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Funding the future

Megan Quinn from Kleiner Perkins speaking at MIT VC Conference

“What’s most interesting to me about the future of technology? Reimagining every human behavior and every human experience through the lens of a mobile device,” declares Megan Quinn, an Investment Partner at Kleiner Perkins, a venture capital firm famous for making early investments in companies like Google and Amazon. Having met her briefly during the MIT Silicon Valley Pitch Trek back in October and been impressed by her experience and knowledge of the digital space, I was thrilled to have an opportunity to interview her. Quinn will be joining us on Friday, Dec. 13 at the MIT VC conference, where venture capitalists, entrepreneurs and students will come together to discuss the intersection of entrepreneurship and venture capital. With years of experience leading product development at Google and Square, Quinn exhibits admirable depth of knowledge and passion for technology. I spoke with Quinn about her thoughts on the future of mobile and personalization, during which she shared her vision for the future of mobile: “We talk a lot about having the world customized around the customer through the smartphone. When you have that experience it feels magical. It feels like you’re carrying the passport to the future with you with everything responding to you and your preferences.”

Mobile, sensors, and big data are central to much of the work being done at MIT. The future of this technology is being developed this very moment in places like the MIT Media Lab to the MIT SENSEable City Lab, with groundbreaking projects that use data from mobile and sensor technology to create solutions that are sustainable and intelligent. MIT startup EcoVent leverages data from sensors in the room combined with programmable vents to help you personalize room temperatures in different rooms. Quinn added, “Companies are enabling you to detect cavities and call a car through your phone. What is particularly interesting to me is how it relates to the environment around us. Your smartphone knows who you are better than your friends and families and because it has all of these sensors it can tailor the experience around you in the real world to match your needs and desires.”

In light of the Engaging Data Conference at MIT where Noam Chomsky discussed the potentially serious consequences of such a connected, data-driven world, I had to ask what Quinn saw in terms of trends for technology companies handling sensitive customer data. Based on her work with technology companies, Quinn replied, “I think we’re seeing applications, products and services get more thoughtful about privacy from the start. In the early days of product and app development there were less savvy consumers. People didn’t understand what they were giving up. Now we have a more savvy consumer base and much more thoughtful developer base. Developers are giving people more options. That is the heart of ensuring privacy is by giving consumers options they understand and languages they understand.”

Given her success working to help build companies and products, Quinn also does a lot to stay on top of trends: “There are three things I do proactively: I read as much as humanly possible — the very first thing I do first thing in the morning is check Twitter. It’s my ongoing stream of data and information that matters to me that I have curated for myself. I also use Flipboard to find things I might not have discovered on my own. I read obsessively and try to understand what smart people who focus on these areas think about these trends to develop a point of view.”

An even better way to stay informed? Constantly meet with interesting people in your industry. Quinn has over 45 meetings with different people in a week, ranging from people who are senior executives from public companies to college students who are trying to learn about how they can get into the startup. She said, “By having all these different touchpoints I learn about different areas of development and innovation that I can’t get through reading. The human interaction piece is very important. Also family, I have four sisters, two older to two younger. We range in age from 36-24. My sisters are my best signals for what apps are resonating with the average consumer.”

How does Quinn think the industry should create more diversity in the ranks of leaders by including more women? As a featured speaker on our Women In VC Panel, she thoughtfully provided her perspective: “You can’t be what you can’t see. It never would have occurred to me a decade ago that venture capital is something I could do as a young woman at age 31 with only product experience. I just looked up and down Sand Hill and didn’t see folks who looked at me. They were by and large men with financial services backgrounds instead of tech and product backgrounds. What is important to me is that we put more women in leadership roles in VC and technology so that the next generation can see these opportunities as an option for themselves. We all need to have people we can aspire to be like.” Disagreeing with the notion that cultivating interest in specific industries for women starts from the bottom in places like middle school and high school to then trickle up through the various ranks of tech companies, Quinn believes the inverse: “I think the best way is to have more women in the later stages of their career that others can aspire to be like. Foundationally, companies need to be more thoughtful in terms of having a more diverse leadership team and board. It’s better for the overall industry and give young women more things to be like. Facts and data show that more diversity leads to stronger companies.”

What are some of the best ways for both men and women to get into technology and help promote more balanced, diverse leadership? According to Quinn, “The most important thing for someone to do starting in the tech industry is [to find] mentors. Tech is an extremely tight knit community especially in the Bay area, parts of Boston, and parts of LA. I think it’s very important for folks who are starting out in the industry [because they] can give them advice and time and be mentors and role models for them. It’s not necessarily even having to find lots of mentors or people who are going to spend hours a week or hours a month with you. It’s about finding people who you look up to.” In fact, Quinn suggests that finding mentors who you admire and developing a mixture of those who you meet with regularly and others who you may simply follow from afar is the best combination. Understanding yourself and what your values and aspirations are ultimately is the most important so that you can find mentors who have achieved success in a way that resonates with you.

Quinn explains, “I observe who has achieved success but had done so in a way that was thoughtful, collaborative and more in tune with how I wanted to develop. I still have people at Google and Square who I meet with once a month. There are also people from afar, for example Marissa Mayer. I’ve known her for a decade since I was a part of her organization for much of my time at Google. I would consider her a friend, but she’s also the CEO of Yahoo! and she has amazing product sense. She has achieved her success in a way that is tremendously inspiring.”

From discovering the next wave of promising technology startups to finding personal mentorship, Quinn provided incredibly thoughtful insights on entrepreneurship and venture capital. To hear her and other venture capitalists and entrepreneurial thought leaders speak at MIT this Friday, sign up at: