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Associate to Investor Spotlight: Shayon Saleh

Shayon Saleh headshot
Shayon Saleh

Wrapping up his time at the Duke University Fuqua School of Business, MBA graduate Shayon Saleh reflects on his time as an Associate at Duke Capital Partners. Shayon, who became a Lead MBA Associate, has now gone on to join DCP as an Investor Member.

What led you to get into VC investing and to join Duke Capital Partners?

After college, I worked in startups and that was my first introduction to the world of venture capital. I started as a software engineer, so everything venture related such as funding rounds, cap tables, stock options, was foreign to me. After a few years, my interest grew to learn more about what it would be like to work on the “other side of the table”. I dipped my toes in investing, but I really wanted to get experience inside a VC firm and see the secret sauce. My interests in finance, investing, and venture capital eventually led me to pursue business school.

Duke Capital Partners (DCP) stood out to me before I even got to Durham. I think it is rare for MBA candidates to be able to work in a real VC-setting during the school year, learning the full deal lifecycle over an extended period of time. Venture capital is an inherently illiquid asset class – typically it takes many years between investing in a startup and seeing an exit. Working with DCP over the last two years, I’ve been privileged to see startups evolve from an early “idea” to an integral part of the portfolio, to positively impacting society and people’s lives. I’ve really enjoyed it and have also learned a tremendous amount in the process as an Associate in the Duke Capital Partners Associate Program.

As the Lead MBA Associate, what are some moments/experiences here that you want to highlight?

Leading screenings of new companies for Duke Capital Partners. Prior to business school, my only experience of listening to a company fundraising came from watching Shark Tank. First, we see many companies, so you have to learn how to determine where to focus more time in deep due diligence. A 30-minute pitch for an early stage startup is often the best initial data on whether to invest or not. Of course, we do a ton of due diligence before bringing a company to our investors. But often, these companies do not have years and years of financial data or revenue on the balance sheet. Asking an executive team hard questions and being inherently curious can reveal challenges that could have been missed. Second, you do have to be extremely cognizant of parsing out the important information during a pitch, and even more importantly, asking questions if something is missing or seems off. Being able to understand something completely novel, not just from a product or unmet need perspective, but whether it can succeed as a business is challenging, and one improves only via effort, training, and repetition. Third, a big part of venture capital is relationships. You always want to help founders however you can, even if an investment is not right for us at the given moment. Our mission is to help Duke startups and sometimes that means giving constructive feedback or making a connection to an expert in the industry.

I have also enjoyed meeting other Associates from schools outside of Fuqua in an interdisciplinary learning environment. Business school can be a bubble at times, so having the chance to interact with the wider Duke community and work together with students from the schools of law, medicine, and engineering has been tremendously educational.

How has your previous professional experiences as a software engineer impacted your work at Duke Capital Partners?

First, the obvious answer is having a tech background really helps when you are meeting with tech startups, especially those at an early stage. Being able to ascertain whether a new mobile app is relatively easy to recreate or make educated assumptions at how the infrastructure is set up helps with understanding if a company can back up what they claim. As an example, so many companies say they use “AI” today. But what does that exactly mean? Are you building new AI models, are you using something existing? Where is your training data coming from? How do you plan to scale? And while having a tech background can help you filter out companies, more excitingly, it can highlight some hidden gems when you find something truly unique and game changing.

Second, I think many of the traits that make a good software engineer can be equally valuable in venture capital. Both require strong problem-solving skills, communication skills, and a willingness to continue to learn.

Now that you’ve graduated, and joined Duke Capital Partners as an investor, what sectors are you most excited about investing in?

I am overall very bullish on the tech industry and venture capital, in general. I believe the current economic situation has definitely caused a slowdown in comparison to the years prior but I still see many new entrepreneurs, innovative startups, and investors hungry to find the next unicorn. Investors will be cautious in picking the right company, especially after the collapse of FTX, but there is still a lot of dry powder on the sidelines.

Energy is a really interesting sector in venture capital right now. The combination of new government infrastructure spending, the climate crisis, and rising costs in gas and oil has driven huge interest in new energy technologies. Existing companies are looking to rapidly adopt new technologies to help them meet sustainability and climate goals. I have been fortunate to meet with energy startups and their executive teams, and I love the passion they have for this area.

What are your current short term and long term career goals?

I’ll be joining McKinsey in their Washington DC office as part of their Digital Practice.

Long-term, I do hope to return to Venture Capital in some form. I am also interested in one day running my own business and the foundation I learned as a Duke Capital Partners Associate has prepared me for that.