Silvia Mah joined Connect as its president and chief operating officer in March. The nonprofit, which recently merged with San Diego Venture Group, hosts one of San Diego’s oldest accelerator programs, Springboard.
Before joining Connect, Mah was well known for her work in building female-focused startup accelerator programs Hera Labs (now called Stella Labs) and Ad Astra Ventures. She also has helped coordinate programs for UC San Diego’s startup incubator, the Basement, and served as fund manager for the first San Diego Angel Conference.
Mah currently lives in the San Diego area with her husband and three kids. She grew up in Caracas, Venezuela, before attending Pepperdine University. She has her Ph.D. in marine biology from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and an MBA from UCSD’s Rady School of Management.
How did you get involved with Connect?
(Connect Chairman Tim Scott) reached out to me when (former Connect CEO) Greg McKee left. He said, ‘We would love to have a conversation with you just to see what this ecosystem looks like, and would love your input.’
We were having a conversation about what makes San Diego great. It’s entrepreneurs that are taking names and fundraising as best as they can.
We wanted to help provide mentoring for entrepreneurs, funding for entrepreneurs, and programming for entrepreneurs.
That led to me coming in at that time as president of Connect.
As a recovering scientist, coming into Connect is going back to my science roots. Being able to help entrepreneurs commercialize those technologies is really fascinating to me.
How did you first get involved with San Diego’s startup community?
After my Ph.D., it was work-life balance. I had a special needs child and was constantly at children’s hospitals. I worked for the Jacobs School of Engineering.
After that, I decided to go get my MBA at Rady. I started working at the Von Libeg Entrepreneurism Center, commercializing technologies outside of the Jacobs School of Engineering.
I spent about seven years doing that. I enjoyed it tremendously. I helped a couple of different startups because they needed that business acumen. One of them actually went through Springboard during the time we were together.
What led you to co-found Stella Labs and Ad Astra Ventures?
My motivation for creating Stella Labs, formerly known as Hera Labs, was out of necessity, frustration and good business sense. … When there were limited rigorous resources for early stage businesses to get the business skills they needed, I wanted to create a set of courses to help assist this need. For women, these resources were either not tailored to them, not empathetic to their work-life integration needs and not specialized in the type of businesses they were launching (products and services catered towards the female consumer). This was frustrating to encounter and observe.
After running nine cohorts of Stella Labs, running two locations in Solana Beach and National City, and funding 25 female-led startups as an angel investor, I really wanted to do more for female founders who were venture bound. Allison Long Pettine and Vidya Dinamani were long-time investment colleagues of mine who we sourced deals together and were involved in a couple of co-investments. We decided as a trio to take a collaborative gender-lens approach to growing our portfolios because it makes good business sense.
However, we also saw that unconscious bias was huge part of why women didn’t get the funding they so deserved. We got to work researching all of the bias data on females. We created a framework of neutralizing bias for women to use during meetings, presentations, collaborations and partnerships. A year later, we have had over 140 applications, and funded and accelerated 8 female-led startups.
What advice would you give to first-time entrepreneurs?
Take advantage of local resources, like accelerators, to get ahead. Instead of spending months or even years trying to put together a game plan, you can formulate a business roadmap and start taking action within weeks. This approach can also be cost-effective because in an accelerator you are being counseled by people across various industries, from accounting to fundraising to communications.
Get involved in any and all events. An entrepreneur might think it is a waste of time because it is not focused on their business launch, but the networking obtained, the visibility to investors and other startups and community bonding is critical. Community is built from small acts of connectivity, random acts of kindness to lift each other up, and reciprocity of ideas and resources.
What’s next with Connect?
Mike (Krenn) and I are taking a 90-day approach of listening to our staff, stakeholders, supporters, and entrepreneurs in residence to see what is working and what could be improved on.
There are three other things we’re looking at: Partnering and collaborating with everybody in the ecosystem, increasing the diversity of the entrepreneurs that we serve and the board that we’re putting together, and merging programming and mentoring with access to capital through San Diego Venture Group.
It’s not reinventing the wheel, it’s leveraging what we have.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.