partners around the table who I know are value-add. This doesn’t necessarily mean Tier 1s. It means having investors that can help the founding team get to the best possible outcome. I don’t want to make it seem our role is more critical than it is, because it is ultimately the founders who do all the work, but having the right partners can really make or break a company. I pay close attention to who is on the journey with me.

 

My goal is to build a firm that is the first call for any exceptional founder building in the B2B space in Europe. For Fund II we will stick to the same strategy but perhaps raise slightly more.

 

Career Reflections and Future Aspirations

 

"Reflecting on your diverse career, from boxing to venture capitalism, how have these experiences influenced your outlook on life and career?"

 

Be humble. Keep learning. When you fall, get back up and keep on moving forward.

 

"As a child, you dreamed of being a jet fighter pilot. What are your aspirations for the next 30 years?"

 

I still dream about this! But truthfully, when you say 30 years, I just hope to live a full, accomplished, and healthy life. And to be able to give back to my community.

Thank you for taking the time to share your remarkable journey with us. 


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