Himalaya Rao-Potlapally: The Venture Capitalist Making Space for Underrepresented Founders

Himalaya Rao-Potlapally: The Venture Capitalist Making Space for Underrepresented Founders

Himalaya Rao-Potlapally, Managing Director and the General Partner of The BFM Fund, is a leader in venture capital focused on elevating diverse founders. Himalaya is also co-Executive Director of Venture Partners, a nonprofit training people from diverse backgrounds to become decision-makers in the capital allocation industry. Himalaya has dedicated her life to creating positive change by opening doors for underrepresented business owners.   

With passion, persistence, and an innovative mindset, women from diverse backgrounds, like Himalaya, can rise to leadership positions in male-dominated industries like finance and technology.   

A Unique Path to Venture Capital  

Himalaya grew up in a working-class Indian immigrant family. Her parents worked hard but often faced discrimination due to their accents and cultural differences. This ingrained in Himalaya a strong sense of social justice and a desire to help those from marginalized communities get access to resources and opportunities.  

During and after earning a master's degree in social work, Himalaya worked as a Youth Therapist and School Social Worker in New York City and the South Bronx. While she found great satisfaction in working directly with individuals and families, she increasingly felt frustrated by the persistent systemic issues that underlay many of her clients' challenges. "I was helping people," she reflected, "but I wasn't necessarily addressing the root causes of the issues they came to me with." This frustration led Himalaya to a realization: she wanted to be proactive and create preventative change on a broader scale.  

To proactively address the issues she saw in her community, Himalaya started working with nonprofits and for-profit organizations, helping them improve their services and operations. This consulting work led her to become a consultant, even though she hadn't initially planned on that career path. She saw an opportunity to make a difference by helping organizations become more effective in preventing issues rather than just reacting to them.  

As she continued consulting and honing her skills, Himalaya stumbled upon the world of entrepreneurship and venture capital during her MBA program. She took a course in entrepreneurship and realized that her previous experiences as an entrepreneur, including running a catering business to make ends meet during her social work days, aligned with the principles of entrepreneurship. "I realized all of my conceptions around entrepreneurship were incorrect; growing up in my family and in my culture-- entrepreneurship was something we saw only others do after having a successful corporate career," she explained.  

She came to understand that entrepreneurship was not confined to seasoned retirees but instead to individuals who started small businesses and learned as they went along—just as she had done throughout her life.  

While pursuing her MBA, she started a company to test out what she was learning. That's when someone suggested she look into venture capital funding. Intrigued, Himalaya sought experience at her university's angel investment fund to learn more. What she discovered shocked her. "The majority of people that I'm working alongside are all white, all come from affluent backgrounds, and the people that we're evaluating are also mostly white and affluent," Himalaya recalls.  

Even when people of color pitched, Himalaya noticed they weren't given the same consideration. "But this wasn't due to any merit or any fundamental differences in the business ideas, but rather how they were presenting their pitch and progress," she says. This newfound perspective sparked her interest in venture capital, where she saw an opportunity to bridge the gap between business and social work. Her goal was to bring more knowledge and capital to underrepresented communities, including people of color and those from rural backgrounds, who often lack access to these resources.   

Over the next few years, Himalaya worked at seven different venture capital funds, trying to understand the industry, and launched two economic development funds before starting The BFM Fund, which focuses on investing in diverse founders.  

Fueling Black Innovation  

The BFM Fund, a seed-stage venture capital firm, stands out in its dedication to Black and innovative entrepreneurs. At its core, The BFM Fund operates with a community-centric ethos, recognizing that access to capital, information, and expertise is often the most significant hurdle for Black founders.  

The BFM Fund doesn't just provide funding; it assembles a robust network of investors and offers guidance from world-class mentors, all fostered within a supportive community. What sets The BFM Fund apart is its commitment to a long-term partnership. They're not just financial backers but steadfast allies in the journey to success.  

In Himalaya's words, "Everyone on The BFM Fund team has extensive experience working with entrepreneurs through prior funds, accelerators, and mentorship. We try to use those insights to continually improve our process so we can build intentionality into every step of our investment criteria and post-investment support." The BFM Fund is not just an investment vehicle; it's a driving force behind a more inclusive and equitable future in entrepreneurship.  

Investment Strategy and Criteria  

The BFM Fund has a well-defined investment strategy designed to address the unique challenges faced by Black founders. They invest at the seed stage, a key area where Black founders continuously face pattern-matching bias and end up with less than 1% of deployed venture funds. However, their involvement doesn't end there.  

Himalaya and her team partner with industry-specific venture firms for subsequent funding rounds. They identify investors who have a track record of success in scaling and exiting companies within specific industries. By helping Black-led companies secure funding from these industry experts at the next stage of funding, The BFM Fund's strategy increases a diverse founder's ability to scale and achieve successful exits.  

The BFM Fund's approach is about more than just providing capital; it's about providing access, mentorship, and opportunities that have historically been denied to underrepresented founders.  

Promoting Diversity in Venture Capital  

In addition to her role at The BFM Fund, Himalaya serves as the co-Executive Director of Venture Partners, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing diversity in venture capital. The nonprofit was launched in partnership with VertueLab and NVCA's Venture Forward/VC University, with their most recent cohort going through a partnership with San Jose State University.  

Venture Partners is on a mission to democratize venture capital by nurturing a diverse talent pipeline, encompassing everyone from budding investors to future fund managers. Venture Partners runs a fellowship program that provides education and mentorship to individuals interested in venture capital. By supporting and empowering emerging investors from underrepresented backgrounds, Himalaya and the Venture Partners team aim to create a more inclusive and representative venture capital landscape.  

Diverse Pathways to Success  

For those looking to start their own venture capital fund, especially individuals from underrepresented backgrounds, Himalaya offers several valuable pieces of advice. First, take the time to get to know the ins and outs of venture capital.  

Secondly, be prepared for the financial costs associated with starting a fund. This is one of the biggest pieces of advice that she wishes someone had given her.   

Lastly, remember that venture capital is all about the long game. Success isn't just about making quick bucks; it's about making a lasting impact on the entrepreneurial landscape.   

Himalaya advises women of color, 'Keep going and figure out different ways to make it work.' That persistence and creativity have been the hallmark of her own inspiring journey from a Social Worker to a Venture Capital trailblazer. As Himalaya continues to open doors for diverse founders, she's paving the way for the innovators of tomorrow.

The Editorial Team

The Editorial Team

Hi there, we're the editorial team at WomELLE. We offer resources for business and career success, promote early education and development, and create a supportive environment for women. Our magazine, "WomLEAD," is here to help you thrive both professionally and personally.

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