Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash

On being a Kauffman Fellow

Quona Capital Principal Varun Malhotra knows his way around fintech, having worked in venture investing for more than a decade. Most recently, of course, he’s been critical to Quona’s investment activities and portfolio development in Asia, but prior to that he worked with Chennai-based impact investor Lok Capital. Earlier in his career, he also worked with Oak Investment Partners and D.E. Shaw. This spring, he was selected for the prestigious Kauffman Fellows program. We sat down with Varun to learn more about this latest adventure.

Tell me about the Kauffman Fellows program. At a high level, what is it?

The Kauffman Fellows program is a one-of-its-kind venture capital-focused leadership development program. In a nutshell, the belief is that better people make better investors. So the focus is a fair bit on self-discovery and assessment, understanding one’s zone of genius to double down on what one is best at, while developing core behavioural skills required to be a better partner to founders.

How has COVID impacted what the program used to be, and what it is for this group of fellows?

Typically, the Kauffman Fellows program is a 2-year program spread over 8 quarterly in-person modules where one gets to hear from VC veterans, founders, and of course, the peer group. Given the current circumstances, the first 2 modules are being hosted virtually, with everyone waiting to get back to the in-person set-up as soon as travel permits. The entire program is predicated on a strong community and peer-led learning experience. I was quite uncertain how this could be re-created virtually, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised. Turns out, all it takes is shared intent and an environment of trust, both of which the Kauffman team is very adept at curating.

You’ve been at this for a quarter so far. What have you learned?

So much! Strengths, blind spots, how to navigate complex dynamics with founders or even within the firm. It has been quite a whirlwind, honestly. The first module was very purposeful in providing a clear mirror. We also had a few remarkable speakers from the venture world speak of their experiences in building venture firms.

…And what have you learned that you “didn’t know that you didn’t know” before this?

It’s been almost startling to see how common the “imposter syndrome” is across founders and VCs.

It’s also made me realize that in venture, as in life, there’s no playbook; we constantly make high-impact decisions with limited information and in uncertain situations. And amidst the media frenzy of projecting “an “image” it’s easy to start second-guessing yourself. Conviction and intuition are the most reliable tools — all areas that the program focuses on sharpening.

How do your venture experiences contrast with those of the rest of your group of 60? Do you do things as a large group, or break out into sub-groups? What’s the time zone dynamic like?

It’s a very diverse class — there are more than 15 countries represented among us, and around 30% are founders of venture firms. The mix is very helpful, as the program aims to develop the skill-set of leading a VC fund, as opposed to investing for one.

Given the breadth of time zones involved, someone’s always up at 3am! But the entire Class has been super committed and present — no cell phones, no Board calls, no emails. Happy hours are actually more fun with a mix of morning coffees and wine!

Did you have a list of things you wanted to gain from the program when you applied? Has that changed since you started? Has that changed generally for you since COVID changed everything?

Absolutely! Being the best partner to founders was top of list. I’ve found myself working very closely with several of our founders not just as a Board member, but also shaping parts of the business. It’s the part of my job I enjoy the most and I’d love to continue developing softer aspects of my personality that help bring about the best outcomes for our portfolio companies.

Having been part of the founding team at Quona, I feel we have come a long way in delivering on our mission of bringing fintech to create meaningful impact. I am most excited to see what lies ahead for us (and hope to lead part of the way!). As part of the program, a key objective for me would be to learn how we can expand the platform at Quona to further our mission.

Who are some people you admire professionally or personally who are also alums of the program?

The Kauffman Fellows alumni base is quite stellar, we’re now in the 25th year of the program. I really admire Ashish Gupta — he’s been a founder in his early career and built a renowned venture firm in India way back in 2005 when the Indian venture ecosystem was in its infancy. He’s one of the most respected VCs in India, by founders and peer investors alike. Not sure how, but I have convinced him to be one of my mentors through the KFP. I’m excited to learn a lot from all three of my mentors, in fact — Ashish, Jonathan and Sham.

Varun Malhotra is Principal with Quona Capital, where he focuses on Quona’s investment activities and portfolio in South and Southeast Asia. Select investments include IndiaMART (IPO), Coins.ph (M&A: Go-Jek), SMECorner, CreditMantri, KoinWorks and Fisdom.

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Quona Capital

Quona Capital

Quona Capital is a venture firm specializing in financial technology for inclusion in emerging markets. Learn more at quona.com.