Why you should care
Whitnie Low Narcisse knows mentorship is the secret sauce to success. She’s helping you get it.
This July, with her second child due in two weeks, Whitnie Low Narcisse, the 34-year-old VP of talent and community resources at First Round Capital, started planning her funeral. This hyper-organized, 100 percent healthy lady started with a color-coded Google spreadsheet, filling one column with her favorite R&B songs; she wants it to feel like a party. Mary J. Blige’s “Just Fine” topped her playlist. But the guest list gave her more trouble. “I want people I’ve impacted,” she says. “If I’ve ever placed you at a job or connected you with someone who you fell in love with, or touched your life through teaching …” It’s going to be busy in that church.
Narcisse has made a career out of connecting people; in the last year alone she’s matched hundreds of people to mentors. Mentorship’s a word that’s frequently thrown around in Silicon Valley, with everyone from Jack Dorsey to Sheryl Sandberg saying that good mentorship has been critical to their success. Founders who are mentored by high-level entrepreneurs are 33 percent more likely to be successful, according to a report by Endeavor Insights, and 92 percent of small businesses credit good mentorship as key to their companies’ survival, reports data platform Kabbage Inc. But getting connected to the right person isn’t that simple, especially if you lack privilege.
As a San Francisco native, and a proud Asian American, Narcisse is aware of the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots; with rich transplants displacing poorer communities. “Having connections helps bridge the gap,” she says. She believes everyone should have a mentor, “someone looking out for their best interests.” But there’s an art to matching people; she has to balance their role with their experience, scope and scale. Personality matters: Does this mentee need actionable advice or a cheerleader?
Other venture firms have tried cloning her network — the ultimate form of flattery.
Finding good fits is a key part of her job; in 2015, she built First Round’s expert network to match founders with advisers. The following year she launched a mentorship network that paired employees of all levels with relevant mentors — people’s questions range from help with salary negotiations to improving diversity at work. She’s even made two introductions that led to marriages. (She declined to reveal the names in her network, though it does draw from First Round-funded companies like Uber and Warby Parker.)
Her particularness about pairings comes from personal experience; she knows first-hand how impactful a mentor can be. Neither of her parents went to college, and they separated when she was small; she lived in eight different homes before she turned 18. School was her happy place; at 14, she tested into a merit-based high school and signed up “for all the things.”
She was student body president, head of the cheerleading team and on the school council. “It was my communications skills, not my grades, that got me into Boston College,” she says.
Later, she did a stint as a research analyst, and Narcisse’s mentor there poached her when they left, bringing her on as the first recruiter hire for clean energy startup Bloom Energy. After four years, she was ready for a change and signed onto an MBA program, combining it with an internship at First Round Capital. She was fascinated by the venture space. It was fast-moving and experimental and had an energy that equaled her own. They asked a lot of her — which was just how she liked it.
She was tasked with centralizing access to the partners’ contacts; this became the expert network. “One database, one person, one system,” she says; no more emailing every partner whenever a founder wanted help. She was tactical about this; the system had to be future-proof and scalable. She went from intern to VP in five years.
Other venture firms have tried cloning her network — the ultimate form of flattery. But these networks are not truly democratic; after all, you have to be in the inner circle to gain access. And then there’s the scope. “You can’t rely on direct connections alone,” says Yishi Zuo, founder of DeepBench, an expert-matching startup. Anyone can use DeepBench (their fee structure is 30 percent lower than other networks, Zuo says) and their experts span the globe. “It’s more efficient to speak with an expert who knows about your topic,” he says.
As Narcisse developed her networks, founders told her they wanted to be more diverse but didn’t know how. “It’s all about the top of the funnel,” she says. She tackled this two ways. In the micro, by sending founders Boolean strings, a search method that combines keywords with modifiers (example: “engineer” AND “[HBCU name]” AND “python”) to help them identify underrepresented talent for hire on GitHub and LinkedIn, and encouraging them to “hire for potential.” In the macro, by publicly broadcasting the gap — only 11 percent of applicants to First Round Angel Track workshops were women; after tweeting about it, the number rose to 50 percent. “We call out when we don’t have a diverse group — that’s how we fix it,” she says.
Her attention to detail has been noticed. “Some people are starters or finishers; good at getting something going or executing it, but Whitnie has the ability to do both,” says Brett Berson, a partner at First Round Capital. “She makes people feel heard and valued.”
In college, Narcisse says, her nickname was Blowtorch — she’s bright, energetic and unmissable. Her favorite party trick was sleeping; she can nod off in under 90 seconds, no matter the noise. She can still clock off on demand. But she wakes up early; the world is a big place and she has so much more to do.
OZY’s Five Questions with Whitnie Low Narcisse
- What’s your latest Netflix addiction? Ali Wong’s Always Be My Maybe. I’m just so inspired by Asian American representation.
- What’s the last book you listened to? I’m listening to Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead right now.
- What’s something people don’t know about you? I bought my first house when I was 25 years old.
- What’s on your bucket list? To go to Antarctica.
- What can’t you live without? My family.
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Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Narcisse was class president (she was student body president) and that she lived in 10 homes before age 18 (it was eight homes).