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Sona Wang of Ceres Venture Fund Discusses Careers in Venture Capital

They were once referred to as “angels”: wealthy families, like the Rockefellers and the Vanderbilts, who funded small businesses that lacked the resources to apply for bank loans.

Today, venture capitalists are known as the risk-taking financiers whose backing can lift entrepreneurs to greatness — for those worthy enough to make the cut. Extremely selective, they invest in innovative concepts or technologies with high growth potential, becoming part-owners of the companies in hopes their investments will pay off.

The world of venture capital is highly competitive, extremely risky, and overwhelmingly male. But that hasn’t stopped Sona Wang, managing director of Ceres Venture Fund L.P., from climbing to the top of the ranks.

Sona Wang, managing director of Ceres Venture Fund L.P.Wang, a Northwestern University trustee who has twice been named to Crain’s Chicago Business’ list of “Chicago’s 100 Most Influential Women,” spoke to McCormick students February 29 in a presentation hosted by the student group Society of Women Engineers.  In her talk, “Investing in the Future: Careers in Venture Capital,” Wang discussed the field of venture capital and her personal background, which includes an MBA from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Business and a bachelor’s in industrial engineering from Stanford University.

“The other engineers would affectionately call us ‘imaginary engineers,’” she said of her undergraduate degree. “But I.E. was about the best training I could have had for my career.”

After receiving her BS in 1980, Wang went to work as an efficiency expert at the Intel, where she produced a database of policies and procedures for all processes undertaken at the corporation. She received her MBA from Kellogg and later joined the Venture Capital Division at Allstate Insurance Company, a division that has since closed.

What she found in the venture capital world was a highly male-dominated field with a strong “boys’ club” mentality, Wang said.

“It was nothing close to a level playing field … That was really challenging,” she said. “What worked for me was to keep my head down and stick to the discipline of what I learned as an engineer.”

She has stuck to that discipline throughout her 20-plus year venture capital career. For every entrepreneur that Wang backs, she said, she must sort through hundreds of proposals. For each, she asks herself two questions — How good is the team? And how innovative is their technology? — which form the basis for her decision-making.

 “Great engineers solve problems in create and innovative ways, and they solve meaningful problems,” she added. “That’s what I try to do as a venture capitalist is solve problems.”