Tzvete DonchevaTzvete Doncheva is leading global investor relations at PropTech1 Ventures, one of Europe’s first ESG compliant PropTech venture capital funds.

She leads on fundraising and platform activities in non-German speaking markets, fostering connections with property investors, who seek to better leverage technology in their portfolios. Through her work, she helps to strengthen the fund’s brand across the continent. Her experience in VC includes being on the investment team at a supply chain-focused fund and in a platform role at the VC spin out of multinational real estate investment manager Round Hill Capital. Tzvete is a firm advocate for bridging the gender gap in venture capital and technology, a non-exec trustee at Girls in Charge and founder of a project, that aims to help tackle the issue of closed networks in VC and help increase female representation at founder and funder level.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

In one line – I’m a former journalist, ex startup operator, who’s now leading investor relations at an ESG- compliant venture capital firm, focused on real estate innovation. Following an International Relations undergrad degree in London, I joined the first (and possibly largest) private national TV channel in Bulgaria, BTV. There I got to be exposed to a working style of ‘learning on the go’ – a great experience to have early on in my career. As one of my favourite senior reporters (who in time, turned into a mentor) used to say – ‘if you can’t swim, you drown’. It’s an expression and a way of thinking that has stayed with me ever since.

So.. what brought the switch to tech/VC? During my reporter days, I did a couple of tech-focused pieces – i.e. former classmates of mine had launched and successfully raised venture funding for a resume building platform. The more I got to know the startup scene, the more interested in it I became. Who wouldn’t want to be close to the visionaries, building businesses that can change the world? 😉 Slowly, slowly I started to realise computer skills are in fact not a prerequisite to work in tech (a big misconception I held for a while!). As it often happens in life, opportunities come when you actively start looking for them. Or in other words – the path does indeed appear with taking the first step. So I joined the (Prop)tech world as a first employee at an alternative coworking startup. We had the vision to help hospitality operators in London and beyond monetise the underused spaces in their venues by turning them into a flexible work environment. It was during and thanks to my operator days that I started to become ‘immersed’ in the UK tech scene and how I got to begin building my network. I’d like to think this was in part due to natural ability (of bringing people together, ie as was the case with the ‘Founders Breakfast’ series with British think tank The Entrepreneurs Network) , but I have to be honest – a driving factor in this network building thing has certainly been a relentless attitude (at some point I was going to as many as 3-4 startup events per day!). Through all these initiatives I got to know many more stakeholders in the ecosystem (including the groups an ‘ecosystem’ is made of). VCs (venture capitalists/risk capital) were a key group. And this is how I began to get more familiar with the VC world. It fascinated me to a point that I wanted in. And little by little, I oriented my approach towards switching the side of the table I was on – and moving over to VC

Fast forward to now. As mentioned, I am leading Global Investor Relations at PropTech1 Ventures, one of Europe’s first early stage PropTech venture capital firms, investing in the untapped potential for innovation in the real estate industry. We are ESG-compliant, strive to a nearly 50% gender equal management team, and have a truly unique LP base – representing some of the most well-known entrepreneurs in the continent’s startup/business angel scene (ie Christian Vollmann), as well large institutional players with an interest in property innovation such as German banks Aareal and Berlin Hyp. My role focuses on capital raising (we recently closed a 50M euro first time fund) and the expansion of our shareholder base/growth of our reach beyond our ‘home’ DACH region ( if you/your organisation is interested in finding out more about the benefits of partnering up with a sector-specific venture vehicle, happy for you to get in touch :)).

Landing a role in VC as an ‘outsider’ gave me a ton of insight on how difficult this industry is to break into for those who are not part of existing circles (ie in the UK, over 20% of investors are graduates of just four colleges) – as founders, investors, managers, even LPs looking to get allocation in really high performing funds. That’s only one example of educational network exclusivity – but it can of course impact proposition sourcing, and have a play on assessment, overall decision-making and even fund hiring. The desire to contribute towards a change in the industry and its ‘opening’ to outsiders inspired me to create #EcosystemGiants, a series that aims to from one side shed light on how the sector operates, and from another enable the connections between various stakeholders in the ecosystem. They started during the pandemic as webinars and have featured some of the most well-known investors in Europe such as Oliver Holle (Speedinvest), Reshma Sohoni (Seedcamp), and the first in-person guest of the format, Cem Sertoglu of Earlybird – Digital East Fund. They’ve been a resource to get to know such leaders, and also connect with a like-minded community. Given that the community I care most about are women – investors and entrepreneurs, especially in Eastern Europe, since the start of the year, these events have been taking place in a roundtable setting, and in Bulgaria – gathering a couple of the local leaders from various innovation sectors and positions (entrepreneurs, corporates, public sector), all looking to make a further impact with their work.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career? 

Not as I was starting out – which is probably obvious to observers. My goals and ambitions changed and developed, in line with my personal growth (or at least I’d like to think that). You’ve to be aware of an opportunity to go after it – and I hope my less than ideal career planning serves as an example to young girls (and why not guys), reading this interview – make yourself aware of what you can achieve. It would have been great to have been more strategic about career goals and have had a better planned work trajectory when (or even before) entering the workforce.

Reflecting on my own experience, I can say it is really important to have a bigger focus on career planning in school, prior to children/teenagers deciding on the subject they are to pursue further into their studies. I do hope when my 14 year old sister is to make her career choice, it is a result of more elaborate planning, with the support of family, educators, and thanks to being inspired by relatable role models around her. I think from the moment I realised I wanted to be in VC and contribute to create a multigenerational wealth for a community, my approach became more systematic, but still – it is an evolving journey. Work in progress. As is life 🙂

Have you faced any challenges along the way?

I’m a big believer in the notion that everyone makes their own destiny. There are serendipitous moments, and certain things can only come together due to luck, but.. ultimately the harder you work, the luckier you become. In this line of thought, some of the biggest challenges we typically are presented with are self-created – such as for me, getting out of my comfort zone, expanding upon the limits set by both myself and society. It has been a journey to get to the point of having enough self-belief to go after the opportunities I don’t necessarily feel quite ready for. It may not look like it from the outside but I am actually not that confident in myself. For the longest time I did feel incredibly insecure, in the world of finance, fighting a near daily imposter syndrome. I shrugged everytime someone brought up the fact that I’d won a beauty pageant title. I was feeling nearly embarrassed to admit I didn’t study business/economics or thought my lack of an Oxbridge degree was a big deal. It did take me a while to get comfortable with the fact that I don’t actually need to fit into anyone’s perception of both what a VC is, or how those working in venture capital should look like. It’s only recently that I’ve started to come to terms with the fact that I should not downplay my identity to be taken seriously in the industry or be able to build authority. This has been possible both due to an increased self-awareness but also thanks to being able to be around incredible woman leaders and understanding male counterparts (which in VC land make up about 90% of the decision-makers), who are willing to enable the growth of the juniors around them. I can credit Gilda Perez-Alvarado, Sadie Malim, Mariana Peressini, Samantha Rush, Deepali Nangia as some of the women whom I feel inspired to learn from, and who (either directly or by observation) have been incredibly influential in helping me build my own self confidence.

By no means do I want to disregard system challenges related to underrepresentation and the difficulties of getting a foot through a door that’s so ingrained with exclusivity of networks. However we do have a huge role in making our destiny. Our response to challenges sometimes carries more weight than the challenges themselves.

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

Each accomplishment that has been previously considered unachievable. Moving to and making one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world home at 19. Helping to build a tech business from the ground up. Getting into a very relationship-driven industry without the necessary prerequisites  (network, educational/family ties) and succeeding. Landing a role in an investment bank, without the typical background for it. In short, succeeding against the odds. And this has many faces 🙂

I also think most recently the speedy developments we’ve had at the VC firm I work at, PropTech1,  across all fronts – from raising an oversubscribed first-time fund to overall market positioning and expansion have been significant. A result of a great team effort but I can’t deny it makes me proud to have been part of it!

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success? 

I think there’s a few.

  1. Not giving up when things get hard. It sounds so simple but when compounded, it truly makes a difference.
  2. Being adaptable. The path to your goal may change, get disrupted or destroyed. As long as you’re clear on where you want to get to, flexibility and creativity will enable you to build a way even when no way exists.
  3. Knowing what you want. The above two do not hold any weight if you can’t set your priorities straight and don’t know what you’re aiming for.

How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee? 

Have we not all heard Jim Rohn’s quote about how we’re the average of the five people we spend the most time with? While I cannot say I am a firm supporter of ‘mentoring’ per say (the term is a bit too vague for my liking – and it’s lately being thrown around for any and all initiatives in the ecosystem – with impact that’s difficult to measure); I do very much support knowledge exchanges between senior/junior representatives of a firm, organisation or industry-wide. It’s a great way to transfer experiences and it really helps if the impact or result of those interactions can be tracked. As an example, more recently I am very excited to be taking part in ULI’s Young Leaders Mentorship Program, which has the vision to support the Young Leaders of the organisation (which is the world’s oldest, largest multidisciplinary real estate forum) to get to know and learn from more senior members.

I’m a non-exec trustee at Girls in Charge, an organisation helping young women gain the skills needed to succeed in life and business through gamified workshops. Our exchanges may be adhoc, but they both proactively seek my help when advice is needed, and have taken the initiative to update me and the other trustees in structured quarterly updates. It is rewarding to have witnessed their growth and development, even if the main drivers for that are their own grit, talent and ambition 🙂 Even though our relationship has never been labelled as mentor – mentee, why the knowledge exchange works in this case is because there’s engagement and willingness to learn from both sides (they’ve also gone out of their way to do things that may be helpful to me). And I hope they are learning as much from me as I am from them 🙂

If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Equality, what would it be?

Start the conversation early. It will take over 135 years to close the Gender Gap globally. The World Economic Forum annually issues a report aimed at measuring the progress towards gender parity, comparing gender gaps across countries in four broad buckets – economic opportunities, education, health and political representation. The average income (men/women) is still off by over 50%, and less than ⅓ of manager positions are being taken by leaders, who are female.

Raising awareness about the issue should start at the very base level – in the family, it should be spoken about at school, so that men and women can both go into the workforce with a sound knowledge of the scope of the problem, and perhaps even suggestions for possible solutions. There is hope that the next generation will be more aware and equipped with the knowledge, skills and resources to fight the inequality challenges previous generations failed to.

If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?

Trust your instincts. At least in my experience, ignoring my intuition has brought me more harm than good.*

*When I was filling out those interview answers for the first time, I had put down ‘Lead with kindness’. I would love to believe this is still the case, but I’m also increasingly becoming aware it’s not in everyone’s nature to be kind and to respond to good with good. So.. in line with trusting your gut, be selective of the people you spend your time with. We only have a finite amount of energy – ensure it’s spent well!

And of course, last but not least – only take advice from people you’d trade lives with (or aspire to be like!) 😉

What are you hoping to achieve in the future? 

I think it’s good for us to set goals and aim towards new challenges in any aspect of life – health, work, personal achievements – also mindful of speaking of the future in present tense. As mentioned before, I do feel very strongly about having my work lead to a positive impact and an improvement to the dire statistics in the VC industry. Is it really that surprising that less than 3% of venture funding goes to teams, who have a woman founder if the number of women in senior VC roles continues to be shockingly low (2020 stats show 65% of US VC firms are still lacking a woman partner, and only 13% of UK partner-level investors are female). To have more capital flow to businesses, started by diverse, out-of- ordinary outliers, there should be more outliers of diverse backgrounds managing this capital. I’m hoping to one day be in a position to support talented, extraordinary founders I can relate to with more than soft skills advice and a couple of intros.