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Unicorn rich VC Wesley Chan owes his success to a job on Craigslist washing lab beakers

Wesley Chan often seen in his signature buffalo hat; however, he is perhaps even more famous for his ability to spot unicorns.

During his career in venture capital, he has invested in more than 20 unicorns, including AngelList, Dialpad, Ring, Rocket Lawyer and Sourcegraph. Five of them became decacorns: Canva, Flexport, Guild Education, Plaid and Robinhood. Chan’s was the first check for most of them.

After working at Google in the early days as an engineer, he became an investor. His venture capital pedigree began in the Google Ventures and continued to Felicis Ventures. Now co-founder and managing partner of FPV Ventures, he leads the two-year-old, $450 million venture capital fund with co-founder Pegah Ebrahimi.

And while all of this success has been well documented over the years, his personal journey… not so much. Chan spoke to TechCrunch about the ways in which his life influences his investment in startups.

His story began before he was born, when his family immigrated to the US from Hong Kong in the 1970s.

«They came here with no money, and in fact, when they were growing up, they didn’t even have any,» Chan said. «It’s really fascinating to watch that journey. That they would leave a place where they didn’t speak a word of English and — they still don’t speak English very well — and build a new life because they felt that was what was needed.”

Chan admits he didn’t appreciate his parents’ bravery as much when he was young. However, growing up in a hard-working immigrant family that didn’t have much money taught him how to recognize nuances and be someone who can adapt.

«Now I work in a business where people are very quick to judge you,» Chan said. “Among my LPs, a lot of them don’t have the background that I have. I have to pick up all these tunes of the stuff they’re trained on and be a bit of a chameleon. Then I have to signal to them that they can trust me.»

How he got into MIT even with bad grades

Chan’s parents separated when he was a child, and his mother raised him in a single-parent household. He worked three jobs in high school to support his family, including as a parking lot attendant, waiter, and dishwasher in a biology lab at the California Institute of Technology.

He got a dishwasher job from an ad on Craigslist and remembers taking the 22 bus from his working-class town in Southern California for the 42-minute ride to CalTech, where he would wash glasses.

One day, the manager of the laboratory, a famous genetic biologist Ellen Rothenberg, asked him if he would read a book on biology and laboratory techniques at the college level. Not wanting to lose his job, he did.

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“I barely took biology in high school,” Chan said. “I went to a high school that wasn’t great. It was my fault and my fault that I made it through school. Other kids played sports after school or took PSAT prep courses. Not only did I not have that, but I had to earn for my family.”

Turns out, regardless of his high school experience, Rothenberg saw something in Chan. When one of the PhD students left, Chan was promoted to the lab bench. For the next three years, while going through high school, Chan also did research.

It was in the early 1990s, during the early days of stem cell research. Rothenberg’s team taught the teenage Chan how to do research, and he was later part of a group that discovered a protocol for changing stem cells into red blood cells. He also helped when the team published an academic paper on the protocol.

Then one day Rothenberg, who went to both Harvard and MIT, asked if Chan had thought about college.

«I’m like, oh man, I’ve got to finish this job and make money for my parents, and she’s telling me I should go to school,» he said. «I didn’t know she called the admissions office. When you’re like a poor immigrant student, you don’t understand all these things.”

Harvard ignored her, but MIT did not. And so people get into school with bad grades, Chan said.

«Someone took a chance on me,» he said. “So many people stumble through life and I don’t think I would have had the opportunities I had today if it wasn’t for someone who said, ‘He works hard. He wants to explore.’”

Business lessons from loneliness

So Chan said he is also looking at venture capital. He’s not looking for a person who was a member of a real country club. Instead, he looks for people who have courage and understand what it means to work hard.

«One of the lessons I learned growing up that way was that you have everything to gain and nothing to lose,» Chan said. “It’s hard work, plus a lot of luck. Plus, understanding that there are people who help you open doors to anything.”

He credits Rothenberg’s help for everything that followed.

“If it wasn’t for MIT, I wouldn’t have found Google. If it wasn’t for Google, I wouldn’t have found Google Ventures. «If it wasn’t for Google Ventures, I wouldn’t have found my team at Felicis,» he added. «And if it wasn’t for Felicis, I wouldn’t have Canva and all these amazing companies, many of them run by immigrants or people who have a lot of courage, who grew up in very non-traditional environments like me.»

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To attend MIT, he had to leave everything he knew at home and move to the other coast. There, Chan also worked multiple jobs to pay his way through MIT, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science and later graduated with a master’s degree in engineering.

What was it like to leave your family? In a word, difficult. Having to support himself, Chan couldn’t attend as many classes as he wanted or be like his friends who would go on fun trips during breaks.

However, he looks back on that experience as another thing that prepared him for a life in venture capital.

«When I led the Series A in Canva, which will end up returning 40x plus for that fund, 111 people said no, which made it very lonely to do that deal,» Chan said. «When you’re the guy who can’t go to prom because you have to work, or you can’t go skiing or prom, that’s what I deal with.»

Such omission taught him, “Who cares if the rest of the world laughs at us; you gain an incredible amount of courage and the ability to love being alone and to be okay with being alone.”

After graduation, Chan returned to California and took a job at HP Labs. Then the dot-com crash happened and that business collapsed. But all is not lost. One company was hiring despite the catastrophic environment. And they happened to like the MIT people.

Spoiler, it was Google. Working for Google is not like the movie «The Internship» where Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson enter an internship and spend time competing with other teams on various projects. It was better… for those who loved dogs.

«The dogs were running around and they would run into you and knock you down,» Chan said. «It wasn’t like that movie. You have to go to work.»

He was directed to a project to develop an advertising system, «which was most needed at the time, so I was very lucky.»

Building something the founders want

That began a 15-year career at Google that included seven years in product development and five years as chief of staff to Sergey Brin, who co-founded Google with Larry Page. Chan worked on projects including the Google Toolbar, which became Google Chrome.

«When you’re one of the few companies that made it, it was great,» Chan said. «Larry and Sergey were very nice, always saying, ‘Hey, maybe Wesley brought us something and we should let him experiment with this.’ It would eventually become Google Analytics or Google Ventures.”

He was even one of the people who interviewed Sundar Pichai when he was looking for a job at Google. Apparently, Pichai later became the CEO of Alphabet and Google.

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In 2009, Chan told Google he wanted to start a startup. He joined the company when there were less than 100 people and stayed until there were more than 35,000. He recalls how they used to joke that when you go to a startup, you’re the one buying the toilet paper. Chan’s response was that he didn’t mind buying toilet paper. Instead, they suggested he go help Bill Maris build Google Ventures.

“They told me to go build the product the founders wanted, instead of being the founder whose product the company wanted. And we succeeded,» Chan said. «Google Ventures is still a real company that people want to take money from.»

In addition to overcoming obstacles to get to where he is today, Chan still faces some challenges, especially as a gay Asian in tech. When he first started out in venture capital, older white men ran the companies, sharing workflows on soccer fields or during African safaris, he said.

When you’re someone who wants to build your business flow network, but your experience doesn’t fit the country club mold, it’s tough, he said. And there aren’t many support groups in venture capital for the LGBTQ+ community.

«It’s a challenge to be an outsider in this business,» Chan said. «You have to fight or find different ways to work with the founders so it doesn’t look like you’re lazy or not making progress. If you look at venture capital and the number of successful LGBTQ+ partners, you can count on two hands. There are not many of them, and there are probably 6,000 venture capitalists. Why is the representation so low? And those who are open like us are even fewer.»

That’s why he and Pegah Ebrahimi started FPV Ventures two years ago — to provide an investment style based on their unconventional backgrounds. (Ebrahimi left as the youngest CIO at Morgan Stanley before working in a bunch of top roles at various tech companies. She actually worked on Google’s IPO.)

And the management partners do this with the support of charities and foundations. Many of the founders the company works with «care very much about making good people money,» Chan said.

“Our founders are underrepresented minorities or women, and a really fascinating theme that I keep hearing is that they feel misunderstood by people,” Chan said. “We find founders who have a desire to succeed and have this incredible combination of humility and success. They also make sure all their people are taken care of.”

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