Natalia Oberti Noguera, founder of the Pipeline Fellowship, talked to TechRepublic about her career, changing the face of angel investing, and being a lesbian Latina in tech.
Less than a minute into our phone call, Natalia Oberti Noguera told me something important about herself: "I say provocative things."
It didn't take long for me to realize she meant those words — Oberti Noguera is a fireball who refuses to take no for an answer and isn't scared of consequences or the unknown. She talks a million miles a minute and veers onto tangents and raises her voice as she gets more passionate. In the middle of a story she'll quote inspirational women she remembers, or tell me I'm allowed to tweet what she's about to say, or make up a new hashtag.
Oberti Noguera is the founder and CEO of Pipeline Fellowship, a bootcamp program for women that's changing the face of angel investing as well as creating capital for female social entrepreneurs.
Pipeline Fellowship does a lot of things, which Oberti Noguera will tell you about in great detail, but she can also explain it quite simply:
"I say, 'do you watch shark tank,' and they say 'yes, or I've heard of it," she said. "And I say 'well there's enough white guy sharks out there. I'm in the business of creating more women sharks.'"
The first place Oberti Noguera ever lived was New Jersey. Her father worked for the United Nations and he was stationed there. The family moved around a lot in Latin America after that, from Ecuador to Colombia to the Dominican Republic, and then back to the Northeast US, later settling in New Haven, Connecticut.
She attended college at Yale, where she double majored in economics and comparative literature, but Oberti Noguera likes to say she majored in extracurriculars. She produced a television show, launched a few publications, and had many different hobbies.
"I didn't know while I was doing that, that what I was doing was being entrepreneurial," she said.
One of her favorite quotes comes from Marie Wilson from the White House Project: "You can't be what you can't see" — and Oberti Noguera realized how much she resonated with that.
Growing up, she was never introduced to founders or entrepreneurs. She didn't have that sort of role model, and she didn't realize entrepreneurship was what she was doing and an option after graduation.
The ah-ha moment came when she had an opportunity in 2008 to be the chapter leader of New York Women Social Entrepreneurs, a network of female social entrepreneurs that she grew from six to 1200 women in three years. Repeatedly, she heard the same story — how hard it was for women to secure funding as entrepreneurs; how people expected them to start nonprofits rather than for-profit companies; how their diverse, world-changing ideas came to a halt because of bias in the industry.
So in 2010, she decided to start Pipeline Fellowship. It has three main components: education, mentoring, and practice. The criteria for applicants are meeting accredited investor definitions by making $200,000 in annual income or $300,000 with a spouse, or have a net worth of $1 million, as well as a passion for social entrepreneurship and group learning. The program fee is $4,500, and each woman has to invest $5,000 in a women-led for-profit social venture when the program ends.
The mentoring involves matching fellows — or sharks-in-training — with seasoned angel investors to share best practices and greatest mistakes. It's getting the street smarts on the ground.
"I'm a huge believer in learning by doing," Oberti Noguera said.
She hosts a pitch summit where the fellows secure funding, review applications, select founders to present, and select one at the end to invest in for equity. There's skin in the game because they're putting down their own money.
Pipeline Fellowship is now in Ann Arbor, Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Chicago, DC, Detroit, Memphis, Miami, NYC, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis.
"[We're] positioning Pipeline fellows to provide critical early capital injection to get them to the next women, get closer to scaling, [get closer to] sustainability, and considered seriously by later stage investors," she said.
Oberti Noguera speaks at many events, particularly about being a Latina in tech and about being gay.
"It's important for me to be out and vocal," she said, pausing to laugh at herself. "I'm just laughing because I'm out and proud, so it's funny."
She is extremely passionate about LGBTQ issues, especially in the tech world, and about getting more diversity in technology, which is why she participates in panels and conferences about diversity so often. But, she said it's more important for her to be visible at events that don't have a lot of diversity.
"When I'm being bookended by two straight white guys, as an LGBT Latina, the shock factor is a way to mainstream the conversation," she said.
That's important to her, because LGBTQ and Hispanic women are hardly represented on stage — or anywhere in the industry. A few years ago she was at a women's event on a panel. "Pun intended, I brought up the white elephant in the room. The organizer was a white woman, [and I said] 'yo, you just had white speakers.'"
The woman was shocked she hadn't noticed, because she had represented males and females equally — she had just forgotten about racial diversity. It's something that happens often, Oberti Noguera said, because people are just infused with privilege and tend to forget.
So Oberti Noguera called the person out on it. She'll do that as often as she can, with everyone. Which reminded her of another favorite quote by Rachel Sklar, founder of TheLi.st and #changetheratio: "Privilege is like oxygen. You don't realize it's there until it's gone."
Making sure there's enough diversity in all stages of the startup process is critical for Oberti Noguera. Diversity is sometimes promoted in just one vertical, she said, but what's really important is cross-sectioning between others.
Her investors and their companies are of different generations and backgrounds and professional experiences. They're multiethnic and multicultural. They're accountants, parents, lawyers, artists, tech employees, seasoned entrepreneurs. Above all, Pipeline Fellowship is about promoting that kind of company culture, both at the bootcamp and at every company the fellows end up funding.
There's also one other important part of the culture Oberti Noguera's creates, and she wouldn't let me forget it. She said it with force — the passion — she's known for.
"I'm a feminist with a capital F."
In her own words...
How do you unplug?
"I love TV...[there was] a lot of dysfunction growing up and I remember in terms of growing up [it was] the safe space, [where you] kind of forget about family strife happening. It has really been like this safe space [even] now as an adult. I enjoy the imagination and creativity in terms of plots."
What advice do you have for entrepreneurs?
"My mom is Colombian and my father is Italian, so I grew up hearing three different languages at home. What I tell entrepreneurs is learn at least a second language because the exercise of knowing there are at least two different ways to call something really can teach flexibility and adaptability."
Any more advice?
"Sit at the bigger kids' table."