Success stories can seem just as fantastical as the fairy tales you (may have) loved growing up: Bold career woman finds herself in the right place at the right time, and poof, her
fairy godmother mentor snaps her fingers, transforming our hero into an overnight success who brings home a 7-figure salary, jet-sets the world spreading her you-can-have-it-all gospel, all while looking awesome and Instagramming the whole thing. Umm...really? Why do we so rarely hear the other side of the story — the false starts, the waves of doubt, the failures, and the fuck-ups? Those late-night worries and, occasionally, breakthroughs that are so relatable to the rest of us?
Introducing Self-Made, Refinery29's newest column spotlighting the real stories that fueled success — the wins, the fails, and the curveballs —proving there's no one path to getting what you want.
Natalia Oberti Noguera, 35, is the founder and CEO of Pipeline Angels, an organization that is changing the face of angel investing by encouraging women and non-binary femmes to both invest and start their own businesses. Pipeline Angels launched in 2011 and has rapidly grown to a network of 300-plus members who have invested more than $5 million in 50-plus companies.
Natalia is an inspiring voice in an industry that is overcrowded by white men, and her goal is to use her power to amplify others. "I like quoting Rihanna," she says, "'If we want more of us to shine bright like a diamond, we need to invest in diamonds in the rough.'"
Refinery29 talked with Natalia about the obstacles facing Latinx founders, the lesson she's trying to teach members of the Pipeline Angels Community, and how she tries to be mindful of her purchase power even during her downtime.
Tell me a little bit about why you founded Pipeline Angels.
In 2008, I launched the New York Women Social Entrepreneurs in New York City, when I was in grad school. I grew it from about six social entrepreneurs to over 1,200 within two years. It was amazing, and it's what led me to one of my “aha moments.” This was around the time when there was a growing market for companies that were doing well and doing good. Ben & Jerry’s had been around a while, as well as Honest Tea, and TOMS had recently started. Of course, who was getting the funding and making the headlines? The white-guy-led companies.
At the same time, I was meeting women and femmes leading these kinds of social enterprises that were coming up with really disruptive business models, but struggling to get funding. A lot of these entrepreneurs were sharing their change-making ideas with their communities, and people in their network would get really excited, would offer to support, donate, send a check, etc. But as soon as the entrepreneurs would clarify that they were aiming to be for-profit social ventures, these same people would back away and say, “Let me know when you start your sister non-profit.”
I realized that society has a gendered perception of how we change the world. When a woman or femme says they're going to change the world, the expectation is that we're going to launch a non-profit. When a guy says he's going to change the world, people do not assume that he's going to launch a non-profit.
At the same time, there are a lot of women and femmes out there making a positive impact with their money through philanthropy. I was interested in creating a bridge from philanthropy into angel investing, and sharing with these women and femmes that another way they could make a positive impact with their money could be by investing in women-led, femme-led, for-profit social ventures. That's what led me to Pipeline Angels.
It’s been five years since Business Insider named you one of the 30 Most Important Women in Tech Under 30. How has the industry changed in the past five years? Do you think things are getting better?
I'm a huge believer in creating new systems. I also know that we need to change current systems, because guess what? A lot of money is still stuck in the status quo. In the past five years, new players have entered the investing arena, and this is fantastic because we're noticing a lot more players that are investing in, as Arlan Hamilton of Backstage Capital say, “underestimated founders."
The point is, if we check out the stats in terms of how much funding is going to women, non-binary people, or men of color, things have not changed much from even a decade ago. Yes, let's be excited about the angel investors and venture capitalists and other funding organizations and platforms that have come out that are focused on leveling the playing field, including Pipeline Angels. At the same time, let's remember that's not enough, and if we really want to make the pie bigger, we need to make sure that the current systems are changing.
We need to go from micro to macro when we effect change. I'm going to bring up a very controversial book, Lean In. It's a helpful book in that it gets us to think about how can we, as individuals, learn to play the game better. We need to learn the rules. But in order to “level up” as Ciara says, we need to also think about change at the macro level — that means changing existing systems. Like the new California law requiring at least one woman on corporate boards. It's not enough that more women and femmes lean in in order to get invited on a board. If the door's shut, no matter how much we're leaning in, we're not going to get in. Here is where that balance of yes, we can lean in, and it will be so much easier once the door is open for us to get into the boardroom. Literally.
If we really want to make the pie bigger, we need to make sure that the current systems are changing.
What's your Self-Made Mantra, no matter where you might be in the process?
A mantra I have — I prefer the word "motto" — is: Who do you want to make money for? So many times when someone asks, "Hey, do you have an accountant you like?” or “Is there a book you recommend?" I witness a lot of women and femmes recommend a white guy. The thing is: White guys don't need help! Is there a woman, a non-binary person, or man of color that you could be recommending? I got this #QueerAndLatinx shirt I’m wearing from Annie Segarra, a queer disabled Latinx activist, who also created #TheFutureIsAccessible and whose gender pronouns are they/them and she/her.
What aspect of your path do you think has been the most motivational to other young women and femmes coming up through the ranks?
Two things that come to mind. Number one, who I am doing what I do; and number two, speaking truth to power. The fact that I'm a cis queer Latina, whose gender pronouns are she/her. The fact that I'm here. I'm creating more capital for more women and femmes and changing the face of angel investing. I'm doing it while calling out white supremacy, misogyny, Islamophobia, homophobia, etc. I'm not just motivational, I'm motivated.
Here's the thing, in case people have not realized, being an entrepreneur can be super hard. I'm also my own boss. I don't have to face repercussions in the workplace — not getting a raise, not getting promoted, or, in some U.S. states, potentially getting fired over who I love. That is actually one of the reasons that I have committed myself to being vocal, being out and proud.
What are the biggest obstacles facing Latinx startup founders? And how can they overcome them?
There was a very well known white guy who was interviewed in 2012 and he was asked, “What do you look for when you invest?” He very nonchalantly said, “Someone like me.” This was before pattern recognition and pattern matching became super trendy.
Of course, there are a lot of amazing organizations making the obvious business case for diversity. But I wanted to turn this concept on its head and say, “Well, if we invest in what looks like us, if we invest in what's familiar, let's get more of us on the investing side, because we're going to be more open about investing in more of us on the startup side.”
A Wharton and Angel Capital Association study found that only 2.3% of U.S. angel investors are Latinx. Close to 90% of U.S. angel investors are white. In addition to that, close to 80% are men. Obviously, they're binary — they don't even include nonbinary people. Thinking about what that means for Latinas and Latinx femmes? These are super, super depressing numbers.
I’m proud to share that at Pipeline Angels, 300-plus members have gone through our angel investing bootcamp, and they have then invested over $5 million into over 50 portfolio companies. Of those 300-plus members, 7% are Latinx, and 12% of the Pipeline Angels portfolio companies that have secured funding from our members have a Latina or Latinx femme founder.
I’m committed to growing these numbers and this summer, with the help of local organizations (including Grupo Guayacán, Parallel18, Santurce POP, and Animus), Pipeline Angels launched its signature angel investing bootcamp in San Juan, Puerto Rico, to support the island's founders and economy while working to double the number of Latinx angel investors nationwide. We recently released a video recap of our first-ever summer session that we held in San Juan.
Being self-made means committing to self-care, too, to manage the process as well as all the unexpected pivots that come with it. How do you fuel and refresh yourself when things really starts to get hard?
I love TV! I will give shout-outs to Freeform and the CW. Some people might say that I might be slightly outside of their target demographics. You know what? The reason why I love so much of the programming on the CW and Freeform is that there's representation, and it's not token representation. A lot of the main characters are themselves coming from different backgrounds.
And as Marian Wright Edelman says, “You can't be what you can't see.” It recharges me, being able to turn on the TV and meet characters and storylines that are representative, that are pushing for change. The Fosters, for example, had several episodes last season talking about ICE and abolishing ICE. The parents are queer women, one of whom is Black the other one white. In some ways, it's like, “Oh my gosh, how is this recharging when they’re talking about sucky things?” At the same time, it's re-energizing to know that other people are speaking out. I’m a huge believer that media can help change the world.
The other thing I'd say is, in the spirit of Who do you want to make money for, I do certain things for self-care that might take a little bit more time, however, help me be consistent with my values and the way that I want to change the world. For example, taking time to figure out the executive chef and/or owner of the restaurant where my partner and I are going to have a double date with someone. If you want to be inclusive, be explicit. Commitment to change and to inclusion, for me in some ways, is self-care. When there's a disconnect, that can be draining.
What are you generally doing at midnight?
Even though my partner wants me to be an early bird, I have to admit I’m a night owl. I end up being super productive at night. I would love to be an early bird. I'm trying, it's much easier when I'm on the west coast, when I’m like, “I can do two breakfast meetings!” Maybe this is a big part of self-care — acknowledging that yes I'm trying, and at the same time acknowledging that sometimes it's not going to happen.
Sometimes I'll be watching TV to wind down, and sometimes I’m sleeping, which is what my partner wants me to be doing. I'm an entrepreneur, so I get to set my schedule. She has a corporate job so she has much earlier mornings. I’ll just say #ConfessionsOfANightOwl.
What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned from the women and femmes who go through Pipeline Angels bootcamp?
The importance of community, the importance of learning by doing. I'd say the lesson that I'm working to teach us together is making sure that we're having, as Micky ScottBey Jones says, brave conversations. Also, the power of changing the world through money.
I'd say the one lesson that society taught me early on, when I launched Pipeline Angels, is how different people think about men and money versus women/femmes and money. We would get a lot of applications from non-profits, etc., because people would read women and money and immediately assumed, “Oh this is charity, this is donations, this is grants.” Of course, when people think about men and money it's financiers, sharks, venture capitalists, businessmen. I’ve been trying to break those expectations, defy those stereotypes, and say, “In addition to being philanthropists, women and femmes can also be investors.”