There can be little doubt that today the proptech industry is a male dominated sector. To bring you something a little bit different we've teamed up with the team at PRODA to bring you the perspective of some powerful women in the industry.
Devon Zimmerling is a Partner and VC Investor at Cell Capital Partners. In the first of the series, Manisha Veja spoke to her about her experience in the industry as a VC...
MV: Can you tell us a little bit about your professional journey, from the beginning of your career, to now being a partner, with Cell Capital Partners?
DZ: I began my career as an investment advisor at Cambridge Associates in Boston and then London, when I eventually decided I wanted to move from investing into the funds to investing for the funds. I did my MBA at London Business School and spent several months with DN Capital, the early-stage VC fund that seeded Purple Bricks in 2014. I then ended up working on the investment team for a PropTech company in NYC. This PropTech experience helped me secure a role at Pi Labs.
2 years after being an Investment Manager at Pi Labs, an opportunity came up to help build Cell Capital as a Founding Partner, and I leapt at the chance. The role allows me to leverage my background working with family offices as well as my investment experience, whilst also allowing me to expand my investment remit beyond just PropTech, which has been very valuable.
MV: What does a ‘typical’ day look like for you, at Cell Capital Partners?
DZ: As one of the lead investors, the bulk of my time is spent reviewing pitch decks, speaking with companies, and progressing with due diligence. We are a new fund with only a few investments so far, so most of my time is spent on these new investments. I also spend some time checking in with our portfolio companies and providing advice and assistance where needed.
As a partner, I’m involved in all aspects of the business too, so in addition to the investment work, I also spend time speaking with our investors. My day consists of a lot of conversations with my partners about high level strategic decisions.
MV: Have you also noticed a dearth of females, both as investors, as well as leaders of start-ups as a private investment office with a focus on PropTech? And if so, why do you believe this is?
DZ: My perspective is a bit biased perhaps because I spent a significant portion of my PropTech-specific time at Pi Labs, which was a primarily female team. There is also such a strong network among generalist female VCs, generalist female founders, and women in PropTech via several communities.
However, when we look at the numbers, there is a huge imbalance and I think one of the leading reasons for this lack of diversity in investors and VC-backed start-ups is the unconscious bias in decision makers; both when it comes to hiring, as well as investing in people, who are either like themselves, or that remind them of other successful people that they have seen in those roles. Which is why I feel it’s important to reach out and hire beyond your immediate network.
MV: Do you feel any pressure as a female investor in the PropTech industry, particularly where there is such a small number of females in similar positions?
DZ: I haven’t felt any pressure per se, but I do want to be a good role model for other women looking to build their careers in VC or in PropTech. This is why I try to make time to speak to people who reach out for advice. Although my capacity for this ebbs and flows, I think it is important to reply to those who have taken the time out to write to me and I make a conscious effort to offer advice to women, but also men who reach out too.
MV: What is the biggest challenge that you have faced, if any, as a female in the industry?
DZ: I have been very fortunate to have worked in quite female-friendly places with supportive and respectful colleagues. I am also an eternal optimist that loves to seek silver linings in any situation. I do think a lot in life is down to framing and perspectives—when I am the only woman at an event or speaking on a panel, I embrace that as an opportunity to stand out and be memorable rather than cower or feel awkward.
Moving from Pi Labs where I was surrounded by many women, to Cell where I’m often the only woman in the room has made me a bit more conscious of this. I have occasionally been in meetings with one of my male colleagues where the investors or the founders speak far more to them and effectively ignore me. Again, I’m fortunate to work with such great partners because they make an effort to include me and highlight my expertise.
MV: The power of PropTech is undeniable and the industry is considered one of the fastest growing in the world, when the world overcomes the current uncertainties that we are all facing together, what do you believe the future will look like for PropTech?
DV: I think the Covid crisis has really accelerated certain trends that were already under way. One of the key trends being health and well-being. I invested in 720 Degrees whilst at Pi Labs, which is an indoor environmental quality solution being used in office buildings across several European countries. Part of our investment thesis centred around the emerging realisation of the connection between mental health and buildings, and we have continued to see that theme grow. I was actually just recommended a book published recently on the theme of ‘Healthy Buildings’ which I have not yet read but plan to do so soon.
Commercial Real Estate will also present a number of opportunities for innovation, but the crisis has also highlighted the fragility of some of the flexible working arrangements that have been a growing trend. It will be interesting to see what comes of this. In crisis there is opportunity, and this crisis has shaken up the PropTech world. We’re now seeing an accelerated evolution.
MV: What excites you the most when you think of the new future of PropTech that we are heading towards?
DZ: There is an article which I referenced in a recent presentation on how Proptech can be classified into 3 waves, per Modernizing Real Estate post by Louisa Xu:
1) Microsoft Era (1980-2000): bulky back office software solutions, eg Argus, Yardi
2) Proptech 1.0 (2001-2007): Online aggregators, eg Zoopla
3) Proptech 2.0 (2008- present): user experience and integrated supply chains, eg Airbnb, Opendoor.
Going forward, many of us are looking at ‘Proptech 3.0’: the emergence of deep tech and an integration of sustainability and health and well-being. There are some really exciting use cases in PropTech for deep tech innovations like AI, ML (machine learning), computer vision, and robotics.
MV: Finally, what advice would you give to any women who may be considering a career in PropTech; as a PropTech investor, to a PropTech founder and everything in between, but feel there may be a barrier due to preconceived notions regarding gender?
DZ: I think it’s important to be realistic that you may find yourself as the only woman in the room, and you need to embrace that rather than let it bother you. It’s important to have a thick skin and be resilient, but that’s important in virtually every career. Regarding gender as a barrier, I think it’s only a relevant barrier if you let it be. Try not to go in with a chip on your shoulder, take things in your stride, don’t let it be an insecurity, and it shouldn’t hold you back.
This interview first appeared on PRODA.ai