Amanda Schutzbank on Investing in Highly Emotional, Values-led Brands

Amanda Schutzbank is the Co-Founder and General Partner at Willow Growth Partners, a Los Angeles-based investment fund that focuses on early-stage consumer brands.

Schutzbank’s experience spans the range of entrepreneurship. A Wharton graduate, she made her start in the world of investment banking, working on some of the most notable tech IPOs of our time. This experience developed into an interest in early-stage startups, leading her to join the world-famous Techstars accelerator and then the founding team of Karma, a consumer hardware startup. 

Since 2015, Schutzbank has worked in venture capital across two leading firms before starting her own, all focused on early-stage companies. Willow Growth Partners provides early growth capital to entrepreneurs building the next generation of transformative consumer brands and the disruptive technologies that power them. Willow is grounded in a values-led investment strategy driven by a brands’ impact on their customers, employees, and the world. 

Amanda Schutzbank, Co-Founder and General Partner at Willow Growth Partners headshot
Amanda Schutzbank, Co-Founder and GP at Willow Growth Partners

Q: Why did you choose to enter VC?

It may sound simplistic, but I was in the right place at the right time. I graduated from The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School in 2010 and landed a job in investment banking at Merrill Lynch, where I was assigned to the technology group. It was a pretty exciting time to be an analyst. Behind the scenes, companies like LinkedIn, Groupon, Zynga, and Facebook were preparing to go public.

Working on these IPOs, I became fascinated with how these businesses launched and scaled, and fell in love with the entrepreneurs’ stories, creativity, and drive. I wanted to be a part of it. I took a leap of faith and left the investment banking world to join Techstars as an Associate.

At the time, Techstars was relatively new and New York wasn’t yet the startup hub that it is today. The epicenter  – both in terms of new companies and VC funding – was still very much in the Bay Area. It was amazing to be a part of something new, something flourishing, and I learned so much about startups and venture capital.

I ultimately wanted to move back to the investing side but felt I couldn’t be a great early-stage investor and advise companies appropriately without first walking in their shoes. I joined the founding team of Karma, one of the companies in the Techstars program, as the first employee and on the founding team. Karma was my first foray into building and scaling a consumer brand, and I was hooked. I spent years operating the business in roles spanning marketing, operations, and fundraising.

After four years, I took my learnings and moved back to the investing side, where I have been ever since. I’ve had the opportunity to work at two of the most notable funds in their respective cities – Primary Venture Partners in New York and Amplify in LA, before starting Willow. My passion has always been and continues to be in helping founders best navigate the earliest stages. I wake up every day excited by the opportunity to work with visionary entrepreneurs building the most inspiring consumer brands of our time. 

Q: What issues did you see in the VC space before you got started in it? 

Having operated and scaled a startup, I was determined to be an investor that took the time to help portfolio companies and add value in meaningful ways. At the early stage, capital is often necessary, but it is not sufficient. I’ve spent years building portfolio support platforms, including vast Expert Networks, have taken board seats, and continue to be a sounding board and confidant for our entrepreneurs.

I was also keenly aware that the world of venture capital had historically been somewhat of a boy’s club. When I began my career, women were only really starting to become partners at funds in a meaningful way. Even today, sadly, only 5.6% of US VCs are women-led, and most firms don’t have a single woman partner. On the founder side, female-led startups only receive a fraction of VC funding. In 2020, women-led startups received just 2.3% of all VC funding. I wanted to help change this from within and believe the way to make meaningful change is to close the gender disparity at the investor level. 

Q: Does being a female VC impact how you invest in companies?

Definitely. It’s a matter of perspective on both sides of the table. At Willow, I am now primarily focused on investing in highly emotional, values-led consumer brands. Given the categories we invest in – health and wellness, beauty, personal care, food & beverage, apparel and accessories, home, and more – we meet many women founders. These women are often more comfortable talking to another woman about their journey and vision for the company. 

At the same time, having a female perspective is an advantage when evaluating the benefits of those companies. As the brands are often targeting female consumers, it is arguably easier to understand the value proposition and the needs they’re filling.

Q: Can you tell me about your most recent investments? 

As a female investor and new mom, I have a keen interest and unique perspective on certain consumer brands and products. I’ve most recently made two investments in the baby sector that I am very excited about. In early 2020, Willow led the Seed investment in Coterie. Coterie developed and sells non-toxic and high-performing baby personal care products and offers a convenient selling platform to make parents’ lives easier. Interestingly enough, I was introduced to Coterie first as a customer rather than an investor, which, as a very early investor, is unique. I experienced the benefits of the diaper firsthand and saw how truly superior they were from any other diaper on the market. With an innovative design, the diapers are 2x more absorbent than any leading diaper brand and wick water away faster leading to fewer diaper rashes and more sleep! They are also incredibly soft and use the most sustainable materials possible. 

I truly believe Coterie is shaking up the diaper industry. Diapers haven’t changed significantly in 35 years and with 80% of the market share held by two massive CPG conglomerates, there was no drive for improvement despite the vast advances in materials and technology and the rise of direct-to-consumer services. I never realized I could get so excited about diapers, both as a parent and an investor. Suffice to say, I have no desire to return to the traditional brands, and am confident Coterie will be a household diaper brand in a few years. I’m also excited to try out their new wipes range which will be available later this month. Their wipes are the most sustainable wipes in the US market. 

Lalo is another exciting recent investment. Willow led Lalo’s Seed round at the end of 2020. The name stands for “love all the little ones.” Lalo is a digital-first modern home baby/toddler brand, but more interestingly, they’re a trusted destination for parents to find high-quality and multi-functional products to support various child activities. They take all the things you’ll need as a new parent across different rooms of your home – like high chairs and play tables – and put them under one cohesive and powerful brand.

Lalo is focused on superior functionality and sustainability; their products grow with your child. For example, the high chair later converts to a chair you can use at the play table, reducing waste and allowing parents to buy fewer products over time. I believe Lalo will be the go-to brand in the baby consumer products space for many years to come.

Q: How did you network, find communities, and make the connections you needed to succeed? Did you run into challenges along the way?

The VC world is small. It is also heavily relationship-driven. I remember back when I got started, I sat in my investment banking chair and made a spreadsheet of every fund I could find. I then looked up who my second and third-degree connections were on LinkedIn and worked my way to an introduction to someone at the firm. I had to start somewhere. I would ask every person that was generous enough to take me up on my offer for coffee to introduce me to one or two others they thought I should meet. This had an immediate career impact and allowed me to ultimately make the move from investment banking to the startup world.

I continued to be hyper-vigilant about building connections as the years progressed. That networking has been core to my career, and it’s been invaluable during my time in venture capital. For example, I brought that approach with me to the first fund I joined, Primary Venture Partners. I built out the Primary Expert Network, which consisted of 100+ senior operators in New York City who helped and supported our portfolio companies. It became an incredible resource for our entrepreneurs and also allowed me to expand my network even further and deeper across the New York ecosystem. 

Q: What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned in your career? 

As an investor, it is always about the people. The people you invest in, the people you work with, and the people you take money from. I’m constantly reminded how critical human relationships are, especially in this business. I’ve learned over time that regardless of how great an idea is, without the ability to recruit a talented team there can not be success. 

Q: What’s your advice for other female executives at the beginning of their career or entrepreneurial journey?

Success is heavily determined by your ability to build relationships and make yourself known to others in your field. Don’t be afraid to knock on doors or ask for help. If you have something to say, say it. This is not a field that rewards wallflowers.

Separately, stand for something. Owning your convictions isn’t just part of your story – it’s who you are. It will influence your business and investment decisions and the path of your career. And ultimately, it will set you apart from your competitors. 

Q: Do you have a favorite quote or “personal mantra” you use to keep yourself motivated?  

“You’ll always miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” This quote, for me, sums up my career trajectory. I constantly remind myself that without risk there is no reward. Taking a leap of faith into the unknown can sometimes be scary, but it can ultimately turn out to be the best decision you will ever make. This holds true today as I continue to build out my portfolio investing in early-stage companies. With any risk, there is always a potential downside; being able to manage and work with that risk requires courage. 

Q: What challenge are you most proud of overcoming in your career? 

Launching Willow at the age of 32 (and in the middle of a global pandemic!) is a significant accomplishment that I will always be proud of. Given the fact that women are often overlooked in this industry, I’m incredibly proud of persevering and creating not only a place at the table but the table itself.

I’m also proud of my work with women-led startups. Women founders regularly lose out on funding; part of the problem is that the investors are seldom women. Playing a role in remedying that gender imbalance feels incredibly gratifying. 

Q: How have you integrated your values and mission into your own work?

My personal convictions guide my investment strategy. We think about trends like sustainability and how important that has become not just for consumers but also for the world’s long-term health. 

Before we sign a check, we look at the brand’s core underlying values such as their positioning on clean ingredients and formulations, sustainability, ethical labor standards, and more. We believe that the consumer today is shopping with these values in mind and is increasingly more judicious in selecting brands that are aligned with their own values. We don’t regard investing behind these values as orthogonal to making money. The two can – and should – happily co-exist. We can invest behind brands that are better for you, better for the world in some way, all while making incredible financial returns. 

Q: What qualities do you possess that you think have contributed most to your success?

The ability to read and listen to people has truly helped me. I believe that one of the keys to being a successful investor is having the ability to understand the entrepreneurs you are investing in: determining whether they can hire and retain a great team, lead that team, pivot when things get hard, and continue to set the vision, are all critical to success. 

Also, as an investor, being a great listener and coach is exactly what an entrepreneur needs. Working closely with the entrepreneur and providing help and support, regardless of the task, is invaluable to founders and builds trust and credibility.  

  • Originally published June 10, 2021, updated June 15, 2021