Nine years ago, Mike Walsh walked into a cafe in San Francisco to meet a young entrepreneur looking for career advice. Walsh, himself a startup founder, has always been game to mentor aspiring professionals.
The encounter changed Walsh’s life—and that of his new acquaintance, Ryan Graves, who was mulling an offer to become the first CEO of what was then known as UberCab. The ride-sharing idea reminded Walsh of his own childhood “selling” rides on his brothers’ go-kart. “‘This is a guy I’d like to work with,'” Walsh recalls thinking.
Walsh signed on as one of Uber’s first investors. His windfall enabled him, in 2013, to launch his own venture capital shop, Structure Capital, which has invested in roughly 140 companies, mostly in the sharing economy space. (Uber marked the second time Walsh struck gold as an investor: in 1999, he was an early backer of Salesforce.)
For Walsh, work is all about relationships. He came to Haas to master finance, but he appreciated most the connections with classmates, four of whom are now investors. With help from his peers, Walsh also started Leverage Software, a B2B social networking service he ran until it was acquired in 2009.
As a VC, Walsh strives to be different—one who leaves his ego behind. He won’t, for example, sit on the board of any portfolio company. He would prefer to have the full trust of the entrepreneurs if they run into trouble, and the fiduciary responsibility of being a board member can conflict with that. And his picks are often based not only on profit potential but social impact potential. Two years ago, he bet on Copia, a for-profit organization working to bring surplus food to those in need. “Is this a $1 billion company? Probably not,” says Walsh. “But the passion and compassion that founder Komal Ahmed [a Cal grad and Navy vet] brought was enough.”