Catharine Dockery is the founding partner at Vice Ventures
Catharine Dockery is the founding partner at Vice Ventures, a seed-stage venture capital fund conquering stigmas by investing in companies operating in historically “bad” vice industries — non-traditional verticals including, cannabis, alcohol, CBD, e-sports, addiction recovery, sextech, and others.
In 2018 Catharine was raising capital for Alix Peabody’s wine startup, Bev, when time and time again she came across investors that had a vice clause: to manage money for NGOs and foundations, many investors pledge to avoid investing in companies dealing with alcohol, cannabis, nicotine, gambling, and sex.
This sparked Catharine’s curiosity and interest, so she started looking for a fund that was taking advantage of the tremendous market opportunity that comes with investing in the vice industries. Instead, she found herself hearing over and over: “we love the space but can't invest in that because of vice clauses."
As Forbes magazine wrote: “rather than an obstacle, Dockery saw an opportunity.” A true visionary, she set out to find long-term partners and sold her New York apartment to launch her fund Vice Ventures.
Since January of 2019, they’ve backed amazing startups like Recess (sparkling water infused with hemp extract and adaptogens for balance and clarity), Lucy (a cleaner nicotine alternative), Maude (my favorite! A modern sexual wellness company built on quality, simplicity, and inclusivity) and more!
Before founding Vice Ventures, Catharine was an early member of the digitally native vertical brands M&A team at Walmart eCommerce, a position she took after managing a prominent founder’s personal venture investments and acting as his personal Chief of Staff.
I had the incredible honor of asking a few questions to Catharine about founding Vice Ventures, the Young VC Mentorship program, key traits she looks for in founders, and more!
After realizing the incredible market opportunity, when or how did you decide to take the courageous leap to start Vice Ventures?
The decision was anything but immediate. I actually spent a ton of time trying to find people going after this very opportunity, and if I'd found a fund with a thesis or strategy that was compatible, it would have been very possible for me to go work there. Instead, the repetition of the "we love the space but can't invest in that because of vice clauses" was so consistent that it really reinforced to me how much opportunity there was in the space. If I had to go head-to-head against well funded and respected VCs to execute the thesis, that would have dramatically altered both the quality of our deal flow and our access to capital.
What are some of the first steps you took to make Vice Ventures a reality?
Step 0 was finding partners who I felt could grow with us in the long term, such as our incredible legal counsel (Luke Bagley at Cooley). After that, we looked to validate the thesis in ways that could demonstrate our ability to scale the concept. SPVs proved especially useful because they were a great way to extend my network in multiple directions - we started attracting deal flow in the space, finding investors who connected with the thesis and investment strategy, and adding to existing knowledge in vice verticals.
Some of the Vice investments: Maude, Recess, and Lucy.
I love that one of your goals is to close the gender gap in the VC world (also very near and dear to my heart). How did the Young VC Mentorship Program idea come about?
The Young VC Mentorship Program really began out of some negative experiences we had with other funds and investors, who I won't name. VC can be a very clubby sort of world, with many investors coming from banking or finance backgrounds, and can feel like an impossible mountain to climb as a young individual starting a career. Many of the successes I've had in my career came directly from people who took the time to help me without the expectation of anything in return - people like Marc Andreessen and Bradley Tusk - and I very much wanted to pay that forward in a way that focused on building a venture community that's more inclusive, collegial, and nurturing. We had incredible success with the first pairings, and look forward to continuing the program this year as well.
Although this number has decreased even further due to the pandemic, less than 3% of VC funding goes to women founders, what would your advice for founders seeking investment be?
My advice for female founders seeking investment would be twofold. The first would be to tailor your pitch based on your audience. Many investors don't want to hear that they should invest in you because you're female. Is it good for the community to invest in women? Absolutely. But as an investor whose primary goal is to produce investor returns, I first need to hear why your company is an exceptional investment. We don't approach these issues with quotas at Vice Ventures, and I'm not going to invest in you just to check a box. If you focus too much in your pitch on the fact that you're a female founder, for example, that's a sign to me that you haven't done your homework on the factors that matter most to me. My second bit of advice would be to be outwardly confident. Female founders may receive less funding statistically, but it would be crazy to think that female-led companies were less likely to succeed if properly funded. As a founder, you've made a massive bet on yourself, and the name of the game is finding investors to join you on the bet. Focus as much as possible on your strengths and build a clear narrative on how they're going to deliver success.
What are some key traits/characteristics you look for in investments?
Starting from our primary goal of delivering returns, we're looking first and foremost for companies which have the opportunity to grow quickly enough to produce VC-level returns and then deliver exits after doing so. Obviously, as well, we're really only focused on companies in the Vice space - if you're doing something else, we might be able to make investor intros or invest personally, but we're not writing you a check from the fund unless you match our thesis. Founders and leadership are also incredibly important, especially so for us because we look to have close collaboration from the start. An important aspect of the thesis is our domain-specific knowledge, so we love when founders have a vision for how we can contribute towards explosive growth. We invest at such an early stage that we want to feel confident in a multi-year partnership going forward.