Maggie Sprenger

Co-Founder of Green Cow Venture Capital

Maggie Sprenger is co-founder and managing director of Green Cow Venture Capital, a $50 million early-stage venture fund that backs companies seeking to change the landscape by addressing issues such as world inefficiency and scarcity. With more than 15 years of experience in venture and real estate investment, Maggie leverages her expertise to drive meaningful innovation today to build a recession-resilient portfolio in Green Cow Venture Capital. She has a particularly strong interest in emerging markets (with a focus on Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East), and she speaks on this topic regularly in seminars and summits.

Where did the idea for Green Cow Venture Capital come from?

I met my business partner, Vikram, during my freshman year of high school. We quickly became friends. Fast-forward many years, we started sharing notes on early-stage investments and ran diligence on some startups together. We realized that our opinions were different enough to push each of us to better research and defend our positions, that we had a great foundation from our friendship that allowed us to work together efficiently. As I was wrapping up graduate school, we decided to found Green Cow Venture Capital (GCVC), which is an early-stage venture firm building a recession-resilient portfolio. I am grateful every day that we did.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

Today started at 1:30 a.m., when I threw on a blazer over my sweatpants and slippers and jumped on a videoconference call. I’m here to help dispel any myths of the venture world being glamorous.

Like a lot of people I know, my typical day is rarely typical and almost always peppered with some sprinting, but I usually wake up around 5 a.m. and try to prepare for my day and get ahead of emails. I have two children and lean on my husband and our nanny to help make sure everyone is wearing pants (more of a challenge for the toddler) and has everything for school and after-school activities (the 9-year-old). I block off a few hours in the morning after I’m in the office to catch up on email and carve out some time to read, whether books, articles, or research reports.

After that, it’s nonstop meetings and calls. I make it home to have dinner with the family most nights and spend some time with each kiddo. Then, after they are in bed around 8 p.m., I am usually back online or on calls. My partner is based in San Francisco, while I’m in New York, and our work has us involved with people around the world, so some of my calls come at weird hours. I usually work later for a few nights in a row and then go to bed embarrassingly early when insufficient sleep starts to impact my day. I end every day with a quick review and to-do list for the next day, which helps ensure things don’t slip through the cracks. I obsess over good processes, and when I am more disciplined in setting up a methodology, I am always more successful in moving forward.

Having both children and a very demanding professional life helps me stay more present and productive. My phone background is of my kids, and whenever I feel myself get distracted, I look at it to remind myself of the future I want to create. When I’m with my kids, I really try to appreciate the break from work.

How do you bring ideas to life?

Ideas come to life with a lot of persistence, a certain tolerance for risk, and some luck. As a Type A person, I find the element of luck particularly hard to sit with, which is why I do everything I can with regard to preparation and relentless pursuit of our targets. At the beginning of any new idea or project, I like to build a road map with the team and make sure everyone knows roles and responsibilities and has what is needed to move forward.

What’s one trend that excites you?

I spent some time last year learning a lot about smart factories and leveraging integrated processes and predictive models with sensors to improve utilization and energy consumption. That might not sound thrilling at first pass, but if we can outfit existing manufacturing facilities with the tools to make them safer, more efficient, more environmentally friendly, and improve operational profits, there is a real impact. I get excited by any tech application that tackles and improves upon activities that are traditionally bad for the environment.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

Eating well and getting (some) exercise makes me productive. I have a lot more energy, and I don’t get sick often when I am disciplined. I like salads and try to eat vegan most of the time, but exercise is hard. My great indulgence is my amazing and slightly intimidating trainer. I only see her once a week, but to make sure her sessions don’t destroy me, I sneak in little workouts in the morning, to the intense amusement of my children, who think someone designed burpees to make them laugh.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Don’t be so scared to fail that you don’t try. To quote the fearless Tina Fey, “Say yes, and you’ll figure it out afterward.” Also, get good at math.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

There is nothing wrong with pie for breakfast.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

I aim to work with the best people, whether it is my business partners, founders, or LPs [limited partners]. Venture funds run about 10 years, and that is a long time to spend with someone I don’t like or respect. At the beginning of my career, I was a lot more focused on moving forward at any cost, whether that meant raising money, getting in a deal, etc. Now, if I don’t want to sit through a dinner with you, chances are I don’t want to make you money either.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

I throw myself into the deep end of the pool whenever something is hard. I used to hate public speaking. Actually, hate isn’t quite the right word. More like I had a physiological response that was horrific for all involved. My voice would shake, I would break out in a sweat. It was not pretty.

I made myself speak wherever I could, whenever I could. I started small and worked up to global conferences where I have addressed everything from the ethics of algorithms to the future of work. It’s been important in raising the profile of the fund and our work, and I hardly ever cry on stage anymore.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

Where to even start? One thing I will say is I have learned so much more from my failures than my successes. In the early days, I invested in a company with a great idea and a fantastic founding team. They were early to market, and I knew it, but I was so sure that the technology and experience would be able to overcome the concerns I had. I was wrong. The teachings from that failure have made me a much better investor today.

Another general mistake I made in the early days is I thought I could have it all. I’ve learned that you can’t, or at least I can’t. I’m exhausted all the time. I’ve needed a haircut for six months. I have major crises of confidence and freak out at hours when most people are sleeping. In the beginning, I thought that meant I was doing it wrong, but I have realized over time that these are the tolls I pay for this path. I still would not change a thing, but I’ve given up trying to fight the experience. It’s OK to be uncomfortable.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

I have so many! Come partner with me. One thing I would love to see in the market is a subscription box for children that brings goods made by underserved communities from different countries each month, along with some interesting information about each nation. The stories could be tied together with a character who loves to travel and share postcards, handmade goods, and information with friends from home. It would support the communities making the goods, shed interest on places that might not be well-represented during an average geography class, and develop a sense of adventure and curiosity. Please start this, and I will send you my daughter’s address.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

Books for me and books for the children. I’m reading a book right now by Benoit Mandelbrot called, “The Misbehavior of Markets: A Fractal View of Financial Turbulence.” Yes, your younger self twitched appropriately — it’s the same Mandelbrot who contributed to fractal geometry. It’s actually highly readable and really reinforces the way we at GCVC have been looking at our investment thesis around economic volatility. It’s a great read.

As for the kids, I bring home books regularly. I still read with my daughter every night, and I will show up at her college to do so if she will let me.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

We use Affinity as our shared brain around managing LPs, portfolio companies, and deal flow. It reminds me where I am in the conversation, and more critically, allows me to see where my partner is in the same.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

I blew this by talking about Mandelbrot already because everyone loves fractal geometry. I have a massive list of books. Really, please reach out to me if this is of interest because I’m highly opinionated and an avid reader.

One that I regularly send to people is “The Growth Handbook.” It pulls commentary from many different experts, and I love its approach to product management. I also send “Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much” by Sendhil Mullainathan, alongside “Blitzscaling” by Reid Hoffman. I send them together, as I think people should question advice and really decide what works rather than accept mentorship blindly.

What is your favorite quote?

Anything that Tina Fey says, but I’m also a sucker for Winston Churchill. He said, “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” I absolutely love this. I’ve joined a few nonprofit boards, but the one that makes me most proud is, which was started by a 9-year-old girl who spends her spare time working on conservation for bats. Yes, it’s my daughter. No, I did not think that my weekends would be spent looking at pictures of bats, but she makes a lot of really compelling points around their critical roles in pollination, pest control, dispersal of seed, etc.

Key Learnings:

  • Don’t be afraid to question advice to decide what works rather than accept mentorship blindly.
  • Read “Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much” by Sendhil Mullainathan alongside “Blitzscaling” by Reid Hoffman.
  • When starting a new project, build a road map with your team and make sure everyone knows their roles and responsibilities to move forward.
  • You can learn more from your failures than your successes.
  • Only partner with people in business you can sit with through an entire meal.