Female founders leading the way: Q&A with Causal’s Christina Pawlikowski

Throughout Women’s History Month, we’re delighted to share some of the remarkable female founders at Pear. We’re dedicated to supporting diverse entrepreneurs and are proud that 41% (and growing!) of our investments are in companies with at least one female founder! This is a truly remarkable statistic in our industry, and we take immense pride in it.

Throughout March, we’ll be featuring Q&As with some of these inspiring entrepreneurs. In this series, you’ll hear from them about their experiences in founding burgeoning startups and how they’re collaborating with Pear to turn their visions into reality.

This week, we’re excited to share this Q&A between Jill and Causal Labs Co-founder Christina Pawlikowski. In this week’s installment of our series, I’m excited to share more on Christina’s career path and journey building Causal from the ground up. 

Tell us a little bit about Causal and what problem you’re tackling.

I’m a product person: prior to co-founding Causal I worked at TripAdvisor and Circle. My co-founders are also TripAdvisor alums. We are building Causal to solve some of the most frustrating problems we’ve experienced while building software: crappy, messy data generated by tracking code that’s difficult to maintain, code that’s so full of old ideas and branches that adding to it feels like a nightmare, and a general feeling that all the work we were doing to optimize our products might be adding up to nothing.

We’ve built what we wished we’d had at Tripadvisor: a system that lets you collect accurate product data, write maintainable code, and focus your efforts on building products that really drive your business forward.

We are building Causal to solve some of the most frustrating problems we’ve experienced while building software.

What inspired you to start your own company, and what were some of the initial challenges you faced? What keeps you motivated?

I was led to start a company in part because I missed working with my co-founders Jeff and Alex, who I’d worked with at Tripadvisor.  I loved the team we built together at TripAdvisor and felt like we could build another great team.  And it was also in part that I’d gotten a taste of startup life at Circle and loved it. I wanted a chance to build my own startup from the ground up.

How did you go about securing funding for your startup and how did you evaluate potential VC partners? What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs (especially other women) looking to raise capital? 

The truth is we had a meticulous plan that did not hold up to the chaotic funding markets of May and June of last year. Ultimately, we pitched 50 VCs over four months to find a lead investor. It was worth the effort, though. We’re backed by an amazing group of investors who really understand what we’re building.

My advice to entrepreneurs who are evaluating investors is:

  • Look for people who understand your market already. It’s hard to take someone from zero to one in a couple of meetings. The conversations were so much deeper and more detailed with investors who understood the problems we were trying to solve.
  • Ask for references and do your best to find backdoor references. When you get a hold of these references, ask them where the VC shines—when is that investor the founder’s first phone call?  Ask how often they speak, where their advice is particularly wise, and what other kinds of support they’ve gotten from the firm.  Standard customer discovery rules apply: be specific, ignore hypotheticals, and ask for examples from the recent past.  
  • In talking with the fund itself, do your best to understand the fund’s structure and how that’s going to impact your experience. Will they take a board seat? Do they follow on?  How many other portfolio companies does your partner work with day-to-day?  Will other partners pitch in to help you?  How does the rest of the firm help support you?

My advice for fundraising is generally:

  • Get comfortable with hearing “no.” Most investors are going to say no, it’s just the nature of the game. Sometimes it’s about you, and sometimes it’s about something totally different—where they are in their fund, or what they’re interested in working on for the next decade, or even just whether you caught them on a bad day. You only need a few investors to believe.
  • Start building a community around yourself now. So many people came through for us in the end—with intros, with pitch practice, with angel checks. We spent years building those relationships, and I doubt we would have been able to raise without them.
  • For women, specifically (for any underrepresented founder, honestly): I found it best not to dwell on the statistics. It’s like watching Jaws before you go to the beach—it’ll ruin the experience. You have to believe that you belong in the room, because you do. Any investor who disagrees simply because of who you are sucks and isn’t worthy of a spot on your cap table.

You have to believe that you belong in the room, because you do.

What role has mentorship and/or community played in your personal and professional development, and how have you sought out mentorship throughout your journey?

They’ve both been hugely important to me.  The best advice I got when I was leaving TripAdvisor was to find a community of peers in product that I could talk to, because you really give that up when you leave a big company for a startup. I’ve been a part of a group of product leaders in Boston that has been meeting every couple months for years, and it’s an amazingly helpful community.  

The same goes with mentorship. I’ve had a bunch of truly great mentors during my career, one of whom I persuaded to come on as an advisor to Causal. I know it can feel intimidating to seek out mentors, but I think the place to start is to find someone smart, who you respect, and ask their advice. Follow their advice and report back. Then see where it goes from there.

I know it can feel intimidating to seek out mentors, but I think the place to start is to find someone smart, who you respect, and ask their advice.

What are you most proud of in your journey building Causal?

It’s a tie between the product and the team for me. I love working with Jeff and Alex, and I’m so excited about the folks we’ve added to the team this year. I also love what we’ve built and seeing it in action with customers has been such a joy.

What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs (especially women!) who are just starting out on their own journeys?

Do it!  But: on your terms, when you’re ready. I love being a founder, but I’m so glad I spent time learning how to do product management from great teams and great bosses first. That foundation has been helpful to me, and I don’t regret delaying becoming a founder to get it.  Figure out what kind of foundation you want and need, and go from there.

Finally, what’s next for Causal and why are you excited about your space and your team? 

The next two big things for us are:

  • Growing the team (join us—we’re building a team of talented, funny, candid, curious folks who live in the Boston area)
  • Bringing on our next few design partners (to wit: if you need to run A/B tests and you’re struggling to collect accurate data, keep your codebase in check, and evaluate experiments accurately, we’d love to talk with you) 

I’m excited about our space for two reasons.  First, I love the customers we get to serve: product and engineering teams. Second, we’re working on democratizing access to techniques we know work at very large, sophisticated tech companies and I love giving our customers access to tools we know are going to help them.  For example, this year we’re building out our causal inference capabilities, which help you understand which leading indicators really drive your business. Without access to an advanced ML team, companies are limited to error-prone, time-consuming guesswork. Causal gives companies this superpower just through running A/B tests. 

Thank you so much, Christina. We are thrilled to be partners and cannot wait to see where Causal goes next. Thank you for tuning into our blog series throughout Women’s History Month. We’ve loved sharing stories from our incredible female founders and celebrating their achievements in entrepreneurship. If you missed it, please check out our profiles on Bella Liu of Orby AI, Isha Patel of Kale, and Marisa Reddy and Shelby Breger of Conduit Tech.

Welcoming Kaitlin Shavey, Pear’s Event Marketing Manager

At Pear, our founder-first approach is a people-first approach. One of the best parts about the last year has been welcoming back in-person events. We’ve just begun our fourth Female Founder Circle cohort with a kickoff in San Francisco this past month. We also recently held a fireside chat with Hussein Mehanna, Head of AI/ML at Cruise with 125+ AI/ML founders in attendance. And we’re excited for more great events in the coming months. We love to bring people together, and we couldn’t be more excited to have Kaitlin onboard to lead that charge as our Event Marketing Manager. 

Kaitlin is Bay Area born and raised. After graduating from Cal Poly, she moved to San Francisco where she’s been based ever since. Her work experience spans both the retail and event marketing industry. At George P. Johnson, Kaitlin helped plan and execute corporate events from intimate gatherings and retreats, to large scale corporate conferences across the US. At Pear, events are about building community, from university events to our PearX cohorts, and Kaitlin has that dialed in. “Helping facilitate an environment where people can collaborate, connect, and learn from one another is critical to early stage founders. Relationships are invaluable and events are a critical part of establishing a network.”

Over the last month, Kaitlin has already made a considerable impact on Pear events, from organizing our founder speaker series to preparing for PearX Demo Day and our upcoming events at LA, SF, and NYC Tech Week. We can’t wait for her to grow and expand the world of events at Pear.

Want to reach out? Connect with Kaitlin at kaitlin@pear.vc

Female founders leading the way: Q&A with Bella Liu, Co-founder of Orby AI

As Women’s History Month continues to unfold, we’re delighted to highlight some of the remarkable female founders at Pear. We’re dedicated to supporting diverse entrepreneurs and are proud that 41% (and growing!) of our investments are in companies with at least one female founder! This is a truly remarkable statistic in our industry, and we take immense pride in it.

Throughout March, we’ll be featuring Q&As with some of these inspiring entrepreneurs. In this series, you’ll hear from them about their experiences in founding burgeoning startups and how they’re collaborating with Pear to turn their visions into reality.

This week, we’re excited to present this Q&A between Aparna Sinha and Orby AI’s Co-founder Bella Liu on Bella’s journey in entrepreneurship and some of the lessons she’s learned along the way. We began working with Bella and her Co-founder, Will, in August 2022 and have loved getting to work with their team from ideation to product launch

Orby AI is still in stealth mode, and we cannot wait for the public launch in the coming months. We’ve been quietly at work helping the team build and scale their team and we’re proud of all they’ve accomplished in a short amount of time. I’m excited to share more about Bella’s inspiring story in this week’s installment of our Women’s History Month series!

Can you tell me a little bit about your journey to becoming an entrepreneur?

My journey really begins with my upbring – growing up in a small town in rural China, my parents instilled in me the value of education, which was not always a given for girls in the area. Despite limited resources, they did everything they could to ensure that I received an education. I remember the time when I was in middle school, they sold our furniture and took on any extra work they could, so we could pay for my tuition. They motivated me to work hard and dream big. I consider myself extremely fortunate to be where I am today, and I’m constantly driven to pursue ambitious goals and take risks when the right opportunities arise.

AI is the next big revolution that will fundamentally change people’s lives in numerous ways. However, the reality is that AI had been showcased and demoed, but had not yet been successfully implemented in many real projects. This led me to join UiPath five years ago, where I worked on AI product and business development. AI automation was still at a nascent stage – I saw that it could be the right entry point for many organizations to adopt AI and see tangible value. I was right. The market and the company grew really quickly and UiPath IPO’ed as one of the largest enterprise software IPOs in recent years. While I was proud of the impact we had on our customers, I also saw that some customer problems were not solved effectively and require a completely different approach, so I teamed up with my co-founder Will and we started Orby AI. We are excited to work in a time when public awareness of AI is at an all-time high, and we believe that this is a once-in-a-lifetime revolution, similar to the internet and mobile eras. We are already seeing our product built on foundation models being used by customers to automate tasks, and we are continuing to break the technology boundaries and deliver meaningful value to customers.

We are excited to work in a time when public awareness of AI is at an all-time high, and we believe that this is a once-in-a-lifetime revolution, similar to the internet and mobile eras.

What’s a big or surprising lesson you’ve learned as a woman in tech? What advice do you have for women in their professional journeys as entrepreneurs?

Maybe not a surprise, but living it has helped reinforce and internalize it for me – having a solid support system at home and in the workplace is crucial. My advice to women in their professional journeys as entrepreneurs are to find people who genuinely support and encourage them along the way. This is actually applicable to both women and men because we all have times when we need help and support.

Personally, I experienced this kind of support during an intense period of company and product building when I was pregnant with my first child. Prior to my third trimester, I was not sure if I would be in a position to take a month off for child bounding and recovery. My co-founder, the broader team and I came up with a plan to make sure no balls were dropped, and they all stepped up to enable me to take time off. Everyone, including our investors, were super supportive. Support from my partner and our extended families enabled me to operate at full speed upon my return. This support system allowed me to focus on my health and family while ensuring we as a team are continuing to make progress.

My advice to women in their professional journeys as entrepreneurs are to find people who genuinely support and encourage them along the way.

How have you navigated any societal expectations or biases around gender roles and work-life balance as a business leader?

I follow the advice of one of my mentors and a respected woman business leader: “you just have to always know your stuff and get things done.” Regardless of any perceptions or bias, I think the key is to demonstrate expertise and deliver value.

During my graduate school years, I worked on a pro bono project for the World Bank to establish an impact investing fund in Bolivia. We worked closely with the business and government organizations in Bolivia and frequently met to discuss the project. In the beginning, I noticed that in the meetings, the local teams sometimes looked away when I was discussing with them. One of my local contacts later explained to me that it is uncommon to work with women in business. They did not mean any disrespect – they are just not used to it in their culture. I understood where they came from and decided to focus on delivering the work. In a few weeks, the dynamic in meetings changed, and they felt more comfortable to speak with me directly and even asked for my opinion on various topics.

How did you evaluate VC partners when going through fundraising?

While we did consider typical aspects such as investment focus, reputation, and network, we placed a strong emphasis on the specific partner’s value and shared vision. We believe that it is crucial to work with someone who is equally passionate about our vision since they will be a long-term partner in our business. We would take the time to get to know the partner and ask questions about their vision of what Orby can become. We have been extremely happy with our decision on our investors.

We believe that it is crucial to work with someone who is equally passionate about our vision since they will be a long-term partner in our business.

What’s next for Orby and why are you excited about your space and your team?

Our team is heads down in executing on our vision and roadmap, and I am really proud of the product and the team that we have built. Our customers are already using the product and getting value. We are continuously pushing the boundaries of our technology, and I can’t wait to share more with you!

Thank you so much, Bella. We are thrilled to be partners and cannot wait for the world to use Orby AI. As Women’s History Month continues, we look forward to sharing more stories from our incredible female founders and celebrating their achievements in entrepreneurship.

Female founders leading the way: Q&A with Isha Patel, Co-Founder of Kale

As Women’s History Month continues to unfold, we’re delighted to highlight some of the remarkable female founders at Pear. We’re dedicated to supporting diverse entrepreneurs and are proud that 41% (and growing!) of our investments are in companies with at least one female founder. This is a truly remarkable statistic in our industry, and we take immense pride in it.

Throughout March, we’ll be featuring Q&As with some of these inspiring entrepreneurs. In this series, you’ll hear from them about their experiences in founding burgeoning startups and how they’re collaborating with Pear to turn their visions into reality.

This week, we’re excited to present this Q&A between Vivien and Kale’s Co-founder Isha Patel on the journey growing Kale from the ground up. We met Kale’s Co-founders, Isha and Luis, when they were still building a startup called Palette, focused on a completely different idea. We knew they were an outstanding team from our first conversation with them, so they joined our PearX program where we explored many different ideas together – from social video apps to travel apps to superfan communities – and they ultimately landed on the idea of Kale. I’m excited to share more about Kale and their journey in this week’s installment of our Women’s History Month series!

Tell us a little bit about Kale and what problem you’re tackling.

Kale is on a mission to empower creators to translate their social value into economic value, no matter their size. They are flipping traditional influencer marketing on its head by rewarding everyday, trustworthy creators for talking about brands they actually shop at. 

By tapping into authentic voices, Kale provides brands with a more cost-effective marketing channel, than FB advertising and influencer marketing. Instead of paying one influencer with one million followers, Kale makes it easy for a brand to recognize thousands of their longtail superfan customers.

What inspired you to start your own company, and what were some of the initial challenges you faced? What keeps you motivated?

Luis, my cofounder, and I sat next to each other at LinkedIn for 5 years, building and scaling video to 700M users and 30M brands.  Living and breathing the small creator ecosystem for 5+ years at LinkedIn, we were blown away by the level of engagement, intimacy and clout smaller creators have among their audience. 

We started talking to a bunch of creators on TikTok and Instagram, who would tell us that they had a personal relationship with each of their 3K-5K followers. We were stunned! Small creators have accrued valuable social currency over the years, but no one has figured out how to tap into them. There isn’t an efficient way for brands (who are hungry for user-generated content) to work with them at scale, while maintaining authenticity and relatability. So we started tinkering with the idea of Kale.

To me, building an impactful product means you are saving someone time, money or energy. What motivates me most is hearing that Kale does exactly that for our users: brands and creators. Plus, our team never ceases to inspire me with their drive, curiosity and creativity to tackle problems.

To me, building an impactful product means you are saving someone time, money or energy.

How did you go about securing funding for your startup and how did you evaluate potential VC partners? What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs (especially other womxn) looking to raise capital? 

We went through the Pear’s Summer PearX batch in 2021. As first-time founders, we leaned on Mar to advise and guide us through the fundraising process. 

Kale is something brand new. It’s a new category that sits at the intersection of social, finance and marketing. When pitching investors, we weren’t able to cleanly map ourselves as “the Uber for X” or the “Yelp for Y”. So for us, it was important to find partners who shared our vision of what a world looks like when everyday people can capitalize on their social influencers, instead of the 1% of big social media celebrities.

We found that in Kirsten Green at Forerunner, who has spent her career understanding the needs, wants and desires of really cool brands. She has an intuitive understanding of what CMOs at the modern generation of brands need at any given moment.

In Mar, we found an extension of our founding team. For example, she is in our Excel sheets with us, helping us understand the biggest business models. Plus, as a former founder, she just gets it.

At the end of the day, my opinion is that investors are not just people who cut your company a check. The impactful investors are the individuals who are the weeds with you, thinking through the business model, customer journey and market shifts. 

The impactful investors are the individuals who are the weeds with you, thinking through the business model, customer journey and market shifts. 

Now that you are building your team, what qualities are you looking for in potential hires?

Hiring is like deciding the invitation list to a dinner party. Each new attendee brings something to the conversation: a life lesson, previous work experience or a really warm smile. To keep the conversation dynamic, it’s crucial to have a team of diverse individuals (backgrounds, experiences, skills). 

Looking back on your journey so far, what lessons have you learned that you wish someone had told you when starting out?

As a founder, get comfortable with selling as soon as you can. Figure out your own style when it comes to sales, hiring and raising capital.

Lean on other founders. To navigate murky waters, whether technical or emotional, I’ve found that other founders have an intrinsic sense of empathy.

Rewire your brain when it hears a no. You’ll hear no’s all day long: potential investors, customers and candidates will top the list. What I’ve learnt is there is no such thing as a no. Every door is left open if you are able to process “the why” behind the “no”. Each no teaches you how you can clarify your pitch. Two years into our journey, no’s are becoming even more motivating than yes’s.

Two years into our journey, no’s are becoming even more motivating than yes’s.

What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs (especially womxn!) who are just starting out on their own journeys?

Go out in the world and talk to your customers. You’ll never waste time if you’re talking to potential buyers. Find the right environment to meet your customers, whether that’s at a conference, hosting an event yourself or texting a group chat of friends.

Figure out a sustainable business model. If you are B2B, try not to give away your product for free, otherwise you don’t know what your customer’s willingness to pay is. Without someone paying for your product, you don’t know if you have product-market fit. You want to hear that your price is too high or low because that informs your pricing strategy. 

Finally, what’s next for Kale and why are you excited about your space and your team? 

With our enthusiastic creator community and innovative brand partners, like Free People, OLIPOP and Notion, Kale is redefining how creators and brands work together on social media. We’re reinventing marketing strategies for brands who have been overly dependent on Facebook ads and influencer marketing. 

We’re really excited for where we are taking our creator ecosystem – it’s going to be something really special that allows anyone who has influence to start monetizing, not just influencers! 

Thank you so much, Isha. We are thrilled to be partners and cannot wait to see where Kale goes. As Women’s History Month continues, we look forward to sharing more stories from our incredible female founders and celebrating their achievements in entrepreneurship.

Perspectives in AI: from search to robotics with Hussein Mehanna, SVP Cruise and Pear’s Aparna Sinha

On March 1st, Pear’s Aparna Sinha hosted a fireside chat with Hussein Mehanna, SVP of Engineering for AI/ML at Cruise for a discussion on next generation AI/ML technologies. Hussein has a long and deep history of innovation in machine learning engineering spanning speech recognition, language models, search, ads, and ML platforms at companies including Google, Facebook and Microsoft. He is currently focused on ML-driven robotics, especially autonomous vehicles at Cruise.

This is the first in a series of AI/ML events Pear is hosting. To hear about future events, please sign up for our newsletter and keep an eye on our events page.

The exciting conversation lasted for over an hour, but below is a summary with some highlights from the talk between Aparna and Hussein:

Q: You’ve been building products at the forefront of AI throughout your career, from search, to speech to ML platforms and now robotics and autonomous vehicles. Tell us a little bit about your journey, and the evolution of your work through these products?

A: My journey began with a scholarship for neural networks research in 2003, followed by a role at Microsoft. I eventually joined Facebook and worked on Ads that pushed the limits of ML and from there moved to a more broadened role of working with ML platforms across the company. I then joined Google Cloud’s AI team to explore disruption of enterprise through ML. I learned over the years that robotics is the biggest field facing disruption with machine learning, and autonomous vehicles is the biggest application of that. So I joined Cruise both out of interest in robotics and a pure interest in cars. 

Q. Ads, in fact, also at Google was the birthplace of a lot of the advanced AI. And now AI is absolutely into everything. 

A: Absolutely. There was a system in Google Ads called Smart ass. It was actually one of the first known large scale machine learning systems. And the person who developed them, Andrew Moore, eventually became my manager at Google Cloud AI. You’d be surprised how many lessons to be learned from building machine learning for ads that you could implement in something as advanced as autonomous vehicles.

You’d be surprised how many lessons to be learned from building machine learning for ads that you could implement in something as advanced as autonomous vehicles.

Q: We are seeing the emergence of many AI-assistive products, co-pilot for x, or auto-pilot for y. But you’ve spoken about AI-native products. Are AI-assistive products and AI-native products fundamentally different?

A: Yes, they are. An AI-native product is one that cannot exist, even in MVP form, without machine learning. Examples include autonomous vehicles or speech recognition software like Alexa. On the other hand, AI-assistive products can help humans in various ways without necessarily using machine learning. In fact, Google search, people may not know that, but Google Search started with more of a data mining approach than machine learning. 

Q: What is the gap between building an AI-assistive product versus an AI-native product?

A: The gap is huge. Building an AI-native product assumes full autonomy, while building an AI-enhanced product assumes a human being will still be involved. For example, the technology used for driver-assist features (level 1-3 autonomy) versus fully autonomous driving (level 4-5 autonomy) require vastly different approaches and parameters.  Autopilot is actually classified as Driver Assist. But then once you remove the driver completely, from behind the wheel, you get into level 4, level 5, autonomy. Level 5 is maybe less dependent on a predefined map, you could just throw the robot anywhere, and they’ll figure its way.  It’s very important for founders, entrepreneurs, product managers to understand, are they building something that assists human beings, and therefore assumes a human being, or something that completely replaces them.

Q: Where do generative AI and GPT technologies fall on the spectrum?

A: Generative AI and GPT – so far – are human-assisted technologies that require a human being to function properly. Today, they are not designed to replace humans like technologies used for level 4-5 autonomy.

Q: At a high level, what are the components and characteristics of a fully autonomous system? I’ve heard you call it an AI brain.

A: So let me project the problem first, from a very high level on driving, because I suspect most of us have driven before. For a full autonomous system the first component is perception, you need to understand the environment,  and essentially describe the environment as the here and now. This is a vehicle, it’s heading this direction, with this velocity; here’s a pedestrian, he or she is x distance away from you, and they’re heading that way, and that’s their velocity. Here’s a pile of dirt. And here’s a flying plastic bag. And here’s something that we don’t know what it is, right? So perception is extremely important. Because if you don’t understand the environment around you, you don’t know how to navigate it. 

Now, what’s very, very important about perception is that you can’t build a perception system that is 100% perfect, especially a rich system that describes all sorts of things around you. And so one of the lessons we’ve learned is, you can build multiple levels of perception. You can build a level of perception that is less fine grained. A machine learning system that just understands these two categories can generalize better. And it’s very important for your perception system to have some self awareness so that it tells you the rich system is confused about this thing here. So let’s go to the less  sophisticated system and understand whether it’s something that is safe to go through or go around. Now the reason why you need the rich system is because it gives you rich information. So you can zip through the environment faster, you can finish your task faster. And if your rich system is accurate, let’s say x percent of the time with a little bit of unsureness, then it’s okay to drive a little bit slower using the less rich, less refined system. So that’s number one about perception. 

The second component of autonomous driving is prediction, which involves understanding how agents in the environment will interact with each other. For example, predicting whether a car will cut you off or slow down based on its behavior. However, predicting the future behavior of other agents is dependent on how your car will behave, leading to an interactive loop. We’ve all been in this situation, you’re trying to cross the road, there seems to be a car coming up. If you’re assertive, very likely, in crossing the road, the car will stop. Or if they’re more assertive, you’ll probably back off. At Cruise, we no longer separate the prediction system from the maneuver planning system. We have combined them  to decide jointly on what is the future behavior of other agents and our future, to solve extremely complicated interactive scenarios, including intersections with what they call a “chicken dance” where cars inch up against each other. We now call this the “behaviors” component.

The third component is motion planning and controls, where the car starts actually executing on its planned trajectory with smoothness. This component plays a huge role in delivering a comfortable ride because it can accurately calculate the optimal braking speed that reduces jerk (or discomfort). Most of our riders feel the difference immediately compared to human driving where a human driver could pump the breakers harder than necessary. Simulation is also a critical component of autonomous driving, which is often considered only as a testing tool but is, in fact, a reverse autonomous vehicle problem. Simulation involves building other agents that behave intelligently, such as human drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists. At Cruise, we have seen massive improvements in simulation since we have taken a big chunk of our AI and Autonomous Vehicle talent and put them in simulation. The technology we are working on is generalizable and broadly applicable to any robotics problem, such as drones and robots inside warehouses. 

I like to tell people that by joining Cruise, people are building their ML-driven robotics career, which can be applied to many other places. The stack of perception, prediction, maneuvering, and simulation can be scaled to other robotics problems. Robotics is pushing AI technology to its limits as it requires reasoning, self-awareness, and better generative AI technologies.

Robotics is pushing AI technology to its limits as it requires reasoning, self-awareness, and better generative AI technologies.

Q: The concepts you described here of predicting and simulating, giving your AI system a reasoning model, and self awareness, in terms of how confident it should be. These are lacking in today’s generative AI technologies. Is this a future direction that could produce better results? 

A: I do believe robotics is going to push AI technology to its limits, because it is not acceptable that you build a robot that will do the operation 99% of the time, correct, the 1% of the time can introduce massive friction.

Generative AI is very impressive, because it sort of samples a distribution of outputs, for a task that is not extremely well defined. There’s so many degrees of freedom, it’s like, give me a painting about something. And then it produces a weird looking painting, which in reality is an error. But you’re like, Wow, this is so creative. That’s why I say generative AI and particularly chatGPT do not replace human beings, they actually require a human operator to refine it.  Now it may reduce the number of human beings needed to do a task. But it’s L3 at best.

Now, in order to build an L4 and above technology, especially if it has a sort of a massive safety component. Number one, you need various components of this technology to have some self awareness of how sure they are. And us as humans, we actually operate that way with a self awareness of uncertainty. L4 technologies are not going to be able to be certain about everything. So they have to be self aware about the uncertainty of whatever situation they’re in. And then they have to develop sort of policies to handle this uncertainty versus chance it up to tell you whatever, statistically, it’s learned without self awareness of its accuracy. 

Q: What do you think about the combination of generative AI and a human operator in various fields such as education and healthcare?

A: Using generative AI alongside a human operator can result in an incredible system. However, it’s important to be mindful of the system’s limitations and determine whether you’re creating an L3 system with more degrees of freedom or an L4 system with no human oversight. In the field of education, generative AI can be a valuable tool, but it’s crucial to acknowledge that education is a highly sensitive area. On the other hand, in healthcare, as long as a physician reviews the outcomes, there are considerable degrees of freedom.

Q: I’ve heard great reviews from riders using Cruise’s service in San Francisco. What was your experience like in a driverless ride?

A: My first driverless ride was in a Chevy Bolt vehicle with a decent sensor package on top. At first, I felt a little anxious, but quickly realized that the vehicle was an extremely cautious driver that obeyed stop signs and braked very well. The vehicle optimized the braking and turning speeds, which made me feel safe and comfortable. I have seen the same reaction from family and friends who have ridden in the vehicles.

I think that the new Origin car is amazing and looks like the future. It’s a purposely built car for autonomy with no steering wheel and has two rows of seating facing each other. I believe that it’s going to be a very different experience from the current driverless rides, as it becomes real that there’s no driving and the car is really moving itself. The feedback from multiple people who have experienced it is that it’s as big as their first driverless ride. I also think that people will love the Origin car because it’s more comfortable and cautious than any vehicle with a driver, and it looks like the future. The first version of the Origin car should be deployed this year, and I hope that many people will have the opportunity to experience it and enjoy it within the next year or two.

Q: What are some open questions and unsolved problems as we move forward in building autonomous vehicles?

A: One open question is how to move towards end-to-end learning for autonomous vehicles, which would involve creating a single, large machine learning model that takes in sensor inputs and produces control signals, rather than the current system, which is heavily componentized. Another question is how to create an equivalent to the convolutional operator, a key component in computer vision, for autonomous vehicles. This is still an early stage field that requires significant investment to develop.

Q: At Facebook, you pioneered a new approach to AI platforms that then also later permeated our work at Google Cloud. And I think it was a very meaningful contribution. Can you explain why platforms are important for machine learning productivity?

A: I pioneered a new approach to AI platforms at Facebook that focused on productivity and delivering machine learning models quickly. I believe that productivity is key for successful machine learning because it allows for quick iteration and a faster feedback loop. In my opinion, platforms are the best mechanism to deliver machine learning models quickly and make machine learning a reality.  I believe what is much more powerful than building one model that is centralized, that serves everybody is to empower everybody to build the models they want, and to tweak them, and to tune them the way they like. And that’s where a machine learning platform comes in. And I do believe that is very much true in our organization. And I’ve seen that happen at Facebook, where at one point, around 2017, we had 20% of the company, either interacting or building machine learning models one way or another.

Q: In summary, are we at an inflection point in machine learning? Can autonomous systems approaches influence responsible AI more broadly?

A: I believe that we are at an inflection point where machine learning is expected to have a massive impact on multiple fields, including autonomous vehicles, robotics, and generative AI. Robotics is pioneering this concept of reasoning and understanding the environment and incorporating it, simulating it, and building your machine learning system to be accurate enough and understand the externalities. All of it is on this foundational bedrock of having great platforms which will enable quick iteration and a faster feedback loop. 

I also believe that the advanced work happening in robotics and autonomous vehicles will influence the future of AI, potentially leading to a more holistic and safe system that is oriented towards reasoning. In my opinion, one potential impact of autonomous vehicle technology on machine learning is around responsible AI. We should have one strategy for product safety, rather than separate strategies for product safety and ML safety. As an autonomous vehicle engineer, I spend more time evaluating the effectiveness of the system than building and tuning the ML model. The ability to evaluate the system effectively will become increasingly important, and I hope that there will be a generation of ML engineers that are used to doing so.

I believe that we are at an inflection point where machine learning is expected to have a massive impact on multiple fields, including autonomous vehicles, robotics, and generative AI.

We’d like to extend our sincerest thanks to Hussein Mehanna for joining us for this insightful chat. His expertise and experience in the field provided valuable insights into the current and future states of AI/ML. We look forward to hosting more conversations on AI, so please keep an eye on our events page!

Female founders leading the way: Q&A with Conduit Tech’s Co-Founders

Happy International Women’s Day! As Women’s History Month unfolds, we’re delighted to highlight some of the remarkable female founders at Pear. We’re dedicated to supporting diverse entrepreneurs and are proud that 41% (and growing!) of our investments are in companies with at least one female founder. This is a truly remarkable statistic in our industry, and we take immense pride in it.

Throughout March, we’ll be featuring Q&As with some of these inspiring entrepreneurs. In this series, you’ll hear from them about their experiences in founding burgeoning startups and how they’re collaborating with Pear to turn their visions into reality.

First up, we’re thrilled to present this Q&A between Danielle and Conduit Tech Co-founders Marisa Reddy and Shelby Breger on their journey to date.

We’ve known Shelby since 2018 when she joined our Pear Fellows program. When Shelby and Marisa reached out to us to share what they were working on last year, we were blown away by their hustle. From meeting HVAC contractors at local hardware stores to joining technician trainings, it was a no-brainer for us to partner with the team. I’m excited to share more about them in this first installment of our Women’s History Month series!

Tell us a little bit about Conduit and what problem you’re tackling!

Conduit Tech is focused on enabling the critical trades that form the backbone of the built world. We are starting by developing innovative system sizing and sales enablement tools to support HVAC Professionals in designing, selling, and installing high-efficiency HVAC systems. Conduit Tech’s tooling will be integrated into the workflows of residential HVAC Pros, enabling them to do what they do best – provide comfort, health, and energy savings to their clients. 

What inspired you to start your own company, and what were some of the initial challenges you faced? 

We are incredibly motivated by the potential to make the lives of the contractors we work with easier. The HVAC industry is facing over a 100,000 person labor shortage, affecting every single role in the industry. We know that anything that can streamline workflows, decrease time spent on manual tasks, and enhance sales conversion can be incredibly powerful for the day-to-day of an owner or team member.

How did you go about fundraising for Conduit and how did you evaluate potential VC partners? What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs (especially other womxn) looking to raise capital? 

We were fortunate to meet Pear early in our days in grad school, and we have known the Mar & Pejman since 2018. When we were offered a spot in PearX, it was a no brainer – an opportunity to pursue our dream of building tools for contractors, while knowing we would be supported and pushed throughout the journey. 

We’ve looked for mentors and coaches as our investors – people with whom we can be our full selves around, and are willing to ask us tough questions. 

When it comes to advice to founders, it’d be to invest in building relationships with VCs long before you need capital. Ultimately your investor is a partner you’ll have on board for years – and you’ll want to be able to evaluate whether they will offer the support that matches with your needs.

What role has mentorship and community played in your personal and professional development, and how have you sought out mentorship throughout your journey?

Our mentors have been vital to our company journey. Not only do we each have personal mentors, who have continuously been resources throughout our career, but in more recent years our community at Stanford has been incredible. We took a phenomenal course at Stanford, Stanford Climate Ventures (SCV). Through SCV, we met not only some of the most incredible human beings working in climate, but mentors who have provided the support that has so significantly altered the course of our company’s journey. 

We’ve also been fortunate to surround ourselves in a few communities of entrepreneurs (Breakthrough Energy Fellows, PearX) – who are incredible resources on everything from managing difficult conversations, to thinking about how to recruit the best talent. 

Now that you are building your team, what qualities are you looking for in potential hires?

We have an incredible team (actively seeking to add folks) of low-ego, mission & growth-oriented and adaptable team members. We actively seek diversity of thought and backgrounds.

Looking back on your journey so far, what lessons have you learned that you wish someone had told you when starting out?

This is true in all of life, but is certainly very true when it comes to working hours as a founder: your most valuable resource is time. Working hard is critical, but it comes down to whether you spent your time in the most effective way possible. This is so hard to figure out, but mentors and incredible partners can help you strategize on where to spend your limited effort.

What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs (especially womxn!) who are just starting out on their own journeys?

Don’t let self doubt get in your way!

Finally, what’s next for Conduit and why are you excited about your space and your team? 

We are so proud of our team – our team is kind, low-ego and brilliant, and very committed to building the best product for our industry. We are humbled to be working with contractors across the country as we build the right solution for them, and are grateful for their support. Conduit Tech is growing 🙂 (we’re looking to bring on a Senior Full Stack Engineer and Senior Product Designer). And finally, we’re launching our product in market this summer!

Thank you, Shelby and Marisa. We’re so thrilled to be on this journey with you. As Women’s History Month continues, we look forward to sharing more stories from our incredible female founders and celebrating their achievements in entrepreneurship.

Announcing Pear’s newest Partners

We’re proud to announce our newest partners: Keith Bender, Vivien Ho, and Addison Leong!

Keith started at Pear almost three years ago and has already made a considerable impact in his time as a Principal. He focuses on vertical software, marketplace, and platform businesses, as well as leading all of our LatAm investments and our data-based sourcing team. Keith’s investments include Sudozi, Chainpass, Miter, Menta, and more. A Harvard Business School and Harvard College grad, Keith launched our Harvard Garage engineering fellowship and developed an HBS case study on Pear that is taught in the popular VC/PE course. He was named this year to Silicon Valley Bank and Terra Nova’s EVC List of 50 emerging investors charting the industry’s future. His people-focused, data-driven approach to investing is unparalleled, and we couldn’t be more grateful to have him on our side as a Partner.

Vivien embodies all that we are at Pear: not just investors, but operators. She invests in health — human health, planet health, and financial health including partnering closely with Budgie Health, Osmind, Valar Labs, Fairstreet, Stellation Care, Supercharge Finance, Syro and more. She helps founders hire key clinical and engineering leaders, introduces them to their first customers and surrounds founders with Pear’s braintrust of knowledge. Further, she spearheaded Pear’s Healthcare Playbook Podcast, interviewing leading healthcare founders, leaders and operators on building digital health businesses from 0 to 1. In her first year, Vivien started Pear VC’s Female Founders Circle, a biannual 3 month program with 3 cohorts and 105+ female technical founders in the community. We’re so grateful for Vivien’s leadership and her superpower in bringing communities together at Pear, and we’re very excited for her much deserved promotion to Partner. 

Addison has been a long-standing member of the Pear team: first as a Pear Garage member during his time at Stanford, then as a Pear Fellow, then an Engineer in Residence, Director of Engineering, and now Engineering Partner. In true Pear spirit, he wears many hats, from  spearheading our next-generation intelligent software and data layer that enables Pear to find and pick the best founders, to conducting technical interviews for our portfolio companies, to vetting highly technical investments. Addison draws on his experience as a software engineer, product manager, and designer to be our tech force multiplier, enabling us to hit well above our weight class: he has been instrumental in getting many initial engineering teams off the ground, single-handedly built the Demo Day software that has driven more than $60M in seed investments for our companies, and performed data analyses that inform our overall investing strategy.

Congrats Keith, Vivien, and Addison! We’re excited for the road ahead. 

The only talent offering in venture built for founders

In the months immediately following a fundraise, even the best founders struggle to hire. The difference between making the right hire and doing it quickly is often the difference between building a successful company and failure. As part of Pear’s seed platform, we’ve built a founder-first talent service to ensure that all of our companies have the highest chance of success.

These days, having a talent partner in venture capital is almost a given. Despite the prevalence of talent teams in venture, there remains a massive disconnect between what founders need and the services talent teams provide. The majority of teams are either too small to make a meaningful impact or unable to support the diverse talent needs across early and late stage companies.

This puts talent teams in a difficult position, forcing them to decide which founders receive support and limiting the type of support they offer. There’s a chasm between what founders truly need and what talent teams are able to provide, greatly reducing the impact of the support they offer.

At Pear, we’re determined to bridge this gap. Over the last 12 months, Nate (Meta, Uber) and I have been quietly piloting an in-house talent offering that directly addresses the shortcomings of the current venture talent model. With the recent additions of Maryna (Plaid, Neuralink, SpaceX) and Laura (Brex, Afterpay, Uber) to our team, we’re excited to officially launch our one-of-a-kind talent service, designed to directly address the most critical needs of our founders.

1. We’re early-stage specialists and early-stage specialists only. 

We focus solely on early-stage startups. We don’t pick and choose who we support. All of our founders receive the support they need from a talent team with deep expertise in the space.

2. We’re committed to making the first hires for our seed companies. 

We believe that simply making candidate introductions and giving advice is not enough. The only metric that really matters to founders is hires. That’s why we are committed to making the first hires for our seed companies.

3. We’re hands-on. We’re in the trenches with our founders.

We’re a hands-on talent team that works closely with our founders. We won’t just stop by to offer advice— we’re involved in the hiring process from start to finish, acting as the internal recruiting partner until our founders are ready to hire on their own.

4. We teach our founders how to hire for themselves. 

We aim to help our founders build a strong hiring foundation ensuring they have the necessary tools and skills required to maintain success in the long-term. Helping founders hire is important, but it means nothing if they can’t do it on their own later on. 

5. We do it for free.

We believe helping founders hire is a core offering that all VCs should provide. Our talent services are built into our DNA and are always free for our portfolio companies.

What’s next?

Beginning this year, all seed companies we invest in will have access to Pear’s talent support. The best companies are built by the best teams. By directly helping our founders make their first hires, we increase the chance of their success. 

Our goal at Pear has always been to help founders build incredible companies, and we’re proud to be doing just that.

Welcoming Maryna Sivaieva to Pear’s Talent team

Even the best founders struggle to find the best possible team. As part of Pear’s Seed program, we’ve built a one-of-a-kind talent team that will make your first hires for you. On the heels of yesterday’s announcement welcoming Laura to the talent team, we’re thrilled to share another exciting hire: Maryna Sivaieva! 

Maryna comes to Pear with almost 10 years of recruiting experience under her belt. In 2009, she came to the US from Ukraine for her Masters, but life happened and she stuck around. Her first job in recruiting was hiring drivers and ops for a trucking company, but by 2014, Maryna was recruiting at SpaceX. In 3 years, she worked her way up from Recruiting Coordinator to Senior Technical Recruiter, supporting most of the tech orgs in the company. “SpaceX taught me almost anything can be done with the right team and attitude.”

Maryna’s interest was piqued in Brain Machine Interfaces right around the time Neuralink was founded. In 2017, Maryna became Neuralink’s first recruiter. She built the talent function from scratch and hired dozens of highly specialized employees— all while the company was in stealth. Maryna built Neuralink’s recruiting infrastructure and end-to-end hiring lifecycle: headcount allocation, requisition creation, referral programs, interview processes, leveling, compensation, and approval process. Neuralink grew from 20 to 120 in her time there, and in 2020, Maryna moved on to Plaid to help scale the company from 250 to 1200. Her experience is extensive and unmatched, and we couldn’t be more grateful to have her on our team. 

At Pear, we’re more than investors— we’re ex-founders and operators, and we intimately understand that the secret to early-stage company building is finding the right people. We invest deep into talent, and that’s what brought Maryna on board. “After talking to many VCs, I found Pear’s commitment to founders and trust in their internal team very attractive. The deciding factor was Pear’s vision and deep appreciation for Talent function.”

Our Talent team’s approach to partnering will leave the founders with a concrete recruiting skill set, and by extension, will set their companies up for long term success.”


Want to connect with Maryna? Shoot her an email at maryna@pear.vc

Welcoming Laura Wright, the newest addition to our Talent team

We rang in 2022 by welcoming Matt, Pear’s first ever Talent Partner. In the last year, the Pear talent team has grown from 0 to now 4 members. We couldn’t be more thrilled to welcome the newest addition: Laura Wright. 

Laura is a Seattle native and graduated from Santa Clara University. She has 8 years of technical recruiting experience across a variety of industries including fintech, logistics, and real estate tech. Laura joined Uber in 2017 and supported Leadership hiring for Uber’s Eats, Maps, Marketplace, and Rider/Driver teams. At Uber, she worked alongside Nate Hirsch— who would eventually bring her to Pear…

In 2020, Laura began overseeing technical recruiting at Afterpay, helping scale the business into new markets across Asia and Europe. Most recently at Brex, Laura was brought on to lead hiring for Brex’s specialized technical pipelines like data, security, infrastructure, and machine learning, as well as international teams.

Laura has extensive experience recruiting across the board from early-stage startups to hyper-growth companies. She believes that the center of her career has always been relationships, and the next step was VC. “I see this opportunity at Pear to be much larger than just joining a company, but rather a community of people with the shared goal of helping take organizations from 0 to 1.” 

At Pear, we’re all about relationships. Our approach is founder-first, and that’s the resounding ethos behind our talent services. “I’m excited to partner with founders, support in making their first hires, and ultimately help shape the beginning chapters of their company. I can’t wait for the day we can look back together and say ‘remember when…’”

Want to connect with Laura? Shoot her an email at laura@pear.vc or find her on LinkedIn.