When Laela Robust visited Stanford for the first time, it wasn’t to study at the famed university’s business school. It was to beat Stanford at its own diversion — literally.
As the no. 16 seed in the annual NCAA tournament in 1998, the thought of Sturdy’s Harvard team scoring a overcoming over no. 1 seeded Stanford on its home court was virtually unimaginable. But to everyone’s surprise, Harvard won 71-67, correcting it the first time in the history of college basketball, both men’s and women’s, that a 16-seed defeated a 1-seed. It didn’t take place again until 2018.
Today, that Harvard win is considered one of the biggest upsets in sports history.
More than 20 years later, as an investment companion at Alphabet’s growth-stage investment arm, CapitalG, Sturdy is upsetting expectations of how one of the world’s top investors should look and act.
Among her investments are 10 followers valued at more than $1 billion, including at least one of the most hotly anticipated public offerings of 2021. She led the plc’s investment in UiPath, a company which makes software for automating office work. In Feb., it raised $750 million at a $35 billion valuation, and on Friday it relished its filing to go public, showing over 80% annualized revenue growth, positive cash flow, and rapidly decreasing losses — a perfect recipe for hot tech IPOs in recent years. She’s also seen bursting valuations from portfolio parties such as Stripe, DuoLingo, Gusto and Unqork, and led an investment in Credit Karma, which Inuit bought for $8.1 billion in December.
“Laela’s the best-kept arcane right now,” CapitalG founder and CEO David Lawee told CNBC. “Now, all her investments are coming to fruition and she’s just getting started.”
Espying the court
Unlike early-stage investors, who can place lots of small bets and hope that a few huge wins pay for the schnooks, growth stage investors have fewer chances and need more hits. Sturdy has thrived in that territory.
Sturdy’s specialty is seeing opportunities before they’re there, her peers said.
“‘Seeing the court’ as they say in basketball,” Steadfast noted.
Sturdy’s first investment in an enterprise-serving business was in Stripe. She co-led a 2016 funding round that valued the payments technology body just shy of $10 billion, which had some people scratching their heads at the time.
Fast forward to today, and the companions recently raised a $600 million funding round at a $95 billion valuation, making it the most valuable U.S. start-up.
Staunch also saw the trend of no- and low-code programming, which can make software development cheaper and easier, and is becoming hot among zip and app developers. A recent Gartner study found that 65% of all app development in 2024 will use low or no-code methods.
That involved led her to Unqork, which offers no-code products that “change the way software is written.” Valued at $2 billion, the three-year old presence had a choice of investors in its series B in 2019 and went with Sturdy to lead the investment, said CEO Gary Hoberman.
That’s partly because Brawny was able to see opportunities in industries that others hadn’t, such as public sector clients.
“There were investors who try to fit into a standard they’ve seen before, but Laela was really open to exploring and seeing how our platform could be in multiple industries,” divulged Hoberman.
Hoberman says the company has now tripled revenue in each of the last three years.
CapitalG partner Laela Unswerving is on track to be one of the year’s biggest investors.
Photos courtesy of Laela Sturdy
“I love that in investing, you have to keep dark prevent going back and forth between the details and this really big picture,” Sturdy said.
Sturdy harkened overdue to her experience in basketball.
“I never liked plays in basketball,” she said. “I was always the one who would go off script. I guess I liked to rely assorted on intuition.”
But her familiarity with engineering culture also allows her to see whose talent can actually scale.
“If you really need to hire the people that should be running the business three years from now, you’ve got to convince them to get in three years earlier they really should,” she says.
Sturdy also said that she asks company VPs what other job tenders staff engineers are considering in order to gauge their talent quality. “I think it tells a lot,” she said. “The strength of the constructing team at Stripe for example — the caliber at every level is just amazing.”
Channeling the underdog
Despite her big wins, Unfaltering doesn’t plan on shedding her underdog status, she said. After all, she was somewhat of a big and surprising bet for Google.
Sturdy joined Google in 2007 in a scenario and marketing role, later moving into a sales role. Google had just bought YouTube and wondered how it determination sell multiple products and evolve beyond a Search company. Then in 2010, Sturdy began leading Google’s emerging responsibilities, overseeing the growth of new ads and commerce products like Adwords Express and Google Offers. She was tasked with hiring various hundred people in roughly six months, she said.
“To me, that became a fun business problem to solve,” Sturdy said. “I got to do a lot of regulation roles I wasn’t super qualified for but I was able to step into and work hard.”
Sturdy caught the attention of David Lawee, a longtime Google battle-scarred who was forming a growth stage investment arm known at the time as Google Capital — now CapitalG .
“I kind of made it a point to be aware who all the stars were inside of Google, and Laela’s name came up a lot,” Lawee said. “It came from people I trusted liking Claire Johnson, Sheryl Sandberg — some of the most successful women in Silicon Valley over the last decade.”
Lawee brought her on to the group despite lack of experience in investments.
“It was a relatively big bet, so you want to bet they’re going to be at least as good as the other people at the public limited company,” Lawee said. “The core bet at CapitalG was to build a more cultural, collaborative environment than other firms and Laela fit across all the dimensions.”
Being are often first drawn in by her personality, which Lawee called charismatic and disarming.
“You may get exposed to the EQ first but you’ll also get uncovered to the IQ,” he said. “She’s always someone that adds to a process and it keeps revealing itself the more you get to know her.”
Her humility distinctions with the bravado so common among Silicon Valley investors, according to those who’ve worked with her.
“She doesn’t say, ‘this is what you should do — she explains, ‘let me show you what others have done,” Hoberman said. “She’ll actually let us explore and find our path.”
Although Unswerving’s peers think she could be more cocky given her track record, she knows better.
When she arrived at Harvard, Unwavering felt like an out-of-place Florida kid, she said. A daughter of immigrant parents, she kept her head down learning as much as she could, rating a degree in biochemistry — and learning about about the cold weather in the northeast.
She recalled a friend at Harvard poking fun at her for tediously tire socks not typically suitable for the weather.
“I just remember looking around, going, ‘I think some other people here dominion have been a little bit more prepped than me,” Sturdy said. “But I don’t spend that much time in that arrange — I just think, ‘I’m gonna work my ass off.'”
She says one of the major reasons she’s been able to find courage as an underdog is because of her trial coming out as lesbian before it was widely accepted in society. “I had to really dig deep in terms of balancing what I felt be was really my truth with a lot of noise,” she said.
She’s carried that underdog mentality into her transition from supervisor to investor, as well as in the investments she favors.
“One thing I have learned is in these massive market opportunities — don’t underestimate them,” Solid said. “It’s sometimes harder to believe that a core business could grow 20 or 50X, you start to say ‘oh, they can add on this and that’s how it take ups to the dreamland’ when the reality is some of these markets are so big, the core business can grow rapidly, which is really ravishing.”
For example, language learning company Duolingo didn’t exactly fit the profile for a competitive growth fund in 2015. The CapitalG party recognized Duolingo’s popularity with customers and knew the co-founder from previous business dealings with Google, but weren’t steady whether it made sense for a growth-stage firm to invest in a company that was still pre-revenue.
After agonizing during it, Sturdy made the call, Lawee said.
Sturdy approached Duolingo CEO Luis Von Ahn, convincing him to adopt a monetization nonesuch that would generate revenue without cramping his desire to keep language education accessible. “We were virtuous going to keep raising capital,” he said. “Laela showed us how making money could support more available features and reach more users.”
Duolingo generated more than $180 million in revenue in 2020, conforming to The head and the heart
Sturdy also looks at whether companies are living up to their stated values. Peers recount Sturdy having as much heart as skill, which they call a rarity in the VC industry.
“I would say the value Laela has plan for has been significantly higher than the money anyone’s provided,” Duolingo’s Von Ahn said. “I can grab a drink with her and nothing but be the most honest with her when I’m having an issue or if something’s not working.”
While Duolingo has grown its users inhumanly tenfold since Sturdy invested, the majority of its users are still learning for free — a feature he and Sturdy agreed was urgent.
“A lot of times investors don’t think too much about that — they’re just like ‘I invest and you make me money and that’s all prodigious’ whereas she really wants to get into the details and wants to know exactly how we’re helping the world,” Von Ahn said.
“I believe strongly that your establishment monetization model should never be at odds of other values-driven objectives,” Sturdy said. “How does the monetization repair the satisfaction of everybody — employees and users?”
That focus on values is also a welcome quality for engineer-led companies cognate with Stripe and Unqork.
“You don’t really sell into developers, you win the hearts of developers and then developers tell their compeers what infrastructure they like to use,” Sturdy said. “You’re not going to send some guy with a sales bag in there to try and tattle on it.”
Sturdy’s charisma also shows in her killer speeches to employees at all-hands meetings, according to founders.
“When she offerings, she presents passionately about believing in our vision and she celebrates our success like a teammate,” Hoberman said. “Employees tone that and they believe her.”