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Building Equity: The Entrepreneurship of Venture Capitalists, with Leeds Illuminate’s Susan Cates

Susan Cate’s mother was an eighth-grade teacher, and her father was in agricultural sales. Going into her career, she knew that she didn’t want to work in education or sales. 

Instead, her career is a combination of both fields.

At Leeds Equity Partners, Susan Cates and her team invested in companies in the knowledge sector, but she found herself wanting to support companies that were attractive from an industry standpoint but outside of the stage and scope of mandates.

So, with her 20 years of experience as an investor and operator in the industry and her partner, Elizabeth Cho, Leeds Illuminate was founded in 2020—just before the knowledge sector began to change dramatically due to the pandemic—and would be the investors that could fund the more early-stage companies that Leeds Equity was unable to support.

But even as the industry landscape was changing, the problems founders were facing remained the same.

“A lot of the companies that we are seeing have real success and growth are focused on some of the same problems that some early-stage companies were focused on back in the late 90s and early the 2000s,” Susan said.

The Leeds Illuminate team is composed of leaders that have spent their entire careers in education and workforce development, and they bring a sector expertise cultivated by working with high growth companies to support founders in their fund.

Despite facing similar problems, they’ve seen what companies have been able to do from a technology and market acceptance standpoint shift dramatically. As leaders struggled to adapt to the globally demanded changes in education, the resistance to trying newer technologies was swept away.

“I sometimes say we had 20 years of progress collapsed into 20 months,” Susan said. 

She said that, while online and blended learning had begun to emerge in the last few decades, there weren’t many fully online programs. Higher education had to make the shift to online learning immediately, and, despite many institutions having online components to their courses, it wasn’t easy.

“Once the genie was out of the bottle and they'd gone through the pain of trying and learning and figuring it out,” Susan said, “the flexibility and the opportunity from a pedagogical standpoint, from a reach and a mission standpoint, of embracing technology and online learning, I don't see us going back in most cases.” 

Of course, there are some cases that Susan said she hopes to see a full return to normalcy.

“Nobody thinks 6-year-olds ought to be learning on Zoom,” Susan said.

Still, with new problems comes the need for new solutions and, of course, new companies and new founders, founders in the knowledge sector that Leeds Illuminate is ready to support at an early stage.

To hear the full episode, tune into the Founder Shares podcast, available wherever you like to listen.

The blog content should not be construed as legal advice.

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