Once a Minnesotan, always a Minnesotan. Every issue, Starting Up North interviews someone in the startup world who grew up or attended college in Minnesota but no longer calls it home. We spoke with New York–based venture capitalist Soraya Darabi about her career, her early-stage venture fund and her desire to create an impact.
“It’s almost as if every job I’ve ever had, whether it was working as a Starbucks barista in Minneapolis or as a writer out of college, every job has led to this moment.”
Soraya Darabi is discussing her varied career journey and current role in venture capital. When she was 17, she left Minnesota to attend college with the goal of becoming a journalist. She parlayed that initial aim into careers in digital strategy, social geo-location, sustainable clothing, and health and wellness. After founding two different companies, today, she’s Cofounder and General Partner at Trail Mix Ventures, a venture capital fund based in New York City and Chicago, and she continues to value each moment that brought her along this path.
“Every experience is about building grit. Successes and failures are dots along the way, that help you think through who you want to be in this world, what kind of impact you want to make, what kind of legacy would you like to leave behind. My favorite quote is from the designer Eames and I have this quote framed in my home. It says “Eventually everything connects – people, ideas, objects. The quality of the connections is the key to quality.””
Darabi’s journey began in Pennsylvania, but her time in Minnesota began at age 12. She landed in Roseville, MN, where she attended the Parkview Center School for a year before transferring over to The Blake School in the ninth grade, which is where we first met. At the time, Darabi was living with her mother, and her grandmother, a woman who had a clear impact on her life.
“I was inspired by very strong women in my family,” Darabi says. “I was raised by a single mother and lived with my grandmother in high school, so I’ve always been around industrious women and wanted to break the norm and lead by example.”
She took that industrious work ethic with her when she attended Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. During her time at school, still intent on becoming a journalist, she landed an internship at the Washington Post. It was there that she first fell in love with digital media.
After graduation, Darabi moved to New York and began working in marketing and communications for Conde Nast before moving over to the New York Times. As the Times Manager, Digital Partnerships and Social-Media Marketing, she worked day in and day out with her heroes and even taught them how to use then-burgeoning social media platforms. It was through this job that Darabi got a taste of the world of tech entrepreneurship. After several years she calls “very happy,” she decided to officially jump ship and enter the world of startups.
Darabi admits to a few moments of panic as she moved from a legacy brand to a significantly riskier venture, but, she says, “I was in love with entrepreneurism and startups, and it felt right.”
She became a cofounder at Foodspotting, a geo-local visual food app that won Wired and Apple’s App of the Year awards, and eventually sold to Open Table in 2011. She later partnered with fellow Minnesotan Maxine Bédat in late 2012 to launch Zady, a sustainable clothing company focused on telling the true and transparent story of how things are made.
Prior to that venture, Darabi began to advise businesses and angel invest in her spare time, taking an approach that has, so far, served her well. “For me, advising and angel investing was about investing into companies that I thought were onto something, but a bit outside of the traditional venture norm,” she says. After stepping back from her second venture in early 2016, eventually Darabi decided to focus all of her time on investing. Looking at the companies she had personally invested in, she began to see patterns. The most successful ones, companies including Casper (a mattress business now valued at more than 1 billion dollars), Hungryroot and Figs touched various elements of health and wellness.
“I got together with my business partners and together we decided health and wellness was a bigger space than LPs & VCs gave it credit for. CB Insights calls the Wellness industry a 4.2 trillion dollar market alone. If you layer in the “Care Economy” (everything from Pet Care to Elder care) you are now topping 11 trillion dollars globally. So, we decided an opportunity exists to lean in to companies addressing the future of work, health and wellness, and the care economy at their earliest infancy. In essence, we give businesses initial capital and time and resources to help them get off the ground. A large cohort of our LPs are founders themselves. Basically, we are the hands-on VCs I always hoped of having in former ventures.”
Darabi, along with co founder and fellow general partner Marina Hadjipateras formed Trail Mix Ventures in 2017 and closed a debut fund of $12 million in 2018. They concentrate on early stage ventures (pre-seed and seed financing).
All of the companies that Trail Mix invests in fall into one of three categories: the care economy, which includes anything touching how we care; the future of work, which includes flexible work options, healthier work environments, collaborative team tools and more; and frontier health, the next generation of health care, anything that’s reinventing an existing health and wellness model and making it easier and more modern. This fund focus aligns with the impact that Darabi wants to make.
“Maybe it took me until my 30s to realize that I wanted to invest in impactful businesses. I wanted to help women and minority founders receive financing.” She says, “I wanted to work in health and wellness, which is an industry my mother and sister have been in for decades. All of these learnings took a long time to form, but now that they have, everything feels really natural.”
This focus has resulted in early investments for Trail Mix in companies including The Wing, a work and community space designed for women that started in New York. “The Wing would be an example of all three of our categories at once,” says Darabi. “It’s focusing on the care economy—helping women succeed, taking care of others. It’s the future of work—women who want a different type of co-working space, a different type of social club where they can advance their careers but also enjoy the experience. Then, in terms of frontier health, we think The Wing is actually solving some mental health issues. People who are part of clusters or communities tend to be less lonely and happier in their life on a day to day basis.” This approach to investment appears to be paying off, with The Wing having raised more than $115 million to date from backers including Sequoia, Kleiner Perkins, NEA and WeWork.
Many of Trail Mix’s investments are in companies, like The Wing, founded on the coasts. Based in New York, Darabi admits it’s not easy to stay consistently on top of what’s going on in the rest of the country. But she and her team have set up active means to try to do so. Together, the partners do 60+ deal flow calls per month with venture funds from all over the US. They share companies they’ve seen closer to home while learning about companies based outside of New York.
Discussing non-coastal startups, it becomes clear that Darabi is proud of her Minnesotan roots, happily talking about her investment in Remooble, which is based in Maple Grove, MN, and creates safe, plant-based versions of common corrosive items like whiteboard cleaner and paint strippers. She encourages other northern entrepreneurs who are interested to reach out to Trail Mix directly via email@example.com.
“We’d love to hear from them!” Darabi says with genuine emotion and warmth. “Send a brief note about your business, a deck and a model, and we’ll take it from there.”
Darabi maintains connections to Minnesota outside of business as well. “I find myself naturally gravitating towards Minnesotans in New York, and I still stay in really close touch with mainly my girlfriends from high school because for me they offer a little dose of sanity in a world like New York. Lately, I’ve co-invested with Minnesotans on deals too. Henry the Dentist, for instance, a mobile dentistry we backed, was funded with fellow Minnesotan and Blake Bear Andrew Mitchell.”
What’s next for Darabi is more of the same but better—continuing to expand the Trail Mix portfolio, helping to grow their current companies, and working to promote and advocate for a diverse startup and investment community through groups like All Raise and her own firm’s focus on elevating diverse founders.
Darabi says the fact that women receive only 2.2% of venture funding is disgraceful, but she is optimistic that this can change in the future. “I care very passionately about bringing more dollars to women in venture, about helping knight more women in venture capital, because I think women make pretty interesting investors and founders.” Darabi is proof of that herself.