Tech veteran and newly minted venture capital investor Kat Kennedy got an early lesson in what equity looks like, though at the time it was just about everyone pitching in to do the work that comes with growing up in a rural agricultural community.
“Where I was raised, on a cattle ranch, I was lucky to be raised by a father who put us to work on that ranch,” Kennedy said. “I was lucky because he never treated myself or my sister any differently than he treated my brother in terms of how we would contribute to the work on the ranch.”
But what was the normal chores routine for Kennedy and her siblings as kids struck others as an oddity, some of whom would ask her father, “Why are the girls out there working?”
“Luckily I had a dad who not only stuck up for how necessary it was for us to do that work but also how exceptional we were at it,” Kennedy said. “And that truly set the tone for my career.”
And Kennedy’s career arc has been noteworthy, first as a software developer following her information technology studies at Utah State University, which led to an opportunity about a decade ago to join a little known Bay Area software startup called Degreed, an upskilling platform that helps individuals and organizations build professional skills and certify expertise.
Kennedy was employee No. 1 at Degreed, but headed up the ranks as the company grew, eventually rising to become the company’s president and chief experience officer. And along the way, she helped grow Degreed from a fledgling effort to a $1.5 billion company.
Kennedy said one of the opportunities she had in helping to scale up Degreed was participating in multiple funding rounds, efforts that generated over $400 million in venture investment, and learning that the relevance and importance of those venture backers went much deeper than the big checks they wrote.
“I was lucky to be a part of every fundraising process,” Kennedy said. “I actually really enjoyed it and loved interacting with (the investors). I saw how they operated and the value they brought ... and I just fell in love with the work that they did and wanted to, in whatever capacity I could, emulate that work.”
That love was on Kennedy’s mind when she met with venture capital firm Kickstart Seed Fund in 2019. But while Kennedy wasn’t quite ready to pivot from her role in building a venture-backed company to the investor side of the equation, the seed had been planted, and a few years later she was ready for a new chapter.
When Kickstart announced Kennedy joining the firm as a general partner in early August, company founder and general partner Gavin Christensen said her experience, passion and grit were a perfect fit for the successful pre-seed/seed stage investment group.
“Kat has an unmatched skill set when it comes to scaling companies,” Christensen said in a press statement about the hiring news. “Her gritty, entrepreneurial spirit and passion for helping other entrepreneurs was exactly what we have been looking for.
“Kat’s addition allows us to scale at a time when so many venture firms are pulling back, not only on investments but on building their teams. Kat truly embodies everything we value here, and we’re excited to see what the future holds with her perspective on board.”
Kennedy also highlighted her feelings about Kickstart being the perfect match for the kind of investor role she wants to fill.
“What I love about Kickstart is their strategy around deploying capital specifically here in the Mountain West and that they also deploy at the earliest, pre-seed and seed stage,” Kennedy said. “I believed the empathy I could bring would be most valuable at the early stage.”
Kennedy is also bullish on Kickstart’s founder-first mentality when it comes to the companies the firm has chosen to back since it launched in 2008.
“I believe with the right founder and founder team you can make a lot of businesses work,” Kennedy said. “Through my own experience I saw how requisite that was to getting an outcome.
“Because pains will come and down times will come. But if you, as a founder, are relentlessly focused on a certain problem and you have a vision for what the future can be, you’re going to be able to see through those challenging times that will come to any business.”
Kennedy’s experience also exposed her to the diversity and equity challenges that run rife throughout the tech industry, not just in Utah but across the country.
“I have been in so many rooms where I was the only woman,” Kennedy said. “Most of the time, those rooms were quite friendly. But every once in a while there would be bias, whether overt or unconscious, questioning my capabilities or how I had got to that room.”
Kickstart noted in press outreach that Kennedy’s appointment makes her one of just a few female partners in the state. And, despite years of efforts to increase diversity among venture capital decision-makers, a significant gender gap still exists. Women make up only approximately 11% of investing partners at firms in the U.S. and, because venture capitalists play a critical gatekeeping role in deciding whose ideas, products and innovations receive capital, only around 13% of venture capital dollars go to startups with a woman on the founding team.
But Kennedy is ready to be a catalyst for change when it comes to building diversity in the investment/startup ecosystem, and it’s a goal she said is being vigorously supported by Kickstart’s partner group.
“One of the things I want to do in my role now as a general partner is a call to action for a different profile of founders to come in and pitch,” Kennedy said. “There may have been some hesitancy because they didn’t see someone who looked like them on the other side of the table.”
Kennedy also offered words of encouragement to those starting businesses, or looking to pursue investment careers, that fall outside the white, male-dominated demographic of the startup and tech investment worlds and noted the importance of role models for young entrepreneurs and investors.
“To anyone who is feeling bias ... I would say that it is so important that you push through it,” Kennedy said. “Not only do we need your contribution to the workforce, we need you to set the example that it is possible.
“It is so critical that I not only contribute, but I do so without questioning my own capability. Because that leads to great outcomes for the companies I serve, but also because there are people watching that I may not be aware of and it matters for them to see me in that space.”